There seemed to be a feel of jubilation this week when I spoke with people. The first of the lockdown restrictions were eased which allowed family members to once again visit. With many mothers unable to see their children and grandchildren on Mother’s Day it was a feeling of joy when our Premier announced we could now have 5 members of our family or friends come around. So even though we are not fully there yet there is this sense of comfort knowing we are on our way back. It was a difficult time with families being effectively cut off from their loved ones. But knowing there was a hope of seeing them again kept us strong.
The Ascension would have had similar emotions for Jesus’ disciples as they learn that Jesus’ time on earth was coming to an end. For 40 days since the resurrection Jesus has been walking the earth, establishing eyewitnesses and encouraging his disciples to prepare them as he must now ascend to his Father in Heaven.
To them it will seem like he is leaving them. Still feeling the emotions of having seen Jesus put to death they now, again, feel that emotional drain of watching him leave. But saying goodbye this time will be different for them than the time they said farewell at his death. Despite what Jesus had told them about rising from the dead they did not believe that Jesus would do so. Even though Jesus had previously told them that he must be put to death and on the 3rd day rise again, they really didn’t understand what he meant. Was it a symbolic rising like keeping a person’s memory alive? At the Transfiguration Jesus told Peter, James and John not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Mark’s gospel says, they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. Even in Matthew’s account of the ascension it says the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
In today’s first reading the disciples are grieving for Jesus as he departs. But 2 angels say to them – why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The Book of Revelation also states his return in such a way: “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; The ascension is not about Jesus leaving but about Jesus ascending to rule from the right hand of God the Father. And that rule of Jesus’ now continues through us as we continue doing God’s work until he returns. And in our Gospel reading Jesus tells us what that work is that he wants us to do. He says: repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
While it was important for the church to establish eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they are meaningless if they stand alone without any purpose. It’s a lovely story of good news for Jesus to hear that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven – but what does that good news mean for us and the rest of the world? We hear that good news in the message Jesus sends us to proclaim – that God’s work of forgiveness has been completed. Let’s connect the dots. First, Jesus came for a purpose – At his birth: God loved the world so much that he sent his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but receive eternal life. That’s the purpose; Throughout his ministry we see that purpose unfold: Jesus exampled the work God sent him to do among the people and we hear the Pharisees grumble about it – who can forgive sins but God alone. And then at his death we hear those very words of forgiveness that create an eyewitness for us – forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing – and he cries out in his last dying breath – It is finished. The work of reconciling God and his children on earth is finished. And now Jesus says – repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed, by us, in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Jerusalem was their home town.
Our forgiveness begins in our homes – in our family homes – in our church homes.
You are witnesses of experiencing God’s forgiveness in your lives – now YOU go and proclaim that same forgiveness to others. And that’s why I and all other Pastors are saying – our church buildings may be physically closed at present but the work of God continues – it never stops. We are not to be discouraged at this time – like the disciples who kept looking up to heaven wondering when Jesus was coming back.
The angels said – stop looking up to heaven. Look at the world around you. Jesus will return the same way he left – don’t worry about it. And that’s the same message to the church today. Don’t stop doing the work of God while our physical worship together has stopped. Don’t get discouraged looking at the dates and stages feeling defeated wondering when things will return to normal. Remember the 2 Emmaus disciples whose faces were downcast – we had hoped he would be the one!
Physical church services will return – and even though we are missing our worship together and sharing Holy Communion together, Jesus reminds us that we are not alone. No, he says: I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. He is speaking about the Holy Spirit. Jesus said the same to his disciples in our first reading: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses It’s easy to become discouraged as the weeks roll into months and there’s still no clear indication about what and when things will get back to normal – and the uncertainty of what this “new normal” that everyone is talking about will look like. But let us listen again to Paul and be encouraged by his words as he speaks about the Ascension and the work of the church:
He says: God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
This passage by Paul brings us such great comfort and encouragement during times like these or any other time when I’m feeling powerless – when I’m feeling the church is powerless. Because I remember that Jesus has not left us but ascended. And there’s a big difference between the two. Leaving means a physical absence. I’m leaving you. But remember Jesus’ promise last week – I will not leave you as orphans. Jesus didn’t leave – he ascended – as a king ascending to the throne to take power and control. And that’s what we must always remember. There is no war going on. Jesus has won and will always win.
But there is a struggle that continues to go on but as Paul reminds us in the end of Ephesians: Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. But at the beginning of Ephesians, in our 2nd reading he assures us that we have nothing to worry about. Jesus is seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. Jesus has won – he will always win. And he will win this struggle. Our call is to keep being the children of God. To keep being the eyewitnesses of everything that God has achieved for us. And to keep proclaiming God’s forgiveness in the world. Jesus has ascended to rule and has won the victory. We are to proclaim that victory as we proclaim his forgiveness to all.