Sermon for June 1, 2014 || The Feast of the Ascension || Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Luke 24: 44-53||
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Letting go of the present to embrace God’s future is not always easy. During my childhood years we moved around quite a lot, and with each successive move it got harder to say goodbye, and took longer to say hello.
Now, I know folks for whom that was not the case. When they were kids they saw each change in their life as another big adventure, something they actually looked forward to. All I can say is that their parents were clearly more skilled at spin control than mine. Because for me, and for most of us I believe, letting go of the present to embrace God’s future is not easy.
Of course, I’m also one of those mothers who –as our daughter grew up and moved through one milestone of life after another — had to acknowledge my sadness over who she no longer was before I could fully embrace who she was becoming. And that’s a very nice way of saying that I basically cried like a baby with each absolutely normal, healthy stage of her development into the awesome young woman she is today. My guess is that those of you who have a teenager going off to college– or just graduated from college and about to begin their new life in the adult world–will know what I mean. Letting go of the present to embrace God’s future is not easy!
And as a community of faith, when someone we love dies, our liturgy for the dead is meant to help us grieve the life that our loved one will no longer share with us, even as we celebrate the new and better life they will share with Christ. Letting go of the present to embrace God’s future is not easy.
Which makes it all the more astonishing that when Jesus leaves for the second and final time the disciples who have loved him, and lost him, and dared to love him again, Luke tells us, “they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy…”
Instead of grasping on to Jesus’ ankles and holding on for dear life to keep him from floating heavenward, the disciples watch in awe as their beloved Messiah disappears from sight. And instead of weeping and grieving this unimaginable loss, the disciples worship Jesus, and return to Jerusalem joyful.
What was it that allowed these otherwise less than stellar disciples to let go of the present and to faithfully embrace God’s future? Mission!
Let’s take a closer look at this morning’s readings. There are two different accounts of the Ascension story—the dramatic story of the Risen Christ being lifted up to heaven and enthroned with God. Both of these accounts are written by Luke—one in the gospel and one in Acts—but unfortunately we read them in reverse order in our liturgy. Chronologically, Luke comes first and then Acts. The story of the Ascension is the very last reading in Luke’s gospel—the very end—and it’s the very first reading in the book of Acts…the very beginning.
Luke is brilliant. He shows us not just in the telling but in how he tells it that the Ascension is both an ending and a beginning…a hinge point in history between Christ’s earthly ministry and the church’s mission to continue that ministry. Only when Jesus has assumed his rightful place with God as the exalted Christ—the Suffering but Victorious Messiah—can God’s promise of the Holy Spirit be fulfilled. Life, even Christ’s life, is full of endings and beginnings.
Luke understands that letting go of the present to embrace God’s future isn’t easy. So he shows us what happens when we do. It doesn’t even matter that his two accounts of the Ascension differ in the details. Whether they’re actual or metaphorical, one thing is clear: The disciples are given a mission by Christ to proclaim to the world the totally life-changing and transforming power of healing and reconciliation in him. And the Holy Spirit is going to empower them to do it.
It’s as if in Luke’s gospel it takes the Ascension for the disciples to finally believe the reality of the Resurrection. It takes the high drama of the Ascension for the disciples to really trust that their experience of the Risen Christ was real and to know beyond any shadow of a doubt that surely this man was the Messiah, Emmanuel—God-with-us. And as soon as the enormity of that reality hit them, the disciples fell to their knees in worship. They recognized Jesus for who and what he was, and it blew their minds that the man from whom they’d received so much love and who had suffered such pain and humiliation on their behalf really was their long-awaited Messiah.
No wonder they were so filled with joy!Jesus blessed them with his Risen Presence, included them in his Heavenly Exaltation, and promised them power from on high for a new and divine mission…one they finally understood to come from God’s own self. How could they not let go of the present to embrace a future like that?
Endings and beginnings. They’re the stuff life is made of.
Today is the last Sunday our friend Yves-Florant Jacques will be with us. Yves was graduated from Quincy College yesterday, and will be going home to his wife and child in Haiti next week. He’s been such a part of our family here at St. Stephen’s that letting go will not be easy. But for Yves it’s time to embrace God’s future.
Next week will be the last Sunday the Whitehouse family is with us. Bob’s been stationed in Chesapeake, Virginia—so some other church is about to be as incredibly blessed as we’ve these last four years. Another sad goodbye we’d rather not say, another “present” that’s hard to let go. But the Whitehouse’s, like Yves, are faithfully embracing God’s future for them.
We need to do the same. Joseph Campbell famously said that we need to be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned in order to accept the life that’s waiting for us.
This church is not the same church it was 20 years ago. It’s not the same church it was 5 years ago or even six months ago. And without Yves’s faithful witness to hope in the face of a kind of poverty, devastation, and human desperation none of us will ever know…and without the Whitehouse’s faithful witness to a kind of infectious, generous, family-centered commitment to church life that is all too rare in today’s world…St. Stephen’s won’t be the same church in two weeks that it is today.
Letting go of the present to embrace God’s future is not easy. God knows it’s not easy. That’s why Jesus has blessed us with his Risen Presence, included us in his Heavenly Exaltation, and promised us power from on high for his church’s mission:
“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” he assures us. “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth…” Even in Boston, Cohasset, Scituate, Hingham and Hull…in Chesapeake, Virginia and Port-au-Prince, Haiti…in colleges and offices and supermarkets and cafes…
Now how can we not let go of the present to embrace a future like that?
So proclaim the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Share the promise of life in Christ, transformed by healing and reconciliation. Let go of the present and embrace God’s future– with your words, with your lives, and with your hearts. Amen.