6.5.11 sermon Easter 7 – Ascension

John 17:1-11, Acts 1:6-14

It may not officially be summer yet as far as the calendar goes, but in terms of the heat (which we have had in abundance) and with school being out, summer is here. We have begun the season of travel for many. We will see familiar faces roll in and out of town here and new friends stopping in for visits. It is a season of departures and returns.

From the time I was in middle school, summers always involved some kind of camp or mission trip. Often it was Montreat Youth Conferences or Triennium with my church group. I loved these kinds of events, but I always hated to say goodbye. It was amazing to me how close you could get to a group of former strangers in such a short time. So we left with tears, hugs, exchanging addresses and promises to write and hopes we would be there the same week the next summer.

But no matter how many times I did this, I still hated goodbyes.

When I was in 8th grade, I was part of a clown troupe through the Just Say No program in our school system. (no pix – sorry).  We went to elementary schools and did skits about making good choices and things like that. The woman who led our group was a professional clown (I did not know such things existed before that time), and she arranged for our group to attend an official Clown Camp in LaCross, Wisconsin. This was unlike any camp I had ever experienced. We were the only youth at this gathering with people who really did this for a living: Ringling Brothers clowns, professional clowns from Europe, and more. It was unreal. We took classes in mime, improv, pie throwing, water spitting, juggling, and more. But of all the things I learned there, there is one small phrase that has stuck with me more than anything else. As we were saying our goodbyes at the end of the week, one of the women who had traveled with Ringlng Brothers for a long time told me there was an old saying in the circus that people said instead of saying Goodbye: They would say, “See you down the road.” Because you never really had to say goodbye, because chances were pretty good that you would see them again.

“See you down the road.” Essentially, that is what Jesus is telling his disciples here in this reading from Acts, albeit with a much more dramatic exit.

This is Ascension Sunday – the Sunday that marks the pivotal moment between Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and the gifting of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which we will celebrate next week. This is the account of Jesus’ dramatic ascension into the clouds.

I talked about the Rapture-hype last week and how the irony of our awaiting Jesus’ return is that he promised to never really leave us. We have his Spirit to stir us, comfort us, equip us.

But at the same time, the resurrected Christ does depart – Jesus is no longer with us in bodily form – and here, we get to peer in as the disciples witness Jesus’ ascension to heaven, his return to God.

Over these past few weeks, Jesus has been assuring the disciples that even though he will not be with them in physical form, he will not leave them orphaned. He will be present with them through the power of the Holy Spirit. And here, as Jesus prepares to ascend, he doesn’t want them to dwell on goodbyes. They have work to do. Jesus says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

As one pastor puts it, “Jesus leaves, but we stay. As it turns out, this is the ultimate “left behind” story, but according to Jesus, being left behind is neither a sign of imperfect faith nor a chance to prove your self worth. Rather, being left behind is an honor, an invitation to participate in the glory of the Father, a commissioning, in fact, into the work of the Son.”. In the reading from John, Jesus speaks of “eternal life, glory, relationship with God – in John’s Gospel these aren’t things waiting out there somewhere but instead are all around us.” thi gs that are possible here and now when we are doing what Jesus does. Healing, feeding, caring, listening, sharing, making manifest the grace and mercy of the God “who so loved the world” (3:16).” (David Lose).

In this Acts passage, I love the image of the disciples looking up to heaven, possibly still not entirely sure what they have just witnessed.  I imagine them a bit dumbfounded by the experience – frozen. And then, the two men in white robes are there – possibly these men are angels. We don’t really know. But they seem to shake the disciples out of their frozen gaze with their question: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  It’s as if they are saying, “Why are you still looking up there? Didn’t you listen to what Jesus told you? You’ve got things to do! Get ready!”

So what looks like the end of the story is simply the beginning of a new chapter. A chapter in which the disciples of Jesus have a lot more work to do. And we continue to participate in this part of the story today.

The Ascension lifts our eyes to the heavens, but then draws us back here. To continue Jesus’ ministry.

Giacomo Puccini, the great musician who wrote Madame Butterfly, La Boehme, Tosca, and so many other majestic operas, was stricken with cancer in 1922. So what did he do? He sat down to write a new opera – Turandot. His students asked him, “But suppose you die?” “Oh,” he replied confidently, “never fear. My students will finish it!”

Puccini died in 1924…and as he predicted, his students did finish his music. The premier of the great opera, Turandot, was held in Milan at La Scala Opera House under the direction of Puccini’s best student – Arturo Toscanini.

The performance of Turandot proceeded and came to that point in the music where the composer had finally laid down his pen. Tears streamed down Toscanini’s face. He put down his baton and turned to the audience and said, “Thus far, the master wrote…and then the master died.”

Then, picking up his baton, his face beaming with determination, Toscanini shouted to the audience, “BUT HIS DISCIPLES FINISHED HIS MUSIC!” And they played on through the grand finale.

Jesus has left us behind for the good of the world.  To feed the hungry, tend to the sick, offer healing and hope to the brokenhearted, to share our lives with the marginalized, to advocate for those whose voices have been silenced, to seek peace, to keep writing and playing the beautiful music Jesus began during his earthly ministry.

And God is with us to help us not merely persevere but also to flourish (through the power of the Holy Spirit).

God intends for us to be committed to this world, this people, this place, here and now. Glory, eternity, relationship with God – these things are possible here and now and we are commissioned and blessed to participate in this work and to share this amazing promise. Amen.

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