[No, you can’t hear or read her sermon, for we don’t post them. It’s a long story. Don’t ask.]
Since I became an Episcopalian in 1998, I have heard priests preach on what a glorious event the ascension must have been. Glorious, indeed. I have no argument there. But I always felt it was a sad story – a story of being left behind by a beloved friend and mentor.
As Paul wrote at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (in what may be one of the earliest accounts):
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.And that’s it.
Jesus is gone.
I have often put myself in the sandals of Jesus’ friends and disciples. Jesus’ circle of friends saw their beloved friend crucified. They stood around and watched him die at the hand of a cruel government. Could I have stood and watched my friend die? Yes, I would have. But it would have torn my soul.
Three days later, they heard of his resurrection, and soon many of them saw him again. Two of the women encountered him outside his tomb. Several of his friends encountered him while they huddled in a locked room. The fishermen had breakfast with him. Some walked with him on the road from Emmaus.
They spent 40 days with him. The resurrected Jesus, back from the grave, cooking, eating, walking, continuing to teach.
I put myself in their place. I would have assumed: This is the new life he promised. Now he’s going to be with us forever.
But no. With what seems to me little warning, Jesus goes away again in the ascension.
Jesus is in the midst of a conversation with them and suddenly: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
As far as I can tell, none of the gospels really tells us how Jesus’ friends reacted. Most of the biblical accounts jump straight into how they “established the church” and began to witness.
But I am stuck there at the moment of the Ascension. Had I been one of his friends, those 40 days after the resurrection would have had me convinced that he was going to be with us – that he was going to help us figure out how to do this “kingdom of God is among you” thing.
And when he was suddenly drawn up into heaven I would have been bereft. I would have felt more lonely than I had ever felt in my life. The crucifixion was bad enough. But now Jesus has left us again, despite my hopes. I would have felt pretty ticked that he had left my friends all alone to figure things out.
I’ve written here about my difficulties with death and leave-taking. It makes me angry. And it leaves me forlorn.
That’s what Shariya preached today. The sense of loss. How difficult it must have been for those people to lose their friend, their teacher, their Lord, the Christ. And how we all confront loss throughout our lives – whether the death of a beloved mate, the loss of a love, the loss of a job that fulfilled us, the move from a city we loved. So many varieties of loss.
I have had my share of those. Which is why I sat in my usual spot – on the front row, epistle side – with saltwater leaking out of my eyes throughout that sermon. My sense of connection with those friends of Jesus was quite powerful.
The friends of Jesus now had to figure out how to “do it” all by themselves, without their charismatic and inspirational leader – without the man who had loved them so deeply and personally.
From that moment on, they had to figure out a whole different way to relate to Jesus.
Then, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles:
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, 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."So that’s it. We are left here to figure it out … just as Jesus’ friends were left to figure it out.
Photo (from St Peter Mancroft, Norwich) courtesy of this site.