Ascension of our Lord
There is a silly joke that I like. I’ve seen it in the form of a picture and a caption. The picture is of Jesus standing behind a sofa and the caption reads “I found Jesus… he was behind the couch the whole time!” The joke is certainly tongue-in-cheek and probably not even that funny. Finding Jesus, rather than being a transformative, life-changing moment akin to finding purpose and meaning in life, is jokingly put on the same level as misplacing the remote for your TV.
The search for Jesus is real and it isn’t as simple as the search for your TV remote. Jesus isn’t misplaced behind the couch. Today is Ascension Sunday when we celebrate Jesus being lifted up into Heaven. When he was lifted up, where did he end up? Where exactly is heaven? Maybe folks in 1st century Palestine thought of heaven as simply being up, but not us. We are too smart for that. All that is up is clouds, ozone, and beyond the atmosphere of our planet is the vast emptiness of space. We know better, right? Right?
Well, maybe the specifics of where Jesus physically went are not the most important part of the Ascension story. Finding Jesus or losing Jesus, be it in the clouds, outer space, or behind the couch is not really what finding or losing, Jesus is all about. Finding Jesus is about receiving the gift of the power of his love and the new life it brings. Losing Jesus is about serious doubts as to whether or not he really loves us or whether or not that love makes a difference in the world.
The disciples lose Jesus. Can you imagine how crushing that must have been? Here is the person who embodies God’s steadfast and abundant love for all people. Here is the one who welcomes all- especially the broken and outcast. Here is the one who forgives sins. Here is the one who gave his life for our sake and destroyed the power of death through his own resurrection. And then that amazing person floats away, carried out of sight.
Most of us have felt that kind of crushing absence. When a loved one takes their last breath, when a rent check bounces, when a lover leaves you. When the absence of God is felt in those situations, it is not as trivial as losing Jesus behind the couch. It is losing a sense of purpose, meaning, and hope.
Ascension Day occurs forty days after Easter. That was last Thursday. On that same day coincidentally, was the observation of Cinco de Mayo and Yom HaShoah (Holocaust memorial day). What an interesting combination! Ascension Day is when we remember Jesus’ departure from his disciples and him being lifted up to sit at the right hand of God in heaven. Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of an unlikely Mexican military victory over French forces in 1862. Yom HaShoah remembers the 6 million Jews who were systematically murdered throughout Europe and the millions of other murders of Roma, homosexual men, prisoners of war, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally and physically disabled and more. The common thread throughout these three holidays, Ascension Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Yom HaShoah, is, I think, the apparent absence of God. Jesus left earth and his disciples felt alone. The Battle of Puebla claimed the lives of hundreds of people and demonstrated humanity’s violent means of attempting to gain peace. The millions of murders of the Holocaust begs the question, “Where is God when evil runs rampant throughout the earth?”
There is no easy answer to the faithful questions we may have about God’s apparent absence in midst of great need. Countless theologians and philosophers from many different religions have sought to answer why God seems so far away when we need God so desperately. I’ve read or listened to many explanations and I am sure you have too. I don’t know about you, but I have yet to find an answer that has been wholly satisfying.
In the midst of our puzzled minds, our aching hearts, and our weary souls, God gives us a message, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Christ will never forget us and will never forsake us. Though he may seem absent now, God has promised that Christ will come again. This profound absence of God is never given a definitive answer for why the situation looks the way it does. But we do receive Gospel assurance that Christ is for us just as he has always been. Though we don’t get to see his physical body, we do receive the Holy Spirit which we formally celebrate next week at Pentecost. God’s Spirit is filling our world and in the midst of pain, injustice, and death, we can point to the Holy Spirit’s invisible, but powerfully felt presence in places that we may otherwise call God-forsaken. We find it in words of forgiveness, acts of healing, and God’s people standing for the most vulnerable among us. Jesus’ spirit is in our midst- among us.
Though it is hard to do and impossible to do on our own, God calls us to not spend our whole lives staring up at the sky wondering why God hasn’t touched down to earth yet again. God calls us to turn our gaze to a world in great need, see that God is still powerfully at work, and bravely profess that this is so.
The Apostle, Paul, gives us words of encouragement to remind us that Christ, though not physically among us in his body, is still the ruler of all. He writes,
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.
In remembering the Ascension of Jesus, Paul is not concerned with the particulars of where exactly heaven is and how Jesus got there. For him, Christ rose above all powers that seek to claim highest authority. Jesus is seated at God’s right hand and he is ultimately the one who calls the shots on matters of justice, peace, and life. Jesus is above all powers. Above poverty, fear, and heartbreak. He is above war, hatred, and even death itself. Not one thing can stand in the way of Jesus’ will. They can’t touch him. The men’s assurance that he will come again as surely as you saw him go is a promise of hope. Jesus has not abandoned you, he is present with you, and has empowered you to face the world with boldness and hope. When the evil powers of sin and death seek to hold you down and convince you that God is absent and will never return, may the Good News of Jesus reach your heart to give you courageous faith in the steadfast love of God who will never forsake or leave you.