Can you imagine what was going through the disciples’ minds as they stood there watching the Ascension of the Lord? Think about all that they’ve been through. Three years following this Jesus whose words were compelling and whose miracles were amazing and whose way of life was uplifting. But still, there was something about him that they just never seemed to get. He said he was the Christ, the Anointed One, and so their strong cultural definition of the Messiah was something they projected onto Jesus, but time after time it just never fit. Then he gets arrested, tried in a farce of a proceeding, put to death like a common criminal and buried for three days. After that, he is no longer in the tomb, but has risen from the dead and appeared to them many times. Now they’re gathered forty days later, and he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. They breathlessly ask the question that has always been on their minds, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They still don’t get it.
And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit again, and ascends into the sky. Can you imagine it? It’s like a roller coaster of emotions for them. Their heads had to be spinning, they had to be completely lost as to what to do now. First he was dead and buried, then he came back, and now he’s gone again. What on earth are they to do now? Well, the two mysterious men dressed in white garments have all the advice they’re going to get: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
Which only leaves a whole lot more questions, and their basic questions still unanswered. When will he return? When will he restore the kingdom? What is it the Holy Spirit is going to do for them? Well, soon enough they find out, of course, and we’ll talk about that next week. For now, it’s enough for us to see what this feast of the Ascension means for us. I think it makes three points that we must be ready to fold into our faith life.
First, Christ promises us that he will be with us always. And that’s just what Jesus says to the disciples – and to us! – in the very last words of the very last verse of the very last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” With that, of course, he ascends out of their sight, and so that must have been a confusing promise for the disciples to hear – at least right now. But this is such an essential point of faith for us to get. Just as the first disciples continued to know Christ’s presence in their gathering, in their worshipping, and in their serving, so we continue to know Christ’s presence in those same ways.
We believe that Christ is present whenever we gather in his name. He said as much to us in another place: “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20) We reverence the presence of Christ in one another and can feel him present among us as we pray. The whole reason we gather is because Christ is present when we gather.
We believe that Christ is present when we worship. The Word of God, as it is proclaimed in the Church, is not just a nice story or an interesting precept for life. We believe that God is present in the very proclaiming of the Word itself. And so at times we may hear the Scriptures and experience a stirring in our heart that leads us to a new way of thinking or acting. This is because Christ is present – in a sacramental way – in the proclamation of the Word. And the Sacraments themselves make Christ present when we celebrate them in worship, and we experience that in a special way when we celebrate the Eucharist and receive the body and blood of our Lord in Communion. Christ is present to us when we worship.
We believe that Christ is present when we serve. Deep down, we know that the really great things we do are never the result of our own efforts alone. It’s the Holy Spirit who has prompted us to act or serve or move or speak in certain way. That same Spirit gives us strength and talent and ability and energy we would never know on our own. When we serve authentically, aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit, we know that Christ is present. So it’s not us feeding the hungry, it’s Christ. It’s not us proclaiming the Word, it’s Christ. It’s not us teaching a religious education class, it’s Christ. It’s not us doing any of this, it’s always Christ, whose hands and feet and lips we have become by the virtue of our baptism. Christ is present when we serve in his name.
Jesus promised to be with us always, and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit among us, we find him present in our gathering, in our worshipping, and in our serving. Jesus is with us in our ordinary and extraordinary moments. Jesus is present in us just as surely as is the breath of life. And today he promises that that presence will never end, that he will be with us to the end of time.
The second application of the Ascension to our lives is that Jesus has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us. Now, clearly he wasn’t returning to heaven to put a fresh coat of paint on the walls or polish the gold-covered streets. He goes to heaven to pave the way, because we had lost the way, affected as we all are by original sin and by the sins of our life. Since we did not know the way, he prepares it for us: opening the door, so to speak, and greeting us. So we believers who have forged a relationship with our Lord can now look to him to see how to get to that heavenly reward. All we have to do is follow, and we will find ourselves in that place God intended for us from the beginning.
And the third application of this feast in our lives is that the Christian Mission has been entrusted to our hands. Christ has ascended into heaven, he has returned to the Father. So on this feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we can be like the disciples, standing there staring blankly into the heavens, or we can start to live our lives with the expectation of the Lord’s return, as the disciples were told by the two men dressed in white. Now it’s time for us to take up the Cross, to preach the Word in our words and actions, and to witness to the joy of Christ’s presence among us. If people are ever going to come to know Christ, if they are ever going to be challenged to grow in their faith, if they are ever going to know that there is something greater than themselves, most likely they’re going to come to know all of that in us. We have to be transparent in our living so that people won’t be caught up on us, but will come through us to see Jesus, to see the Father, to experience the Spirit. We are the ones commanded to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” As Cardinal George is fond of saying, the Church does not have a mission … the mission has a Church, and we the Church have to take up that mission and run with it. It is entrusted to us now.
And so today, in the words of the Psalmist, God mounts his throne to shouts of joy. We are joyous in living our life as Christians, assured of God’s abiding presence until the end of time, looking forward to our heavenly reward, and living the mission for all to see. A blare of trumpets for the Lord!