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He’s Gone!

San Williams

June 1, 2014
Acts 1:1-11

Each Wednesday during our weekly staff meeting the worship leaders make plans for the coming Sunday. This past Wednesday, we discussed the prayers, hymns, and responses that would be most appropriate for Ascension Sunday.  John Leedy (our resident liturgical wonk) remembered an old liturgical tradition that has the Easter candle, which burns each Sunday during Eastertide, extinguished during the service on Ascension Sunday.  My first response was to reject the idea.  I thought the ritual of extinguishing the Christ Candle would leave us feeling deserted, bereft. I pictured the congregation sitting in stunned silence as a wisp of smoke curled its way to the ceiling, disappearing into the HVAC system.

However, upon further reflection, I wondered whether extinguishing the Easter candle might give us a sense of what the first disciples felt as they watched Jesus disappear from their sight, leaving them behind. These are the same disciples who had been with Jesus during his earthly ministry.  Then they’d had the benefit of a forty-day post-resurrection seminar, in which the risen Christ continued to instruct them about the meaning of the Kingdom of God.  Yet even with the benefit of extensive instruction, the disciples remained unenlightened.  “Lord,” they asked, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  In other words, will the enemies occupying our land and our aspirations be routed now?  Will the Lord at long last restore the kingdom of Israel?   We certainly understand their desire to see Jesus’ ministry come to an immediate fruition. But that’s not what happened.  Jesus leaves them even though the Kingdom he proclaimed was yet to be realized, and the disciples remain the flawed, spiritually obtuse folks they have always been.  The human, flesh-and-blood Jesus is suddenly gone from them—he “disappears into the clouds,” to use Luke’s colorful description.  No wonder the disciples are left standing there, mouths open, staring at the sky.

This experience of Jesus’ absence is by no means confined to the first disciples.  I read this week about a young person going through Confirmation classes.  This confirmand worried that he wasn’t feeling what he was supposed to feel as a Christian.  He said that he wanted to feel Jesus close to him.  He wanted to know that Christ was really alive.  Instead, he said, “I just sit in church and feel alone.”   The youth’s pastor said that the only thing he could think to say was “Sometimes it’s like that.”   This youth may have found that an unsatisfactory answer, but sometimes it is like that.  Sometimes, like those first disciples, Jesus feels far away and long gone.

When I was a senior in high school, my mother encouraged me to write an essay for Guideposts magazine.  Guideposts was offering a college scholarship for the high school senior who submitted the most inspiring essay on their Christian experience.  Since I had always been religiously inclined–the chaplain of my high school student body, president of my church youth group–I told my mother that I’d give it a try. So I sat down at my desk with pencil in hand, a blank tablet before me.  For the life of me, I couldn’t come up with any inspiring story to write, so I just sat there twirling my pencil and staring at the ceiling.

So it’s clear that the absence of Jesus been a challenge for Christians from the beginning.  Maybe our discomfort over Jesus’ absence helps explain why the Ascension of Jesus is rarely emphasized.  On the church’s liturgical calendar, Ascension Day is actually set on Thursday, making it convenient for most Christians to completely ignore it.

And another problem with the Ascension, surely, is that Luke’s description of it is too literal for our postmodern sensibilities.   We know that it’s absurd to think that Jesus literally floated up into the clouds like a hot air balloon.  To speculate about where his ascension into outer space ended, or whether Jesus would have shown up on radar as a UFO is surely to miss the point.

When the Apostles’ Creed declares that “Jesus ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God,” it is not suggesting that there is a specific location in the sky where Jesus now sits at God’s right hand.  John Calvin was known for his impatience with what he regarded as a foolish question.  Once a parishioner asked him if Jesus sits at the right hand of God for all eternity.  To which Calvin quipped, “No, sometimes he gets up and walks around.” That bit of sarcasm was Calvin’s way of dismissing an overly simplistic interpretation of the Ascension.

Instead, the Ascension is a deep theological claim that Jesus, who while on earth poured out his life in love for the world, has been received into the eternal life of God.  This lowly, suffering servant has been made Lord over all creation and will reign until all creation reaches its promised fulfillment.  Yes, the historical Jesus is gone.  He has gone ahead of us into the future, where all will one day be gathered.

“Why then do you stand looking up toward heaven,” the two angels ask the stunned disciples.  With a smile, these messengers from heaven remind the bereft disciples that Jesus has handed the proclamation of God’s Kingdom over to them.  These ordinary, unimpressive human beings are charged to continue his ministry, pray for his Kingdom, and, once empowered by his Spirit,  work for the reconciliation of the world.

So maybe it’s necessary to experience the painful void of Jesus’ absence—necessary for the first disciples and no less necessary for us today.   As one Biblical commentator put it:   “There are times when Christ has to leave us so that we figure out how to carry light ourselves. We need his absence to discover the power of Easter life within us.  There is both loss and power, death and resurrection, in this mysterious realization that incarnation includes us.”  (Bradley E. Schmeling, Christian Century 5/28/14)

Friends, in a moment we will extinguish the Christ candle, but not before twelve other candles are lit and passed to the congregation.  Yes, it’s a little unsettling to acknowledge that the historical Jesus is no longer with us.  He’s gone forever.  But he promised to give us his Holy Spirit, so that the light of God’s Kingdom will not go out.  Ready or not, we are the light of Christ in the world.