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While He Was Blessing Them
The Reverend Krystal Leedy
May 28, 2017
A Reading from the Gospel
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
And just like that, he is gone. They had only interacted for three years, but just like that he is gone. It’s been a few weeks since the resurrection, and Jesus made so many appearances. His resurrected body, still healing, still giving people hope for a new life, a new tomorrow. Even in his last moments as the resurrected Christ here on earth, he was still teaching and opening their minds to the Scripture. And he walked with them and talked with them, and they walked all the way out to Bethany, in the opposite direction of the tomb and Emmaus, out past the Garden of Gethsemane, leaving the weeping behind. They went past Bethphage where they found that donkey that Jesus rode in on. That all seems so ironic now as they took this walk past all of these significant moments in the life of the Messiah. And as he took this walk, still continuing to open their eyes a little further, he lifts up his hands. He blesses them. And while he is blessing them, he arrives in heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. And just like that, he is gone. We begin this day at the end of a beautiful worship service that lasted for three years. Jesus holds up his hands, he gives them their blessing, and then he steps off the edge of the bima and rockets up into heaven.
And he follows the cross backward. From the edge of Jerusalem back through these important milestones of his journey, ones that will still honor: the Garden of Gethsemane, the Palm Sunday parade, the Lenten resurrection of Lazarus, and these sites are filled with weeping and heartbreak, with a little bit of irony and cobbling together. And Jesus walks them back on this journey, transforming it, interpreting it as he is going while he talks about the prophets and our foremothers and forefathers. And things are just beginning to make sense to them, and he is affirming them and blessing them. I have to wonder what was the blessing. What were the words that you say at the end of three years of the very best ministry? Do you ruffle Peter’s hair? Do you punch Thomas in the shoulder jokingly? Do you give Andrew a pat on the back? Do you zap a fig tree again just for old times sake? What do you say to these men whom you pulled out of their livelihoods for three years in order to bless them? It just seems as if it were so much easier if he could have just stayed.
So, here we are at the end of a story: the end of the line, the end of the rope, the end of the gospel. As Jesus rockets up into heaven he leaves us with many more questions, not the least of which is: Why? Would it have been easier if he would have stayed? Could not all of the bread and wine have been broken and poured by the actual Jesus Christ? Could we not have an actual reenactment of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem every year? Could we not have Jesus sitting somewhere where people could experience actual healing form his hands? No, we can’t. Because while our faith is wrapped around one singular person who taught us and saved us, it spirals out into a community.
Because this Christian life takes partners, and pardon the gendered biblical metaphor, but it takes the bride of Christ to be able to carry on her husband’s legacy after he is gone. The church is that single mom making ends meet while her little chicks are running in all different directions. The church, the bride of Christ, is doing the best she can, but it would be so much easier if he were just here, in the flesh. It feels like he just abandoned us. Just like that, he is gone. And we have to ask ourselves, What now?
It’s at this point in our story that I remember it wrong. I always think of the Acts version of the Ascension text which is, “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 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.’” And I think I remember this text so vividly because the disciples are scolded, and I am used to the disciples doing things wrong. But, they didn’t. They did what they were supposed to do. They worshipped. They praised. They lived into joy. They skipped back to Jerusalem. But, I’m still in Bethany. I’m still a little perturbed. Because I can’t blame the disciples in this passage. The only one I can blame here is Jesus. He’s the one who left. He’s the one who left us with all of these unanswered questions. He’s the one who said Lo, I am with you always until the end of the age. And I just want to place blame. You can just call me Martha, who called out to Jesus, “If only you would have been here…” If only Jesus would have been here maybe more could believe in him. If only Jesus would have been here, maybe the global warming would have never started. If only Jesus would have been here maybe there would not be thousands of immigrants locked in detention centers. If only Jesus would have been here, maybe racism would not be so rampant. If only Jesus would have been here, maybe UPC would not have to cut our budget. I appreciate Martha for her honesty, calling it like it is. Trying to look at this text without thinking about the Acts of the Apostles, which follows the gospel of Luke, is impossible. It’s where we get into issues within the first community of faith, and this community of faith stuff surely would not be as difficult if the Savior were standing right here. I think I’m still in Bethany, staring up at the sky, looking for someone to blame.
When something happens, it’s hard not to look for someone to blame. I just wonder what we do when we get there. Standing in Bethany, staring up at the sky, I have to wonder if the angels who told the disciples to go on were finally accepting the blame. So, now that I have blamed Jesus for the ascension, for leaving us, now what?
I can’t imagine the blessing that Jesus gave to his disciples, probably because I’m not actually sure what a blessing is. I looked it up, and it was vague. It involved someone above someone else giving them something positive.
So, I went back to the Old part of our story, I went back to the blessing of the 12 sons of Israel by Jacob. And let me tell you that if want to read a confusing passage about blessing, then by all means read the blessing of the 12 tribes of Israel in Genesis 49. If Jesus was borrowing his blessing that he was giving to the 12 disciples before his ascension, then there are some that don’t exactly sound positive. These blessings from Jacob sound like they point out an attribute or a metaphor about one of these men and then a consequence, both positive and negative, from that attribute. They are straightforward, they are honest, and they point to a future. And those men that received those blessings could have sat there and blamed their father for a terrible blessing. They could have screamed and cried and worried that they had no choice but to become the blessing that their father claimed for their lives. (It was not their fault… it was their responsibility—a blessing is the passing of responsibility)
But the truth is, even though we believe in a sovereign God, whom we cannot control, who loves us no matter what, who gives us grace even when we don’t deserve it, who causes the sun to rise and fall, who even the winds and the waves obey, we can control our response. We have the ability to respond. It is not my fault that Jesus ascended into heaven, but it’s my responsibility. It is not my fault that we are in a global crisis with global warming, but it’s my responsibility. …. It’s not our fault that we got handed a weird blessing, but it is our responsibility. There’s no need to place blame. It will only leave you stuck in Bethany, staring up at the clouds, like a person who is deranged.
Listen for your blessing, because while he was in the middle of his sentence, while Jesus was being pulled up into heaven, before there was a period on the end of his thought, he was still blessing them, all of his disciples, even us.