Christ Jesus goes away on this day so that we can be filled with the Spirit and continue the ministry of self-giving, wounded love that is the only way the world will be healed.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Ascension of Our Lord
texts: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Having Jesus around was great for the disciples.
Whenever there was a crisis, Jesus could handle it. If decisions needed to be made, Jesus would make them. If someone needed help, bring them to Jesus.
It was good. These women and men spent their time being taught by God’s Messiah, surrounded by God’s grace and love. They didn’t have to worry about much if they stayed close to Jesus.
The crucifixion was a horrible blow to this peace of mind. But then Jesus was alive, raised from the dead. They had him back. All would be right again with Jesus in charge.
This is to say, it makes sense that after Christ ascended into heaven, the disciples, women and men alike, stood on the Mount of Olives gaping at the sky. “He’s leaving? What are we supposed to do? What do we do now when things get challenging?”
And that’s precisely the point.
The Church from the beginning has struggled to grasp why God became human.
We want answers as in the days of Jesus’ ministry, answers that neatly give God all the world’s problems, answers that say, when someone comes to us we can turn to God and say, “here you go,” answers that say, in a crisis we can look to the sky and say, “now what?”
Except the point of God taking on human life and living among us was to show us in person God’s way, the way of love of neighbor, so that we would do it. To teach us in person how we could love as God loves, so that we would do it. To save the world not through a transaction over sin but through a transformation of human hearts, healing the creation through us, who from the beginning were supposed to be caring for this creation and for each other.
And if that was the point of the Incarnation, there would have to be an Ascension. At some point, the Son of God would have to return into the full life of the Trinity and say, OK, folks, now it’s up to you.
The Church also has an enormous problem understanding God’s role in suffering and evil.
We usually set this scenario and despair: “if God is all-loving, and if God is all-powerful, and if there still is horrible suffering and pain, then God’s the problem.” There are lots of ways Christians rationalize and explain this, sometimes in defense of God, sometimes in prosecution of God. None help. Because there’s a fundamental flaw in the whole argument: the equation is incomplete.
Yes, God is all-loving. Jesus taught us that again and again. Yes, God is all-powerful. The Triune God made all things, universes, galaxies, mitochondria. That’s a lot of power. And yes, there’s enormous suffering and pain in this world that causes us, and all people, to feel grief, sadness, anger.
What’s missing in the equation is how God understands power and how to use it. We assume that since God has the power to make a universe, God has to use that power to deal with human suffering, sin, and evil. When we see all that causes pain to so many, we look up at the sky and say, “Where is God?”
But we already saw God’s answer to human suffering and pain when we looked up at the cross.
On the cross, the God of the universe set aside all that power and became vulnerable, helpless, before human evil.
The Triune God set aside all weapons, chose not to exercise brute force, and, bearing our own body, faced humiliation, torture, and death.
We get angry with God for not intervening in human suffering because we imagine the only way God would intervene is the way we would: by exerting force, domination, punishment.
But on the cross the God who can do all that says, “That’s not my way.” My way is to redeem all things by offering myself. My way is to save you by loving you until you destroy me, and then coming into life again and continuing to love you. My way is to show you in my very life and death that this is how all of you will also end human suffering and pain. By taking it on yourself. By standing with those who suffer. By loving those who hate. By getting in the way of evil to keep it from someone else. By being my loving presence to those who are in pain.
We may want God to act as we would act if we had all God’s world-making power. But we cannot say that God has not acted just because God chose a different way. We can only try to understand, and see if we are drawn to follow.
This doesn’t mean we can’t ever look up at the sky and yell at God.
We don’t need to defend God or God’s choices to anyone, and God’s big enough to handle any criticism. Sometimes God does intervene, and miracles happen, and sometimes God doesn’t. It’s legitimate to scream our frustration to God when that happens. If Jesus, the Son of God, could do it, as he did on the cross, it’s fair game for us.
But we don’t stop there. Because there’s always that angel from God standing next to us who, at some point, will say, “Why are you just looking up to heaven? Go back to the city and wait, and God will give you what you need to change this. To begin the healing of the world.”
That’s the grace Jesus gives in leaving: the Triune God is sharing this world-making power with all of us, to heal all things.
In Christ’s ascension, we, like those first women and men, wonder “what now?” We, like they, ask: Who’s going to help these people? Who’s going to figure out what to do in this next crisis? Who’s going to sort out the problems that we have?
And today God’s answer is, “well, you are.” That’s been the plan all along. That we would be so changed by God’s power-relinquishing love that we would bear the power of God’s love into the world on God’s behalf. We would carry God’s vulnerability, God’s willingness to be wounded, into the world to bring life to our sisters and brothers in pain. We would share God’s strange way of using power by setting it aside.
Christ trusts us a lot in leaving us in charge. We’re going to mess up some of these crises. We’re going to find wrong answers to problems sometimes. We’re not always going to know what to do to help someone who comes to us. But Christ trusts us with this ministry. And that’s enough to go on.
And there’s one more grace we have.
Those women and men were sent back to the city and told to wait, because the Holy Spirit was going to fill them with the power from God they needed to do this work their beloved Jesus had begun.
We have ten days until our celebration of Pentecost. We’ve already experienced the coming of the Spirit, all our lives, so it’s not exactly the same for us. But these ten days are a good reminder that sometimes we have to wait before we receive all we need from God. And they’re a reminder that we’re not in this ministry alone, ever. That the Triune God’s answer when we look to the skies is to send us the Spirit so we can have the strength and grace we need to carry on as God’s love in the world.
Jesus once told us it was to our advantage that he went away, so that he could send us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. (John 16:7) That’s the gift. By leaving us to continue the healing of the world, Christ also makes it possible for us to do it by coming in the Spirit. And we also get this: in taking on this ministry of wounded love to save all things, we get to become the people we were always meant to be.
So wait, and listen: you will be clothed with power from on high in the Spirit, and then, well, anything can happen!
In the name of Jesus. Amen