... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

EASTER MESSAGE - June 5th, 2011

The Dichotomy of the Ascension

Text: Acts 11:6-14

This past Thursday marked the festival of the Ascension which commemorates the final day of Jesus’ physical presence on earth, and that moment when he ascended into heaven. We are told that the disciples stood gazing up toward heaven when suddenly two men in white robes said to them, “Men of Galilee why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It was this very question that gives us an insight into the physical and emotional beings of those disciples which colours their sense of loss in light of the very last question they had put to their teacher friend and leader, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even after three years of being with Jesus, witnessing the various miracles, engaging in the various missions and learning the true meaning of Scripture they still had no inkling of what this had all been about. Their ardent desires and their great hopes had been the restoration of Israel; a return to the Davidic splendour of centuries before; a shift of power from the Hasmodian rule and temple religiosity. And now all hope was lost!

There had been disappointment and despair at the time of the crucifixion, but those had been wiped away with the Easter event and for forty days they had continued to have Jesus’ comforting presence with them. However at this particular juncture the definitive ending of Jesus’ presence was obvious. Once again fear, perplexity bewilderment, and loneliness flooded their emotional state and they were left with – nothing!

This emotional spiritual and physical roller coaster of ups and downs is indeed the dichotomy of the Ascension. Hopes desires and longings give way to despair loneliness and emptiness. It is a time of grieving but at the same time a new hope that God will indeed open new doors. And as we celebrate not just Jesus’ return to the Father but the anticipation of a new birth of some great design – the Christian church – the first Christian congregation. While we are told that these early disciples had lost the dreams held by their society, we are also informed that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to become witnesses to something far greater than Israel’s return to Davidic glory. Thus we stand between the departure of the physical presence of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We are in a time of waiting and relying on God – two very important qualities for the people of God and every true Christian.

Some 17 years ago, just before coming to this parish, Carol and I had the opportunity to go on a Holy Land tour with Wycliffe. It too was an emotional and spiritual roller coaster especially the day we did the tour of the Mount of Olives. We started out on a bus tour of Jerusalem and then west to the Mount of Olives and to the Church of the Ascension – every holy place it seems has had a church built around it and no less so than the place where Jesus was supposed to have been lifted up. No sooner than we got off the tour bus we were accosted by all the beggars and child merchants trying to sell us mementos and trinkets – post cards, necklaces – 10 for a dollar. Fortunately, we were quickly ushered into the compound of the Church of the Ascension which looked more like just a circular stone tower. However, the high stone walls kept us from the onslaught of the begging outside. Within the compound we were shown a small stony prominence with a small depression in it, purported to be the foot-print of Jesus, left as he was lifted up. As we all gathered around this spot, I must admit that I had one of those low points; a feeling of emptiness, a feeling of being taken advantage of; a sense of modern commercialism preying on spirituality and an awareness of hollowness.

Then re-entering the gauntlet of beggars we re-boarded the bus and on our way down the Mount to the Garden of Gethsemane, where perhaps we had the highest of the high experiences. Once inside the Garden itself there was a very presence of peace comfort and excitement.

It was perhaps these emotions which flowed over the disciples as they once again gathered in the upper room which in all likelihood was the room in which they shared the last supper. There in that space of comfort peace and memories of better times, the disciples prayed and waited. They were becoming a congregation of God’s people, a community learning to wait and pray – two activities we today would do well to emulate. As William Willimon puts it, “Waiting, an onerous burden for us computerized and technically impatient moderns, who live in an age of instant everything, is one of the tough tasks of the church. Our waiting implies that the things which need doing are beyond our ability to accomplish by our own effort, our programs and crusades. Some other empowerment is needed; therefore the church waits and prays.”

So often we like those early disciples have desires hopes and dreams of what the future should be and what God needs to do to bring our visions to fruition. Fortunately God doesn’t act that way. Fortunately the gift of the Spirit engages and empowers us along lines of action quite contrary to our own. Can you imagine what the world would be like if those early Christians had indeed won their way and the Davidic Israel restored? There would have been one dynasty exchanged for another – one corruption replacing another. In the epic Tolkien tale, Lord of the Rings, it seems everyone wanted to get the one ring to use it for their own fight against Sauron and the empire of Mordor. Each of those who wants the ring wants to usher in a new age of peace and harmony but as Gandalf tells them the ring is evil and only brings evil – even if you want to use it for good it will subvert the good with evil.

The image of this transforming power of the ring is well portrayed in the text of Galadriel the Elven Queen when Frodo offers her the ring. She reaches out her hand and as she does she is seen to be transformed from a beautiful queen to a despot ruler. Rather than taking the ring she withdraws and a look of pleasure comes over her as she declares she has passed the text and will willingly fade from the presence rather than succumb to the evil of the ring.

So the small band of disciples waits on the Lord, praying and placing their future in God’s hands. We too are bidden to live in the present, to wait God’s timing in all things, to pray to seek guidance and be ready to act when empowered by the Spirit. We are called to be Commandment people – loving God with all of who we are and loving neighbour as self. But we are also called to be Commissioned people – witnesses to the Good News of God’s love and presence here, in and through Christ Jesus.

May we all be willing to wait and pray and be ready to act when the Holy Spirit empowers us.