May 16, 2010: Gone, But Not Away

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Seventh Sunday after Easter

You may have skipped the celebration of the Ascension this past Thursday. A lot of people did. I can understand. The story asks us to suspend our disbelief. It says that Jesus literally lifts off, ascending into the clouds leaving his disciples, well-wishers and the whole world in his wake.

Ascension is pretty difficult to wrap our minds around. Other feasts are more tangible and earthly grounded. At Christmas we have a manger, angels, shepherds, and a baby. An empty tomb, bunnies, chocolate crosses and lilies help us think Easter. Did anyone send you an Ascension card this year? Did you send any Ascension cards? Did you decorate your house for Ascension? Neither the malls nor Hallmark seem aware of Ascension. Maybe releasing a helium balloon as we sing the Fifth Dimension’s Up, Up, and Away could catch on.

We probably need to keep Ascension inside the church anyway. People have a hard enough time figuring us out. Do you really want to explain what Ascension means at the office water cooler? Jesus dies, comes back, and leaves again, floating up through the clouds into heaven. And to our story the modern thinker says, “Yeah, right.”

Unlike Matthew and Luke, John has no Ascension story. In his farewell words, Jesus does say he will return to the Father, but doesn’t say when or how. After Easter, Jesus mysteriously drops in for some unannounced visits to his friends. Then John’s story grinds to a halt, leaving us hanging. “More could be written, but the world couldn’t contain all the books it would take.” That’s it. That’s the ending? John has no real conclusion for the post-resurrection Jesus. He’s gone, but is he really gone away?

Jesus closes his farewell address with a prayer said for his disciples’ benefit. Since the Father already knows why he sends the Son, the prayer must be for us, so we can know God’s purpose. Jesus comes from God to draw us, through his life, into the Father’s love and life. Nothing is said here that Jesus comes to die for sins, or if we believe right, he’ll get us into heaven. Here he says he comes to share the life of the Father and Son. God comes in Jesus to dwell in us, so the world, through us, can believe God sent Jesus, and that everyone’s destiny is union in the divine life. The world experiences the inner life of God by how much we embody God’s love and life for the world. Then Jesus’ mission is completed. By ascending to God, Jesus lifts us into the divine life. Then filled with the divine life, we are God’s healing and life for a broken and fragmented world. If the world glimpses eternal light in us, they’re seeing God’s glory and brilliance, not ours.

Sadly, the world has a hard time getting a clear picture of the divine. We aren’t always at one with God, or others. Too often the world sees us fragmented, in conflict with each other, breaking apart because some don’t believe as they should. They see us more concerned with who needs to be kept out, rather who needs to be drawn into God’s love. They see us criticizing, judging, talking about others behind their backs, and condemning others. Some churches are more concerned with who is in a loving relationship rather than the quality of that relationship. They forget that Jesus came to bring us into right relationship – with God, and each other. Maybe it’s easier to fight or condemn others who are different or we don’t like, rather than love them; it’s harder to pray for and love our enemies, serve the poor and needy. Many believe Jesus is worthy, but his friends are lacking. They see we’re not living in oneness with God the way we proclaim we are. We are the ones who sometimes aren’t believers. We do believe Jesus means we are to love God and one another, right? He didn’t hand down doctrines for us to believe. He hands us his life, comes to us inwardly, within, that we may know the Father as he does – know we are loved as he is loved. Divine love transforms us from within, not by affirming right beliefs and doctrines, following what we’ve been told the Bible or church says, nor by doing good deeds. Through years of ministry, I’ve learned if we love God and we let Jesus dwell in us, and we love others, that inward relationship will shape our outward presence. He’s not about theology – but relationships.

How do you know you are dwelling in the divine, and the divine dwells within you? Accept it. You are baptized, infused by the Holy Spirit with the life of God. Jesus is not off somewhere watching. He is within us, loving us, wherever we are, whatever our condition. Yet you and I have to do something about the relationship. We must tend our hearts and minds, nurture and grow into oneness with God, or the gift withers. We’ve not arrived. God starts it, but too many Christians think it’s all finished, and there’s nothing they need to do. Yet we know we are not always in union with God. We work at staying in the relationship given us: Bible study, hospitality, prayer, learning what worship can do, praying the daily office, being present at worship faithfully to receive the sacrament of God’s love – these are means the church offers to help us to the end – union and unity with the divine. That won’t make us perfect. We will still sometimes catch ourselves condemning others, judging, criticizing – hating some person or some group, drawing lines in the sand, defending ourselves, rather than admit we’ve been wrong. Yet when God dwells within, we will stop and think before we speak or act. And if we forget, we’ll feel regret, sadness for what we could have said or done, and didn’t. We are a work in progress – and the divine indwells our lives. We are the only ones who can keep God out.

Jesus’ return to the Father completes what is begun in resurrection. Ascension completes resurrection. Jesus ascends beyond time and space to be present within the world, within us all, those who believe and are yet to. Jesus ascends only to return with God’s fullness of love, bonding us forever into the love the Father and Son share. God then sends us out to awaken the world to that love, welcome, inclusion. And what is really unbelievable, amazing and out of this world – God must believe that Jesus’ bumbling disciples, and even you and me, can do it.


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