Chaplain Mel Baars
May 20, 2012
When I was very small, and church consisted almost solely of coloring the children’s bulletin and sneaking Trident gum from my grandmother’s purse, back when it was only the original flavor, my favorite place to sit in the pews was on the inner aisle. Those were the most coveted seats in the house, as far as I was concerned. It was the best place to see all that was going on throughout the service and the best position to be in for a quick escape from church and certain arrival at the cookie trays before my father had a chance to tell me, “No.” Even when I wasn’t on the aisle during worship, I somehow, stealthily, found a way to wiggle my way there by the end of the last hymn.
Sugar was always at the forefront of my mind. But, Sunday after Sunday, holding my breath as the priest spoke his final words of blessing, I began to look forward to the blessing almost as much as I longed for an opportunity to crash the coffee hour. In my Episcopal church the words were short and simple. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” the priest would say. And, as he moved out into the afternoon sunlight, the congregation would exhale, almost as one.
This moment of blessing was our tipping point, where we would be transformed from a people facing inward unto ourselves into a people turned inside out, facing the world with arms ready to embrace whatever came next. At this point, there was no going back. This blessing was the moment that solidified all that had come before in our worship, the praise and prayer, the reading and learning from the Bible. These few words were our reminder that our worship was shaping, molding, and preparing us to go out into the world, ready to be the hands and feet of Christ, ready to witness the Good News. We were ready to go in peace to love and serve the Lord, or at least that is what it felt like in those first moments as we filed out of the sanctuary.
If you didn’t notice the front of your bulletin this morning, this is the Sunday that we celebrate the Ascension, the day that Jesus rose up into heaven, to, as one of our earliest creeds puts it, sit at the right hand of God. As a church, we have mostly struggled with what to make of this feast day. Even artists have struggled to express this moment in our history, often depicting Jesus shooting up into the sky like a rocket or even painting Jesus’ feet dangling from the clouds as the disciples look up in wonder. Recently, a pastor friend from home reminded me of a few of her favorite depictions of the Ascension. One, found in the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem, is, according to legend, Jesus’ last footprint on earth, an indentation in the stone floor which the church was later built around. Pilgrims come from around the world to see and touch this stone. Perhaps, placing their hand into this “footprint” is a palpable way to remember that once upon a time, Jesus walked the earth.
Our struggle to wrap our heads around the Ascension should not be altogether surprising. The story of the Ascension begs a few important questions, particularly for a modern audience. We know what comes after the clouds, and even after the earth’s atmosphere, far beyond what our eyes can see. It’s not the “heaven” with which we are familiar from our scripture. But, it’s space and another planet’s gravitational forces and then eventually another solar system and galaxy, ever expanding, or so the really smart people tell us. So, my question is this: just how far did Jesus have to go to get to God’s right hand? To the very edge of the universe? It’s hard not to have visions of God and Jesus, as his right hand guy, on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, on the final frontier, going boldly where no one has gone before.
For this reason, I am grateful that the Ascension is really about so much more than what we gain from any literalistic interpretation. It is clear, as we read our gospel for this morning, that we are at a point of transition, quite similar to that moment in the end of worship when the minister raises hands and says, in so many words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” For three years, the disciples had been with Jesus, experiencing the day to day, learning from him about the scriptures, being shown through his example what a life of faithfulness looks like. In this moment, there is a cosmic shift. After a time of training with Jesus, they stand on the precipice of a new season. What comes next is the birth of the church, a time for disciples, present and to come, to go out into the world proclaiming repentance and forgiveness to all nations, loving and serving God as they go. These are the chapters which follow, beginning with the Acts of the Apostles and continuing even to this day.
As much as I absolutely dread Saturday night and the blank page which always seems to be waiting for me, no matter how hard I try to get a jump start on my sermon earlier in the week, I am often reminded that if I wasn’t tasked with preaching, I would never spend enough time with the text. I would never uncover the little pearls tucked away in a single, solitary verse. This week was a perfect example. I have been a diligent churchgoer my entire life, so excluding both my youngest years when I was focused on coloring and my teen years when I was a little distracted by looking at some of the cute boys in my youth group, I have heard the Ascension story preached at least twenty times. And, never in all these occasions, not to mention the times that I have simply read the story, have I noticed a detail which is paramount to the story-- the fact that Jesus was blessing the disciples as he rose to heaven and that he never stopped blessing them. “While he was blessing them... he was carried up into heaven (v.51).” In his last moment on earth, Jesus is pronouncing a blessing, his final benediction.
When I was in Hebrew class, my favorite word was barak, meaning “to bless.” The word appears thousands of times in the Hebrew Bible and then carries over into the Greek Testament. My interest was peeked when we were reading through the book of Job. Though the first lexiconical entry for barak is the expected translation, “to bless,” one of the later entries is, surprisingly, “to curse.” And, while many of the translations that we read, like the New International Version which we read today, for instance, have Job and Job’s wife “cursing God” in some moments, the King James Version actually has Job “blessing God,” instead.
I have always found it fascinating that one word can encapsulate such divergent meanings. We all know that there is a chiasmic difference between a blessing and a curse. Somehow, though, the meaning of this little word in Hebrew gestures to something much bigger, much more hopeful. The life that unfolds around us is waiting to be received and responded to. Whether we receive a blessing or a curse has much to do with our own attitudes, our own ability to trust that God is steadfast to his promises, making something good out of the ashes we hold on to after enduring tragedy, loss, or disappointment. Even when it is too dark to see the ways that we are blessed by God, the blessing still endures.
If the story is any indication, Jesus doesn’t ever stop blessing us, even as he disappears into the heavens. He is physically gone. We can no longer see him or touch him. But, the gift that he gives us as he goes, keeps on giving. Despite losing Jesus to heaven, the disciples worship him still and they even take it one step further. They go back to Jerusalem filled with joy, and they were continually in the temple, blessing God. As one writer puts it, “Blessing begets blessing.” Because Jesus’ blessing lives in us and is re-gifted to others, in a way, he isn’t really gone. And, this is how Luke’s gospel ends-- Jesus blessing the disciples and the disciples, filled with joy, sharing his blessing, prepared to witness the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world.
In a way, though, we can’t forget what I might call the shadow side of the Ascension, which is Jesus’ departure. He may have blessed them, but he also left them. We can’t overlook their sense of loss and dismay, not so much in those immediate days when they believed his return was imminent, but in the long, sometimes deadly days which followed, days that are still unfolding, even now. Next Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost, when the fire of the Holy Spirit covers the earth, empowering us all to continue the witness, to spread the blessing to the ends of the earth. This is the spirit which Jesus promises to send to us as our Advocate. Nonetheless, we are still waiting for Jesus, sometimes still looking into the heavens, wondering where exactly he has gone off too and when he will be back with us again.
Perhaps this is why Jesus’ perpetual blessing is so significant. Jesus knew what they, and we, could not know then, that his blessing would be manna in the wilderness, that the seasons which would pass before his coming would not be without suffering and hardship. His blessing would sustain them, and us, when the sight of God’s kingdom had been lost. His blessing would renew them, and us, when strength was all but lost. His blessing would be their reminder, and ours, that because of what Jesus has done, revealing himself, opening minds to understand the scriptures, they, and we, have a job to do.
What we remember in the Ascension, watching as Jesus rises into the heavens and receiving his never-ending blessing, letting it wash over us, is that, from that place and from this place, too, from every place where we praise and pray and give thanks to God, we go out into the world in peace, ready to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen