It’s always difficult to say goodbye. Even if you know that you’ll make new friends in the new town, it’s still hard to leave behind old friends. When I was nine, our family moved from Mount Shasta to Klamath Falls. It wasn’t a difficult move to make, because Klamath Falls is only 80 miles away from Mt. Shasta. It’s nothing like the 2000 mile trek we made from Santa Barbara to Troy. But, to a nine-year-old boy, it might as well have been a cross-country move. You see, I liked my home and my friends, and I didn’t want to leave. Mount Shasta may not be the most exciting place in the world to live, but it was a perfect place for a nine-years-old. There was snow in winter, warm sunshine in the summer. There were lakes and streams, ball fields to play on and forests to explore. Had I wanted to ski there was a 14000-foot mountain in our back yard.
When we arrived in Klamath Falls, I discovered that my new home wasn’t all that bad. To my amazement, living next door were two boys, one a year older and the other a year younger. I didn’t stop missing my next door neighbors Don and Dave, or my other friends from Mount Shasta, but it was good to know that there were potential new friends living next door. Life is like that, people come and they go. You make a friend and then either they move or you move. There are births and there are deaths, beginnings and endings of life. But as wonderful as it is to say hello, it’s always difficult to say goodbye.
The New Testament itself tells the story of God’s comings and goings. The gospel of Luke begins with the coming of Jesus into the world, while his sequel, the book of Acts starts with Jesus bidding farewell to his disciples. Being that this is Ascension Sunday, we stand some forty days after Easter, watching as Jesus gathers his disciples together on a hillside outside Jerusalem. It’s time for him to depart to the heavenly realm, but first he must bid good-bye to his followers. But even as he says goodbye, he promises that another will come. This Holy Spirit of God that will come before too long will empower them so that they might fulfill their commission to bear witness to the ministry and words of Jesus. As we take our place on the hillside, listening to the voice of Jesus, we’re invited to ponder the comings and goings of God, and consider what that means for us.
1. Ascending the Throne
Jesus could have gone nostalgic as he gave his farewell address. He could have focused on the past, but instead he focuses on the future. He gives them a mission and promises them assistance – the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Ascension Sunday serves as a link between the glories of Easter and the joys of Pentecost. It’s a moment of mixed feelings. You have to say goodbye, but you know that something wonderful is about to happen. Ascension Sunday is about letting go. It’s a transitional moment where the past gives way to the future, and where faith becomes essential. Moving forward requires trust in God. Yes, it is a joyous moment, one that is reflected in the words of Psalm 47:
Clap your hands, all you people; shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king above all the earth. (Ps. 47:1)
It is appropriate to rejoice in this new act of God, but there is more to be heard.
2. The Commission
In the days before this farewell event, Jesus gave his disciples final instructions. But as you can see, they still didn’t understand, even in the light of Easter, the full implications of his mission. They still think in political and nationalistic categories, and so they ask: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And once again, Jesus gently reminds them that his mission, and our mission, is much broader than kicking the Romans out of Palestine. Their confusion is understandable, because we all know that it’s hard to let go of old dreams. We see that in our own backyard – Christians clinging to the hope that Christendom might again be restored. Yes, today we hear the voices of those clamoring to have the government reimpose the Christian faith upon nations and peoples. That, however, is not the way of Jesus.
The message of Ascension is that we have received a commission to carry the good news that God is at work in the world, moving outward to the ends of the earth. We get to participate in this new act of God, beginning in our own back yard. It’s not a work that requires government intervention or support. Although it’s appropriate to call upon governments to do the right thing, neither the state nor our culture determines our message. Instead of going forth with a government stamp of approval, we go forth with the promise that the Spirit of God will come and bring the power and understanding so that this task can be accomplished. But first Jesus must say his goodbyes, so that the Spirit might say hello!
In a text that has become familiar to us, as we’ve considered the call to become a missional congregation, we hear once again Jesus commission us to be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and moving outward to the ends of the earth with a message of healing, justice, mercy, and reconciliation. The story of this going out of the Spirit fills the rest of the pages of the book of Acts, but it doesn’t end there. This narrative takes us all the way to Rome, where Paul bears witness to the message of Jesus in what was then the center of the early Christian world. But as time wore on, the church has discovered that the world is a lot larger than the borders of the Roman Empire, and so the job is not yet finished.
3. The Next Step
We live on the far side of Pentecost. We’ve already heard the commission and tasted the presence of the Spirit. But the message of Ascension Sunday is a good reminder, that we always live in an age of transition. We continually face the temptation to rest in the past, but the future beckons us. It’s easy to pine for the days when Jesus walked in our midst, teaching us the things of God, shepherding us so that we don’t get lost, but as tempting as this might be, that is not where our future lies.
The future lies with Pentecost, and the empowering presence of the Spirit, who will guide us and support us, as we engage in the mission that God has set before us. It’s a mission that is captured in our core values, those attributes that define our sense of calling: We seek to become a church that is compassionate, serving, accepting, witnessing, spiritually joyful, and worshiping. Pentecost is a week away. There are things to do in the mean time. In fact, between now and then we will gather as the Regional Church and install Maggie and Eugene as our Co-Regional Ministers for this time of Transition. We will talk about the future of the region and its work in the world. The word for today is: “wait.” Wait for the Spirit.
It’s also a day to say goodbye to that which may be beloved, but also that which holds us back. In Luke’s text, the disciples watch Jesus disappear into the clouds, like a bunch of awestruck fans. They just stare into the heavens, not knowing what to do next. They have a commission and instructions to wait for the Spirit, but like us, they get caught up in the moment. At that moment, two angelic beings dressed in dazzling white break their trance, saying:
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. (vs. 11)
They were like the crowd that William Willimon encountered while driving along the “Loop” in Chicago. Having been caught in a massive traffic jam, he only later discovered that the people were watching a young man climb the outside wall of the Sears Tower. Their eyes were on the sky and not the road and so everything came to a halt. Fortunately no one was injured, but as Willimon writes, some Christians are like these drivers: “They’re trying with all their might to keep their eyes on Jesus, but don’t notice the people around them. Sometimes people get hurt as a result.”1 The angels reminded the disciples of the danger of being so spiritually minded that they ended up being of no earthly good.
Yes, the angels serve to remind us that we should keep focused on our calling. Jesus may not be with us physically, but the Spirit has come upon us so that we can move ahead into the future, extending the kingdom of God, knowing that a time will come when Jesus will return and again say hello! But, we can’t get caught up in waiting for that day, because when we look out into our world, we discover that there are still people needing to hear the good news that God is gracious and merciful and seeking to renew a relationship with us through Jesus.
William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 29 (April, May, June 2001): 42.