Friends, the feast of the Ascension reminds us that we live in an in-between time. We already know that Jesus has lived and loved and given his life so we would know how to live and t0 love, and in all that, he has saved us from our finite conditions and raised us up with him to one day live eternally in the full presence of God. We don’t know entirely what that means, only that it is so! So today and throughout our lives, we say, “I know, but not completely.” We know something wonderful happened to Jesus that his apostles, close friends and family witnessed when he physically left this earth, and that they must have been so enthralled by that happening, whatever it was, that from that day forward, they had no doubt that he was God.
We see this simply in the way Luke chose to write about Jesus’ physical leaving in Acts 1—[he] “was lifted up in a cloud”—the cloud has been a traditional symbol for the presence of God—we remember the Transfiguration and the mention of a cloud from which God spoke that indeed Jesus was the Chosen One.
From that day forward, these first followers not only believed completely that Jesus was God, but they were willing then, empowered by Jesus’ Spirit to spend their lives, no matter what befell them, sharing his story, giving hope and striving to make all people one as Jesus prays in his priestly prayer from John 17, which served as our gospel today from the 7th Sunday of Easter.
As in the past, I decided to blend the readings from Ascension Thursday, the first reading and the 7th Sunday of Easter, the second reading and the gospel to make the point that the Ascension is just the beginning of new life for Jesus—when he resumes his rightful and equal place with Abba God and the Spirit. But for us, it is that in-between time. We know, but we don’t fully know the glory that is to come with complete union with God. For now we live with the tension—living what we already know, but haven’t yet come to see fully. We live uncompleted—for God, the union is complete with regard to us—Abba God is completely united and living in us by way of the Spirit—Jesus’ ultimate gift to us before physically leaving the earth—we remember his promise—“I will not leave you…I will be with you all days…!”
So, how do we live now, in this in-between time? The first reading from Acts 1 makes it clear that we need to know the story of Jesus , why he came, that in fact he is the fulfillment of the earlier covenants made between God and the Israelites. Luke, the author of Acts, attempts to tie the First and Second, Old and New Testaments by using 40 days to talk about the time Jesus was with the apostles after his resurrection—this is a clear connection to the 40 days Moses spent being instructed by God before he began his mission to lead the people out of Egypt. The apostles clearly needed additional instruction and strength before Jesus could physically leave them. Luke in Acts, makes this clear by recording that the apostles haven’t yet, “got it!” Jesus tells them—get your focus off the idea that I have come to save one nation—this is so much bigger—this is for everyone! Recall Pastor Dick’s words to us last week about Jesus, the Christ—God in all of creation!
Until the apostles and close followers of Jesus receive the Spirit, they won’t have the strength needed to go out and truly live in the in-between times awaiting the full glory of complete union with God one day. Next Sunday, we will remember and celebrate this fiery coming of the Spirit into their lives and ultimately, into our own, on Pentecost. So, today, we might ask, “What if we truly believed all that God, in Jesus has done for us?—coming to share our life, living, loving, showing us the way—dying and rising as we will one day. Would we live differently?
It is important for us to remember that what happened between Jesus and the apostles and his close friends and family was mystery—whether there was an ascension per se or not isn’t the question that should concern us, but the fact that Jesus, the Christ now has a new body, a new form that one day we will have. I give some doubt to an actual ascension as do those more learned than me, because if we say “yes” to an “ascending” action, we have to then say, “ascended” to where?
This text was written in a time when people considered the universe to be arranged in three tiers; heaven—earth—hell, which we have talked about here before. But in present day, our perception of the universe is different. Certainly, we can see aspects of heaven in the vastness of the universe, but it is not a “place” per se. For these reasons, it makes more sense to say that Jesus passed into a new existence—we think of—the cloud of God where we would no longer see his physical presence, except through the eyes of faith as we recognize him in each other—again, recall how, as Dick Dahl shared with us last week, Jesus the man has become, Jesus, the Christ, who can now be seen in all of creation through our eyes of faith.
We see from the readings today and others after Jesus’ resurrection, his great tenderness in preparing his band so well for all that would happen to them going forward. He knew there would be grand, glorious times of traveling, sharing his words, converting, bringing new life, casting out the demons of hatred and anger, and miracles of healing. But there would also be suffering in sharing his message that demanded justice and mercy for all. The powers-that-be would not appreciate their control being taken away.
In order to strengthen their faith in his bodily resurrection and ultimately in their own and ours one day, Jesus continued to show himself for a time, in his bodily form—to let them know he was the same person who walked with them, who lived with them; because we know from earlier readings, he didn’t appear the same in his resurrection, For this reason, he invited Thomas to inspect his hands, his side—the wounds of crucifixion—he ate with the apostles—all to say; I did die, but I rose too! You must believe that!
Only believing this wonderful fact, because you can’t hope to convince others of what you, yourself don’t believe!—would they have the strength, with the Spirit’s help to convince others. And by doing all this, they would continue to bring life to their world by sharing Jesus’ message of love and peace for all. The resurrection and Jesus’ ultimate departure in physical form, however that happened, caused those first believers to be overwhelmed by the divine that they saw in the humanity of the one they knew so intimately while he was with them.
My friends, we are called to that same realization, that same belief—Jesus was fully human, but he was fully divine. You, me, we all, come from that same divine “stuff” and we are here having a human experience. Our task in this life is to eventually grow into our full divine stature—we are called to do that through our human existence. These in-between times in which we live are incomplete, and will be until we all accomplish the work of re-creation as it were.
We might think about this word a bit, “re-creation.” Putting the emphasis in a different place, “rec-reation,” we realize the word for relaxation and play, as it were. Joan Chittister, in her monthly reflection, The Monastic Way for the month of May, has used the entire month to teach us about the importance of play in this regard.
Play rejuvenates us—“re-creates” us—pulls us from the bland, the ordinary—helps us to see with bigger eyes, larger hearts, all of creation, through the eyes of Jesus, the Christ, who came to us as a brother in Jesus, but left us physically in time to become a much larger entity—Jesus, the Christ. Others who have wrote about this, such Franciscan, Ilia Delio have spoken of the Cosmic Christ—huge, vast, beyond our imaginations—that is why we can say in truth, everyone needs to come to God through Christ!
Peter’s message today talks about us already being a “new body”–one that will suffer he says not for doing evil, but for doing good—the world, in other words, will not always understand, accept, nor appreciate our actions; and we will need to listen to our hearts and act anyway—as we all journey with the Cosmic Christ to God.
Jesus’ work of healing, comforting, forgiving and including will happen now in our world through us or it won’t happen at all! Often, people will lament about bad things happening in our world looking toward God and asking—“How could you do this?” Perhaps we need to look at ourselves and ask what we didn’t do to make things better. I don’t think God interferes in our world, but simply calls us to be more like Jesus who came to show us the way—the way that brings life.
The reading from Acts today tells us that the disciples kept “looking up to heaven;” we as his followers today sometimes keep looking to God to do what our baptisms call us and strengthen us to do!
These in-between times should give us great hope because the readings today tell us that we will not be left—that our loving, Abba God will always be standing alongside us assisting us in all the ways we choose to bless, to sanctify this world and its people through our lives of love and service. Jesus simply asks in his priestly prayer that we would believe and act out the message that we are all, truly one, as the name and practice of our community attests and we will only be one by “walking the talk.” May we each be blessed as we live in these in-between times, as we support each other in prayer and service. Amen?—Amen!