The Ascension of the Lord May 24.20 John 17: 1-11
Today we are celebrating the Ascension of the Lord. Two of our three scripture readings for today describe it. So what actually is the Ascension? The day that Jesus left the earth for the second time, to ascend to the heavenly realm, to join God, his Abba, his Father. He left the first time, so to speak, at the death of his physical body as a result of his crucifixion. If you just happened to glance at the church calendar for this week, you would have noticed that this past Thursday was actually called Ascension Day and today is called Ascension Sunday. Why two days? Well, the Ascension is said to have come forty days after Easter, which, if you’re quick with math, makes the Day of Ascension actually a Thursday. Was it really forty days? Well, hard to know precisely, and I really don’t think the actual number of days is important. Forty is a special number in the Bible. Forty days of rain for Noah and everyone and everything on the Ark, forty years of wandering to the Promised Land for Moses and his clan, forty days in the desert for Jesus… forty represents a significant period of time of waiting for a special revelation of God to happen. So, forty days from Jesus’ resurrection to his Ascension. In order for Christian communities to recognize this very momentous day of our Christian year, the celebration of the day is moved to the Sunday after, because not too many folk go to church on a Thursday! This is an event significant enough to become part of both the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. … “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
To ‘sit at the right hand’ is not something we say a lot these days in our day to day speech. We do use an expression that probably comes from the same source when describing someone who is essential or important to us in some fashion: We say, He or she is my ‘right-hand’. To sit at the right hand is an ancient custom that continued until not so terribly long ago. In terms of business or ownership dealings, when people would gather for meetings and such, the Lord of the estate or owner of the business or company would sit at the head of the table, and the heir –in most cases the first born son who was the heir to the estate or business and so who held all the rights, privileges and duties of the primary Lord or owner, his place was to sit to the right, or at the right hand side of the Lord and owner. The one who sat on the left hand side was the next in line. This then informed all who came to the meeting or approached the Lord or owner on a business matter who was the primary heir, the first born, the one, in essence, who was in equal to the Lord or Master of the estate, and so too deserved all the deference, the respect one would give to the Lord Master. Recall the story in Matthew of the mother of the apostle brothers James and John asking Jesus for her sons to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus? She was trying to secure the best positions of importance for her boys amongst the twelve. You have to give her credit for trying, but as Jesus told her, she really didn’t know just what she was asking for! So to say Jesus sits at the right hand of God is making a clear statement of belief—Jesus is God. The Nicene Creed was agreed upon by the Council of Nicea in 325 during a time when there was much discussion and decision making going on as to which basic Christian beliefs were orthodox — agreeable and foundational truths binding across the many differing communities that had developed since Jesus’ time.
Our first reading today comes from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which was written by the same writer as the gospel of Luke. It is sometimes called Luke’s second book, and is essentially the story of the development of the early Christian church—how it grew from a small sect of Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph and Mary was the long awaited Messiah, the Saviour of the Jewish people. Acts describes how that movement spread across the wider Roman empire, beginning with the Ascension of Jesus and ending with the arrival of Paul in Rome. It is our earliest history, and if you haven’t read the book of Acts completely through, I highly recommend it. And I also recommend using a contemporary version of the bible, which makes for easier reading. While the King James version is linguistically beautiful and the New Revised Standard Version the most accurate version in terms of translation from the original languages, neither are particularly easy reading. And if something is very difficult to read, we tend to avoid doing so! If you in need of a bible, just let me know. I would be more than pleased to bring you one!
Back to our scripture! The followers of Jesus have come together and I’m going to suppose after 40 days or so of having Jesus come to them in his post resurrection state, they’ve gotten over the initial shock of his being alive again, well, alive yes, but differently so, you could say. And still the nation of Israel hadn’t been restored to the former glory it once had as in the powerful and glorious days of King David. That’s what everyone had expected that the Messiah would do—overthrow the Roman government that was oppressing the Jewish people and restore the country to its glory days. So they come right out and asked Jesus: “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” (And) “ He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere… to the ends of the earth.” (vs 6-8 NLT) And he disappears from their sight, into a cloud, leaving them gaping at the sky, no doubt with mouths wide open, wondering what had just happened. Disappearing into a cloud is significant: while the people of Moses were wandering through the desert to the Promised Land, they were led by a cloud—and when Moses went up the mountain to meet God, he disappeared into a cloud. And just in case the folks who saw it weren’t sure about all that happened, two men in white robes suddenly appear, angels—God’s messengers –who explain that Jesus has been taken up to heaven, and will come again—someday.
So what do the followers do? They return to the upper room, maybe the same room they stayed in when Jesus provided them with the Last supper. They gathered together, the men disciples and the women including Jesus’ mother Mary, Luke tells us. The inclusion of women is significant, as Luke specifically mentions it. And what did they do all together in that upper room? Devoted themselves to prayer. What might they have been praying for? Well, verses 4 & 5, the two verses before we started reading today might give us a clue! “Once when Jesus was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (vv 4-5 NLT) The group of them—men and women together were waiting, and while they were waiting, they were praying for the Holy Spirit to come upon them, to literally inspire them, for the breath of God upon them, to fill them with the strength of God in Christ, before they went forward to share the ways of Christ with others.
They were in a state in between—waiting expectantly to be empowered, to be inspired, before they moved ahead. I think this year, more than any other we can certainly identity with that group of Christ’s followers. I also think there’s a lesson here for us. We can take a page from their book so to speak. We too, are in that state of in-between-ness, on hold; waiting expectantly to move forward with our lives. We too can use this time to pray, to spend time in prayerful reflection, asking for God’s Spirit to come upon us, to fill us, inspire us for what lies ahead in the new time, the new normal coming upon us. How can we be church—not ‘do’ church necessarily, but that will need to be figured out as well, but more importantly how can we be the Church Jesus is calling us to in the post-covid world? Think on that, meditate on that, pray about it. We will need to get together and talk about this, and discuss it. Many things we’ve done we won’t be able to do. Some not at all, some maybe very differently. We will need to figure out how to be the Church, how to fill our mission and ministry as Christ’s people in the post-Covid world. But first we need to do what those very first group of Christians did, ask God’s guidance. We need to take this time, use it as a gift. Time is precious, and right now we have more of it than we often do! So, use it to pray, we need to pray about how we will go forward, adapt to the changes in our world. Because change we must! And with everyone’s input, we will be strong for it! So, take this gift of time, like those early Christians did, and ask Jesus for guidance for you, your family, your church, and ask for Holy Spirit’s power to inspire us with God’s vision for us.
Rev. JoAnn Todd, Rector
The Regional Ministry of Hope.