— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Ascension Sunday ~~~
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
As a boy I was fascinated with my father’s wallet. It was so fat. The black leather was stretched beyond its physical limits and the corners were ragged and rubbed to a lighter color. Like the buttons and clothe of an old shirt that is not quite big enough for the stomach it is trying to cover, my father’s wallet was straining to stay relevant.
But it wasn’t the wallet itself that fascinated me – it was the contents of my father’s wallet. It was stuffed with credit cards, receipts, his driver’s license, insurance cards, maybe even a little money. My father was a traveling salesman for a furniture company. When I was young, he spent four or five days of every week on the road. So, for my father his wallet was a bit like a miniature briefcase, but to me it held a reminder of my place in my father’s world.
The most important thing to me about my father’s wallet, the thing I would flip to as fast as I could when I was given the privilege of inspection, was the picture, the photograph, he kept of me. He had one of each of his five children and one of my mom – and, by the way, he kept one of the whole family on the visor of his car. There was something very important to me as a little boy about the fact that dad had that picture of me in his wallet.
My father had to leave me and the rest of us often, and as a boy it was hard to understand. But it was a comfort to me seeing that photograph. In some subliminal way, that photograph reminded me of the fact that though dad was gone he was still thinking of me, though dad was gone he would come back, though dad was gone he was still very much my dad.
Then (Jesus) led them out as far as Bethany, and,
lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them
and was carried up into heaven …
Now I have to admit that I find this story, the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, difficult to preach. Our tendency is to either place this story in the category of pure fancy, fairy tale, or to cling to a type of literalism that robs the narrative of the mystery that permeates the story. Rather than allow the story to reveal its deepest truths we want to trivialize it or freeze it into a category we understand – just another children’s story or just another physical happening – like getting on a bus.
We want to do what our tour guide did when taking us through the small, stone church built on the traditional site of Jesus’ ascension in Bethany. Rather than let us dwell in the place, our guide took us to a spot in the middle of the structure and had us look at the floor – which was the rock upon which the whole structure was built. As we looked at the rock the guide showed us an indentation in the stone. He told us it was the last place where Jesus stood, and as he ascended the stone gave way leaving this curve in the rock. According to our guide, it was the indentation of Jesus’ propulsion into heaven! It was very unconvincing and silly. My mind turned to a chickpea and lamb falafels.
It is hard to know what to make of the ascension story. I do not know, of course, what really happened that day. But of one thing, at least, I am convinced. When Jesus left this world he did so in a way that said to his disciples that he would carry them with him in his heart. When Jesus left the disciples they were assured that Jesus’ love for them was sure, eternal, undiminished. When Jesus left the disciples they were more convinced than ever that he was still their Lord, friend, hope.
What the ascension must have meant to the disciples and what it means to the Church is that the love of God as we have come to know it in Jesus, the Crucified and Risen Lord, is a true reflection of the very heart of God. Jesus’ life, his message, his love are eternal. Though he suffered, was rejected, crucified, buried, Jesus’ loving embrace will last forever because it remains alive in the heart of the Eternal One who brought everything into being and raised Jesus to the right hand of God. The ascension of Jesus tells us that the loving heartbeat of the earthly Jesus is the loving heartbeat of God. As it was in the beginning, so it is now and will be forever more – that is what the ascension tells us.
At the end of this story as told in the Gospel of Luke the author says of the disciples:
And they worshiped him,
and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;
and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The disciples were convinced that the new life that Jesus had brought to them would continue. They would be empowered to carry on the work, the message, the abundant life that Jesus had shared with them even though physically he had departed from them. They trusted that the Spirit would come as promised and continue to guide them into the loving realm of Christ.
During my trip to Israel (the one with the silly tour guide and the falafels) during my sophomore year of college, my parents did two things to keep me aware of their concern and love for me in my absence. My mother wrote letters. She wrote them well in advance of my receiving them because she had to mail them to far away places even before I would have arrived in those places. They were just notes of encouragement and ordinary happenings around home, but I read them like they were notes from heaven.
The second thing my parents did for me on that trip was to give me a credit card. The idea was to use it in emergencies. Well, with ten days or so left in the trip I ran out of money. It seemed like an emergency to me! By that time we were in Italy; so, I would charge pizzas on my parents’ credit card and then have the others on the trip pay me for slices. It kept me solvent. The point is – there was no place that I could go that would separate me from the love and support of my parents. A gift that will always be with me even though they have gone to heaven themselves.
As we live our lives, even and especially today
in the midst of a pandemic, let us always remember –
Jesus has a big wallet too.
Our pictures are there.
Every person’s picture is there – red and yellow, black, white – we are all there!
Jew and Gentile alike, the photos are there.
Gay and straight, our picture is on the visor.
Hindu, Muslim, Agnostic, Buddhist, Protestant, Roman Catholic
no one is beyond the frame of the family photo.
Asian, African, Native, American, European, Middle Eastern – it’s a big wallet!
All of the soldiers who have died,
who we remember on Memorial Day – they are there.
All those who have died of the coronavirus, all those ill,
all those caring for the diseased among us,
all of their pictures are in Jesus’ wallet.
All those, like Ahmaud Aubrey and others murdered
because of racial prejudice and hatred, they are there.
Those who commit hate crimes – they are there too.
We, all of us, are remembered and loved
in the very heart of God.
Jesus will continue to come back to us in the power of the Spirit
leading us into the fullness of life
that is our calling and our blessing.
Jesus, though he has ascended into heaven,
continues to write us letters and to feed us!
Thanks be to God. Amen.