Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 4, 2008

2008.05.04 “The Day We Were Left Behind” Ascension Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

 “The Day We Were Left Behind”

Pastor David L. Haley

Acts 1: 1 – 11

Ascension Sunday

May 4th, 2008

“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “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.”  Acts 1: 9 – 11, The New Revised Standard Version


     I come from a family of long goodbyes. Since my grandparents had five children and 10 grandchildren, most of whom lived far away, we always seemed to be saying goodbye to somebody.

      The ritual would start in the house, with hugging, then move out into the yard to watch as they got into the car, finally to stand and wave together as we watched the taillights disappear around the corner and down the highway.

      After relatives left, especially my cousins, there was often a feeling of “let-down”, that somehow we were left behind; that the “special time” of “guests” was over, and now we were left to carry on, with chores to complete, and school and jobs to return to.

      I am reminded of this each year on Ascension Sunday, when the Scriptures present us with the equivalent picture of Jesus’ disciples waving goodbye to Jesus as he disappears from their sight, leaving them behind.  It’s kind of like in the Wizard of Oz where the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion wave goodbye to Dorothy as she rises from the Emerald City in a hot air balloon.   No place like home!

      What is this story about?

      If you think about it, it’s only logical there should be such a story.  According to the Gospels, there was a period of time – which we commemorate in the great 50 days of Easter – when the disciples experienced the presence of the Risen Christ in a special way.  But it’s also clear that time came to an end.  And so the story of Jesus’ Ascension is Luke’s explanation – in the understandings of his time – of why this is so.

      After all, how do you end a story about someone risen from the dead, who’s obviously not still out there walking around somewhere? As a child hearing the story about the Risen Jesus might ask, “Where is he?” “Can I go see him?” The answer of course, is no, because the Risen Christ is with God, not here physically on earth. What the story of Christ’s resurrection is about is not that he was resuscitated, but that he was spiritually resurrected and exalted, alive not in the way that we are alive, but in a different way.

      To put it another way, Christ’s Ascension is a way of explaining Christ’s absence, in a way we can relate to. For who of us has never had the sad experience of being left behind, by someone we wanted to be with, going someplace we wanted to go.  As Barbara Brown Taylor* says: (to whom I’m indebted in this sermon)

“Ascension Day is the day the present Lord became absent, which may be why it is the most forgotten feast day of the church year. Who wants to celebrate being left behind? Who wants to mark the day that Jesus went out of this world, never to be seen again?  Hungry as we are for the presence of God, the one thing we do not need is a day to remind us of God’s absence.”

      And yet, God’s absence is exactly what it attempts to explain.  And so, says Taylor:

      “Like a band of forlorn disciples, we return to this hillside again and again.  It is the place we lost track of him; it is the last place we saw him, so of course it is the first place anybody thinks to look for him to come again.”

      So, like those first disciples, here we stand on Ascension Sunday, staring toward heaven, wondering why we should sometimes feel so left behind and so alone, so bereft of Christ in the world.

      But what the Ascension story makes clear is that it wasn’t that they would no longer experience Christ’s presence, it’s that they — and all future disciples, including us — would do so in a different way.

      So, enter two men in white robes (angels) to break their reverie: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  The message is, that if they wanted to see Christ again, it was no use looking up.  Better they should look around instead, at each other, at the world, at the ordinary people in their ordinary lives, because that was where they were to find him now.  Not in the way they used to know him, the old way, but the new way, through each other.  It was as if Christ had not ascended but exploded, so that the risen, ascended Lord was no longer anywhere on earth but everywhere instead.

      I believe, if you think about it, such an understanding can transform our spiritual life. As the medieval spiritual mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “The way out is the way in.” That means, when we talk about Jesus “ascending” and “being exalted”, what we’re talking about is not spatial (out there) but spiritual (in here); when we confess Jesus Christ as ascended and exalted what we’re saying is not that Christ is sitting on a throne somewhere, it’s that we have made the commitment to honor Christ in our hearts, and exalt him with our lives, anywhere we are, and everywhere we go.

      Once Jesus’ disciples realized that, once they stopped looking into the sky and started looking at each other, no one would have guessed what would happen. They began to say things that sounded like Jesus, and to do the things that Jesus did. They became brave and capable and wise.  Followers became leaders, listeners became preachers, the healed became healers, and disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Nothing was ever the same again.

Whenever two or three of them got together it was as if he was with them — the strong, abiding presence of the absent one — as available as bread and wine, as familiar as each other’s faces.

      So we come to worship, to acknowledge the Lord’s absence and to find the Lord’s presence, to sing and to pray, to be silent and to be still, to hold out the empty cups of our hands and be filled with bread and wine, to discover for ourselves the abiding presence of the absent Lord, not only in the bread and wine, but in each other. 

      That probably was not the way they (or we) would have planned it. If we (or they) had had their way, we would probably have tied Jesus up so that he could never disappear from us, so that we would always known where to find him, like a rabbit’s foot in our pocket, our personal oracle.

      Only that is not how it happened. Christ did go away — was taken away — and they stopped looking toward heaven, looked at each other, and got on with their commission of being Christ’s witnesses, Christ’s body on earth.

      To this day, too many Christians still stand staring up to heaven, waiting for something to happen, when we need to be making things happen, in the name of Jesus Christ.

The 16th century Spanish Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), put it most memorably:

“Christ has

No body on earth but yours;

No hands but yours;

No feet but yours;

Yours are the eyes

Through which is to look out

Christ’s compassion to the world,

Yours are the feet

With which he is to go about

Doing good;

Yours are the hands

With which he is to bless now.”

      Almost every church with stained-glass windows has an ascension window somewhere, and our church is no exception.  If we had reversible pews, we could flip them around now, and you could see it, as I do. 

      Christ hovers in the air, soaring over us, his hands upraised in blessing.  Meanwhile we disciples below look up at him with awe and wonder.  It’s a very beautiful window, of which the church should be proud.

      However, I sometimes wonder if after 2,000 years we don’t need a different window to describe our situation: a window with just us in it — no angels, no Jesus, no heavenly light — just us, still waiting, still watching the sky, still looking for the One who left us behind.

      Do you miss him sometimes? Do you long for an assurance that you have not been left alone, left behind? 

      Then why stand looking toward heaven?

      Exalt him in your heart, and honor him with your life. 

      Then look around.  There you will find him.


[*I am indebted in this sermon to Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “The Day We Were Left Behind”, in the May 18, 1998, issue of Christianity Today, (Vol. 42, No. 6, Page 46.]


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