The Ascension describes a very strange moment in our gospel story. First, Jesus dies…then he
is resurrected…then he appears after his death to various people at various times in what is known as
resurrection appearances…and then Jesus leaves again—or rather, is lifted up into the Heavens. How
does a contemporary mind wrap itself around this idea and what meaning does it have for us?
In short, Luke—the writer of Acts– tries to explain to Theophilus (and all of us) why it was that Jesus left
his apostles. Theophilus—the name—means Loved by God or Beloved by God and likely refers to a
real person…but it also refers to all of us—lovers of God and beloved. From Luke, Theophilus learns of
the faith and the acts of the apostles. Furthermore, after the Ascension, the resurrection appearances
to the original disciples in the bible pretty much end. Well, at least until Paul comes along and falls off
In our passage this evening, Jesus blesses the apostles and sends them out to do the work of
the church in his absence.
For many of us, this Ascension business might seem puzzling. However, consider for a moment
how we might behave in the wake of a significant friend or loved one’s death. It takes a while to
adjust to the death of a loved one, that person who is no longer physically present cheering us on, or
having that special morning cup of coffee with us, or picking up the phone and checking in with us to
see how our week went or imploded. But after a while, in the process of grieving, we come to
understand that – while the person is no longer physically present—he or she is still “with us” albeit in
a different way.
We might even call this a kind of resurrection. Later, after some more time passes,
we may possess a heartfelt desire to carry out a kind of mission or a kind of project or live in a
particular way that gives remembrance to our loved one and honors their legacy to us. After her
teenage son unexpectedly died of a heart attack some years ago, a friend of mine started a campaign
and foundation to put portable defibrillators or AEDs in high schools and other public places. We lift up
our loved one’s memory through their actions or through living in such a way that they are still present
The meaning behind the Ascension is a bit like this. There is a saying that the teacher must
leave in order for the student to become. The writer, Joseph Campbell, once wrote, “The job of an
educator is to teach students to see vitality in themselves.” The apostles, like us, are sent out to
spread the message of coming kingdom of God without the physical reality of their teacher standing
right in front of them. They are to see Jesus’ vitality and relevance in themselves. Where do you see
Jesus’ vitality and relevance in your own soul?
If there is to be a church, the disciples will be the ones to carry that church forward. If there is
to be a mission and a ministry for God and with God, the disciples will be the ones to bring it to the
people—they are the ones who will teach, preach, lead, and usher in God’s kingdom in their place and
time. They will form the campaign and build from Jesus’ foundation. Jesus is there, but also NOT
there. When I was learning to teach, at a certain point, I was finished with student teaching and
classroom instruction, the professors nudged me out of the nest, and I had to fly. Yes, their lessons,
words, and actions were still “there” to inspire, but it was up to me to do the work and to live out the
Naturally, the disciples resist some of this. It was much easier to know what to do when the
teacher is right in front of you, when things are clear—when you can ask questions to your heart’s
content because the leader is present to answer for you. Someone else has the primary responsibility
and can navigate those make-or-break moments. The other day, I asked my kids to wash the dishes
since the dishwasher was full. I had no idea that washing dishes could generate so many questions!
Eventually though, I left the room to take care of other things. And my kids had to figure this
dishwashing business out for themselves—they were still guided but they ran the water, made the
choices, and performed the actions.
Think about the first time that you had to do something on your own. You had the instructions;
you had the lessons, and you had practiced and practiced some more. But ultimately, you needed to
take those first steps yourself. A child learning to walk must let go at a certain point. A young driver
must take that first solo journey eventually. So, too, the disciples would be sent out—and they had to
figure some things out for themselves without Jesus telling them every little thing along the way. What
new thing have you had to do recently?
Our disciples have lots of questions before Jesus returns to the clouds; wouldn’t you? They
want to know if this is the time when the kingdom will be restored. The disciples want to know if
Israel will return to its former glory. The kingdom being restored and Israel’s return to
power/prestige/influence were naturally fused in their minds. But Jesus understood that understood
the kingdom of God to be different than a nationalistic impulse.
Likewise, we must understand the kingdom of God differently. It is not the building up or restoration of the nation, like a nationalistic
dream come true, or a return of the United States to its pre-pandemic glory, not that there ever really
was such a thing. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there are huge gaps in our
healthcare, in our social fabric torn by racism and economic classism, and in supply chains for the
vaccines and necessary resources.
So, if we are not restoring a nation, what are we restoring? Perhaps if would be helpful to
remember that the kingdom of God is not limited to one nation… Instead, it is the coming of God’s
priorities, justice, and peace being fulfilled here on earth.
Yet, even though the disciples ask, “Lord, is this the time?” Jesus replies that it is not for them to
know. They are to work as if every time is God’s time, as if –in every moment—the kingdom of God is
arriving or coming close.
Tonight, we have returned to this sanctuary to worship, something for which we have been
preparing and praying. We, too, might ask God, “Lord, is this the time?” Are we ready? Are we able?
Will it be okay? Will we be okay? We might also naturally wonder if now is the time when we, in this
country, in this county, and in this church will be restored after a season of disarray, uncertainty,
pandemic, and unrest in our own country and in the world.
But we, too, must resist linking the nationalistic impulse of restoration with the coming of the
kingdom of God. What do I mean? Well, for one thing, even as we return to our beloved sanctuary
and return to a bit of normalcy, so to speak, there are others around the world who are dying in rapid
pace. We, who are privileged and vaccinated must be mindful of those who are not, even in our
return. We must remember still how we longed for relief not so long ago and pray for that relief to
arrive for others. We, who are celebrating being vaccinated, must be mindful of those who haven’t
had that opportunity or who are not yet able to be vaccinated whether in our own country, in South
America, in India, or other hard-hit places.
Does this mean that we can’t rejoice? Does it mean that we can’t celebrate the coming end of
this long season of dread, grief, and despair? No. After a season of terror, it is understandable to feel
many things: anticipation, joy, grief, hesitancy, wonder, thankfulness, and concern. As we return, we
are purposely mindful that there are still missing pieces. Not everything and everyone will return the
same way. We are missing quite a few of our own beloveds. We are not quite the same people as
before. The pandemic has been a crucible through which we have walked. Its effects will remain with
us for a long while after.
In the disciples’ case, they missed one of their own. Judas. Even after all had been said and
done, Judas was missing and left a hole in their hearts, a hole that has echoed through the ages. One
of the first orders of business will be how to replace Judas—who will take his place in their company
and share the work? How will trust be rebuilt? Likewise, we will have to figure out who will share the
work in this season of the church and how we will best function as we reconvene for worship, for play,
for joy, and for sorrow. We will need to learn to trust life again, to trust sharing space safely, to trust
that we won’t make each other sick or worse. We will need to rediscover who we are and the shape of
our community. In this, we are just like our forebears.
Hilary Kreiger lost her father to Covid-19 in the spring of 2020. Prevented from participating in
the usual mourning rituals, time became “pointless” for her. She writes, “There was no large gathering
of friends at his funeral, no week of sitting shiva with its flurry of visits from relatives, neighbors and
colleagues. We were left alone, with stunted possibilities for commemoration, but with oh so many
hours — stretching out in front of us, useless, unwanted, but needing to be filled just the same.” 1
In the absence of rituals, Hilary began to read about grieving and coping with loss. That helped
her process her emotions and kept her close to her dad by honoring his love of reading. But later she
began to think of the qualities that made her father likeable – his sense of humor, warmth, and
creativity. When she did so, she remembered something about her dad—both a word and a story:
“When he was in college, my dad had invented a word to describe when a citrus fruit
accidentally squirts you in the eye: “orbisculate.” He kept using it, so growing up I assumed it was a
“real” word. Then one day while eating oranges, a friend of mine from college challenged its validity.
We settled our argument with a $5 bet over whether it was in the dictionary. I was shocked to open up
our musty American Heritage volume and discover I’d lost. At the time, I was quite annoyed that my
father had hoodwinked me (and cost me $5). But as I was telling people about my dad’s passing, I
kept coming back to his etymological innovation. It captured those very qualities of humor and
originality that I was trying to communicate.
“I also realized that it should be in the dictionary. With that, my brother and I decided to
launch Mission Orbisculate, a campaign to get orbisculate recognized by the likes of Merriam-
Webster…As part of the effort to ‘spread the word,’ we decided to sell T-shirts that raise money for a
charity, Carson’s Village, that helps families cope in the immediate aftermath of loss.
“Slowly Mission Orbisculate began to make me feel grateful for time once more. At first, it gave me
something simple: a purpose for creating a to-do list and checking things off, and with it, the essential
satisfaction that comes from completing tasks. Then, as we got going, I wanted the hours to think and
tinker with something creative, so we could build something up after what had been torn down. And as
we started to see others help us on our quest, it became one thing I could reliably turn to each day for
a jolt of inspiration and even joy.”
Siblings in Christ, to what project or mission are we being called in our healing over this past
year? What shape can you imagine this community taking and for whom do you want to exist? What
will you do with this one precious life that has been restored to you?