Have you ever had a close friend move away? I remember when, as a young tyke, my best friend, Kristy, moved away. I was in elementary school when she moved to another state. My memory is foggy regarding where she moved and why, but I vividly remember wrapping several of my favorite doll baby clothes in a shoebox and giving them to her just before she left town. I met her in the street midway between her house and mine, and though I don’t remember what was said, I do remember how I felt when she left. Hurt. Bereft. Confused. I was angry at her parents for taking her away. I cried a lot. After she moved, I remember passing by her house each day on my walk home from school—the house where we laughed, sang silly songs, and played made-up games the way kids do. For a good while, it hurt to walk by that house each and every day, but gradually my sadness lifted. I kept in touch with Kristy in other ways, through letters, through the occasional phone call, and mostly, by speaking to her in my heart. Have you ever had a friend move away?
Today we celebrate Ascension Sunday in the church. The Church celebrates the departure of Jesus, his going away, his saying goodbye to his disciples. It is a strange thing to celebrate, though I am fairly certain that we have all had people which we have celebrated their going more than their coming. But this is different because the disciples actually wanted Jesus around. They had just gotten used to his presence, showing up in the Upper Room, breaking bread and broiling fish, showing up on the road to Emmaus and helping them to figure out that the end is not always the end. And now, he vanishes? Right before their eyes, just when they had finally gotten used to having him around? As my kids would say, “Not fair!”
We, Christians, struggle with the Ascension. For one thing, we tend to freeze the biblical story with the Resurrection. We like the idea that Jesus conquered death and was raised by God, and we can appreciate the reassuring appearances that Jesus makes to his disciples to let them know that he is fully able to walk with them down to the local IHOP and share the broiled fish special, even if it is a Mystery to us. But we might have trouble with his withdrawing from them. If Jesus carries God’s presence in him, what does that mean when he decides to leave? Does that mean that there is a great big vacuum where he once was? And we modern day folk have big trouble with his being lifted up to Heaven by a cloud, of all things. Even though things can be saved in the tech cloud, the disciples were talking about the big, white fluffy kind. But most of all, we can struggle with this idea of Jesus (or anyone we care about) choosing to say goodbye when it feels too soon, or too difficult, or too incomplete. It can bring back memories of standing in a street somewhere in the past with a tear-stained face and an arm outstretched to say what our hearts are too full to say: “goodbye. I love you. I will miss you.”
When we wrestle with the Ascension, we wrestle with a whole host of questions: such as, Why does Jesus appear to be going away? How come we aren’t going with him? Why are we confronted with saying goodbye again when we just experienced the joy of seeing him in the flesh? Why does it seem to us that God is playing hide and seek?
To our scientific minds, the Ascension might appear at best, beyond the ken of human understanding, and at the worst, purely fantastical and imaginary. But the Ascension is an attempt to grasp how Jesus would be present with the disciples in a new way, and how Christ’s presence would be no longer confined to one specific time and place, but would be present for all time, wherever two or three gathered in Jesus’ name.
Sometimes understanding that God’s presence is with us in all of the circumstances of our lives can be challenging. In the movie, entitled Winter-Spring-Summer-Fall-Spring, a young monk falls in love with a young woman and becomes heartsick when they must part. He becomes frustrated and runs away, leaving both his teacher and his life as a monk to return to secular society. But before he leaves, this conflicted man carefully packs the statue of the Buddha in a cloth bag and straps it to his back. The image of an emotionally torn man running away from the only life he has ever known with the calm and serene Buddha on his back is an image that speaks of volumes of God’s presence when we are struggling and passionately distraught. Our palm crosses and prayer cards, inspirational music, and daily devotions and daily NPR are all reminders of God’s presence when we are looking around and wondering where in the world God is in our circumstances. It is not God who plays hide-and-seek, but us. It is not God who is counting the divine goodbyes, but us.
Sometimes the presence of God comes to us in less obvious ways, mediated by human experience, by human witnesses. Years ago, I attended the Celebration of Life service that many Hospices host each year for those who have lost a loved one in the past year. During the Celebration, which is both remembrance and goodbye, family members and staff shared prayers and poems, songs and stories. While leaving the event, I met with an older woman who was holding a large stuffed pig pillow. It reminded me of a giant pink animal cracker. When I asked the woman about it, she explained that this pillow had accompanied her cherished friend through every chemo treatment, every doctor’s visit, every hospital stay, and every moment of her illness. As she embraced the pillow, she smiled and gave testimony to her friend’s courage, hope, and resilience in the face of terminal illness. Holding that pillow meant sharing her friend’s story, and sharing her friend’s spirit, struggle, journey, and victory even in death with bystanders like me.
Do you have something that accompanies you through the harder parts of life? Perhaps it is your spouse, perhaps it is a beloved pet, perhaps it is a journal, a place of retreat and rejuvenation, an inspirational saying, or a particular melody that you play when life is cacophonous. Whatever it is, let it be a reminder of God’s presence in the trial and terror. Whatever it is, whether stuffed pig or downy comforter, remember Jesus’ promise to the disciples and to you: “ And I will ask God, and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
According to David Scaer, the Ascension isn’t “a departure ceremony”; it doesn’t mean that Jesus is no longer with the disciples. In Luke’s description, there is no indication of sadness or disappointment. In fact, Luke has the disciples returning to Jerusalem, to the temple, with great joy and praising God. Now, how do you suppose that happened? After all the horror of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, those disciples are heading right back to Jerusalem, the place of condemnation, the place that kills prophets, and the place of agony, suffering and death. It is a little like all of those bereaved families returning to the hospitals, sick rooms, and doctor’s offices of where their loved one had been. It is like a newly freed prisoner returning to the prison of his confinement and preaching to the inmates.
But the disciples won’t be the same people who were huddled in that upper room in fear. For one thing, they have stood at the foot of a cross and seen God’s power at work in Jesus. They are emboldened by their experience and what they have seen and heard. Furthermore, they have seen the healing that comes to the human spirit, particularly their own. They have felt God’s presence in the empty tomb, and conversed with angels in the darkness. They’ve had their minds and hearts opened to the teachings in scripture, and Jesus himself has stood by their side. They have been witnesses, each in his or her own way, to the coming of the Messiah. Now, Jesus says to go forth and preach repentance and forgiveness to all nations…to everybody and anybody who will listen.
How are they to do this? The Holy Spirit will empower them. The Holy Spirit will move them to move others—not forcefully, not obnoxiously or selfishly, but joyfully, gratefully, and compassionately. The Ascension meant that “[the disciples] were going to participate in Christ’s universal reign through their preaching of the gospel. What God had been doing through Jesus in calling [persons] to repentance he was now going to do through them.” What exciting and expectant news! The same power that exalted Jesus will be available to them—and is available to us– for the healing and wholeness of the world, for the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom right here and now.
So that leaves us with another question: Where are we today, this present moment? Are we like the men in Acts who are gazing up to the heavens watching Jesus leave like a balloon that is slowly drifting out of sight? Or do we have our heads, hearts, and hands turned to this earth eager and expectant to see Jesus coming again in every situation, in every person, and every circumstance of our lives? As Zan Holmes says, “Christianity is a come and go affair.” We come up to the mountain, but we must go back down again. We come to worship, but we must go to serve.”
Lauren Winner, closes her memoir, Girl Meets God, with a story from the Talmud, the collection of Jewish rabbinical writings. It, like many wisdom stories, offers a reminder that a promised peace comes to us in life if we have an open mind and an open heart, if our senses are open to the experience, and if we are aware. In this story, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi meets the prophet Elijah and asks him when the Messiah will come. Elijah answers, “Go and ask the Messiah yourself.”
“But where is he?” asks Rabbi Yehoshua.
“At the gate of Rome,” replies Elijah.
“How will I recognize him?” asks the Rabbi.
“He sits among the wretched ones with sores and wounds,” says Elijah. “All the others uncover their wounds all at once and bind them up again all at once, but he uncovers and binds each one separately, for he thinks, ‘Maybe I will be summoned today; I don’t want to be detained.’”
So Rabbi Yehoshua goes and finds the Messiah, and says to him, “Peace be with you, Master and Teacher.”
The Messiah replies, “Peace be with you.”
“When is the Master coming?” Rabbi Yehoshua asks.
The Messiah replies, “Today.”
Rabbi Yehoshua returns to Elijah, who asks him, “Well, what did he say to you?”
The Rabbi becomes annoyed and disappointed and says, “He lied to me. He said he would come today, and he has not come.”
Then Elijah says, “He meant, today, if you would only listen to His voice.”
Friends, Jesus has not left the building. As we prepare ourselves for the coming week, may we pray that we recognize the Holy Spirit moving among, between and especially within us, so that we may be lifted up, empowered, emboldened, and plunged with joy into the work and witness of Jesus Christ in this hurting and fractious world.
 David P. Scaer, “Jesus Did Not Leave—He Reigns Through Us,” Christianity Today, 21 May 1982.
 Zan W. Holmes, Encountering Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992) 37.
 Lauren F. Winner, Girl Meets God, (New York: Random House, 2002) 295-296.