Rev. Megan L. Castellan
May 24, 2020
Easter 7, Year A
In the years when I was in college ministry, the Ascension readings usually coincided with the end of the academic term. It worked quite nicely; I could talk about Jesus departing alongside graduation, as a metaphor for the seasons of life. Jesus ascends like the graduates departed—and the mingled feelings of loss and pride worked pretty well together, I thought.
You can sort of see Jesus’ mother probably waved proudly at her son as he rose into the sky, and marveled at how big he’d gotten, all ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.
So this strange week or so between Ascension and Pentecost had a place then—this stretch of time when Jesus has gone, the Holy Spirit is promised, but…isn’t here yet. And meanwhile, there’s just a lot of waiting. And missing.
This year, of course, everything feels different. We both haven’t had graduations and we had. We both haven’t marked the end of the academic school year and we have. We are both still together as a worshipping community, and we are apart.
And that dichotomy, ironically, is precisely what the Ascension is describing. As Jesus leaves his friends, there on that mountain (which is really more like a hill) in Jerusalem, he promises them that he will be with them always, right as he leaves. And then he goes.
The disciples are understandably perturbed. And in Luke’s retelling, we get helpful/irritated angels appearing to tell them to knock off their confusion and get on with their jobs. But they can be forgiven, I think, for being so bumfuzzeled. After all, Jesus just got through promising to always be there with them, before he literally does the opposite.
It takes them a while to suss out what’s going on. The church comes to know that Jesus is now present in the church in a new way—unbounded by space or time, by virtue of his ascension. Jesus is as present with me, in my house now as I speak to you, as he is with you as you listen to me. Jesus is with us whenever we call upon him; whenever we greet each other distantly, whenever we show love to our neighbor, or reach out in care to someone who needs it.
It’s not the same, of course. And I think that’s what took the disciples a little while to deal with. We’ve been learning that too. Jesus present through the Spirit wasn’t the same as the Jesus they knew before the crucifixion, sitting around the campfire, cracking jokes, and making bread. Jesus inspiring them and guiding them wasn’t the same as the guy who reassured them on the road, and taught them what to do. And that change brought some grief with it, because they missed that guy they knew and loved. And that grief is real. Even though the Spirit they gained was an amazing gift to them.
We are learning that too. Gathered together in this way for church just isn’t the same as church before corona. We can’t recreate being physically together. It’s different; it sounds different, sometimes the technology works, sometimes it doesn’t, we miss each other badly, I miss hearing your voices.
But with all of that, Christ is still present with us. And even present in a new way. The work of the church has never stopped, even as we have been apart. Indeed, our being apart and at home right now to prevent unintentionally spreading the virus is an act of sacrificial love to our community. It is part of the essential work of the church. Giving our building to Loaves and Fishes, so our community can be safely fed—that is part of the work of the church, and that goes on. The classes, the bible studies, the meetings—all of that goes on. And believe it or not—we have had people from all over the world join us for worship during these weeks, because they come across our videos online.
By ensuring the safety of our most vulnerable, by forgoing what we want and what we miss in the moment to protect someone else, we are living out what Christ calls us to—we are being the Body of Christ in the world. We are being most the church now, as we are each apart from each other. Just as Christ was most with his friends as he left them.