I’m not quite sure what I would’ve done either; I mean if it had been me there as we read in Acts 1. Sure we think that we would NOT be standing there with our mouths hanging open looking into the sky like the disciples as Jesus ascended into heaven. Today is the day in the church calendar that we celebrate that ascension.
And truly, that’s what the disciples were doing though . . . just standing there. You can almost imagine a little drip of drool oozing out the side of one of their mouths as they are staring into the sky where Jesus has just ascended, just been taken up, just like Superman has just stuck one arm up in the air and his cape starts fluttering behind him and you have never seen Clark Kent do this little trick before.
It is at the ascension that we celebrate a story of an ending that has a beginning wrapped up inside of it. But that’s exactly what most stories about endings are anyway . . .
I remember an Ascension Day several years ago; and I wasn’t staring into the sky though. As many of you know, my mother had a procedure in Dublin, and my wife and I went to be with her and my father. That night, she and I slept in my old room in my old bed with my old furniture around it. Well, rightly so, Mom has cleared out a lot of stuff from that room and done what I guess most empty-nest mothers do: suddenly discover more closet space for their own clothes! Well, Mom has taken over a great deal of space in the room except for a couple of drawers that still hold some of my old things. So . . . my wife and I went rummaging through some of those drawers.
There was an award here and there and a couple of certificates. There were pictures . . . some of old girlfriends, some of old friends from my church youth group and from college. My wife laughed at me a bit when she saw my conservative haircut and boyish face in those pictures. The guy she dated at the University of Georgia had hair down to his shoulders. I was never really bad so to speak, but I did always enjoy bumping up against the rules every once in a while.
A good friend of mine, Rob, and I seemed to get a kick out of bumping up against some of those rules when we were in high school. You see, God must have had a special place in God’s heart for us in that we never got in too much trouble. We were never that bad, but just mischievous. To say it in a positive way one might say that we were inventive and creative, fun-loving even. When you become an adult and look back on some of the things we did, you might say that we lacked supervision between the hours of 3PM and 5PM.
Rob was one of the first among us to turn sixteen and to have a car to drive, a Buick Regal. And for some strange reason . . . well . . . we just seemed fascinated by the way in which you could throw things out of the window of a moving car. We had this one sign on the way to my house from the school that was perfect for tossing something at. It was a “stop ahead” sign, but the stop sign was pretty far ahead of the sign, so you could still be going pretty fast when you went by the sign. Our favorite thing to throw at the sign for a while where those little plastic packs of barbeque sauce that you would dip chicken Mcnuggets into. We’d peel the plastic cover back just a bit and speed up as we got closer to the sign and then toss them out of the car . . . and then SPLAT you’d have a nice brown juicy splatter across the sign. We’d laugh and then start to think of what we could throw at the sign tomorrow. We threw whatever we had at that sign. It was silly . . . and probably something we could’ve gotten in trouble for, but . . . it was fun at the time. But at some point, it just wasn’t as much fun anymore. At some point things changed, the way that everything changes, the way that we all experience changes in our lives.
At some point I went off to college. Rob stayed in Dublin for a year and then went into the Army. Relationships change with distance. You all know that. Think back to some of the people in your lives that you knew back then . . . some of them you might see a picture and not be able to recall their name anymore. Some of them you may talk to every day. Sometimes I think we have such anxiety, such worry about endings in our lives. When things end they seem incomplete; we feel incomplete. It is as if there is a void in our lives where that person was, where that experience was. Things will not be the same again. And we feel as if that is awful for a while.
You know, I guess that one thing that comforts me is this picture that we have of the disciples, feeling awful, with those blank faces looking up at the sky; you can see it in those wide, blank eyes on their faces that they don’t understand. You just know that pang of loss that they feel. Someone that has been so important in their lives is leaving them. He died, but then he was resurrected. We celebrate that resurrection . . . but the disciples must have believed that this was a party that would not end. But it was going to end. Jesus was with them for forty days after the resurrection, a wonderful time of teaching about what the kingdom of God was all about, how this God is a God that brings life out of death, redemption out of suffering. This is the God of Easter who says that there are always new beginnings, that God’s promises and love for us and always there, even when death seems to have won.
But now, Jesus was leaving. And the disciples are staring into the air as he goes.
It is perfect really, this picture that we have before us of the ascension. One of the disciples prior to Jesus leaving asks, “Are we going to go into Jerusalem now and take the city back from Rome?!?”
It is wonderful question for what it shows us! They still don’t get it! We still don’t get it! I still don’t get it! And even when we don’t get it, the Risen Christ is there telling us, “I’m going to go now. But you are going to be okay. You are going to be more than okay . . . there are exciting things in store for you. The Holy Spirit is coming! I know it is hard to understand right now . . . but you will . . . one day.” And we stare up into that cloud where Jesus just ascended, wondering what in the world just happened.
Jesus is giving one last lesson to the disciples, life is full of wonderful beginnings and resurrection! But life is also full of endings that can be wonderful too! And you must understand that in the endings, in those times of change where things are uncertain and you feel as if you can’t go on and you wonder what you will do now . . . in those times when you are staring into the sky, there is a new beginning there somewhere.
And as we read on in Acts 1, we learn that the disciples did move on. They decided to replace Judas, the disciple that betrayed Jesus. They called everyone together and received nominations. Then they prayed. They cast lots, and Matthias won. The disciples doing this, this moving on, did in now way mean that this group did not miss Jesus being present with them in body; it was time to let go and to move on. But there was also one more thing that the disciples had to let go of: the pain of Judas, the pain of betrayal, the terror that they had all experienced. In a real way Jesus is the joy in our life that is present at times. And Judas, Judas is the terrible pain that can exist in our lives too. Sometimes we hold on to both of these, we hold onto to one joyful experience and do not allow ourselves to risk having another. And sometimes we hold on to our pain so tightly that we no longer believe that joy is possible.
By moving on, the disciples show that they have learned the lesson of the Ascension. They have understood that there is a new beginning in the ending.