Ascension — celebrated this year on Thursday, May 14 ( …did you know? how did you mark it?) takes Jesus out of the visible picture. But, as fantastic as the artistic renderings of Jesus being raised up usually are, when you really stop and think about his story, “disappearing” is, pretty much, the logical ending to the Gospel narratives. Because more often than one would expect from Emmanuel — “God with us” — in the stories about his life and ministry, Jesus doesn’t seem to be where he’s supposed to be.
When the women come out early Easter morning to anoint his body, there’s no Jesus — dead or alive — in the tomb. Because he is risen. Why would they look for the living among the dead? The risen Christ has already gone ahead of the disciples to Galilee.
Later that day, surprisingly, he’s encountered not in Galilee, but a short distance from Jerusalem… from where Cleopas and his companion are on the road trying to hightail it out of town. Or later in the week, Jesus shows up in a room locked tight to protect the disciples inside.
This is surely the same One who almost inexplicably turned towards Jerusalem knowing full well how dangerous that would be. The One who his disciples could not explain how or why ended up dying on a cross. The One who was not there when Lazarus was dying.
The One who was criticized as a glutton for being at Table with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. The One who was somehow walking across the lake to his Disciples. The One who dined at Zaccheus’ house. And asked help from a Samaritan woman at the well. (Notice how often the surprise isn’t the place itself so much as the people certain places bring Jesus in touch with.)
The same One who went to the far side of the lake to be alone. Or who as a teenager was in the Temple when his parents were already on the road headed back to Nazareth. The One who as a toddler evaded Herod’s decree to kill the first born by being in Egypt. The One who began his earthly journey in a feed-trough outback in a barn. The One who didn’t count heaven with God a place that should hold him.
It’s almost definitional: Jesus as the One who was not where you’d expect him to be — whether physically or figuratively; politically or spiritually; or literally.
Could Ascension be calling you likewise — to rise up and go with Jesus to somewhere other than where you are now? …Someplace other than you ever expected to end up and someplace you wouldn’t expect to find Jesus?
It does seem that to be with Jesus means to be somewhere other than where we expect to find ourselves. And to be associating with people who surprise us. (Now doesn’t that undermine all our expectations that church is where we can count on things never changing or discomforting…)
Some of us in the UCC don’t envision heaven as “up there.” But can’t we all understand the concept of looking beyond where we are? …Figuratively speaking, looking away from where gravity — and whatever else — are holding us? Or at least beyond the horizon, if not to another realm…
Beloved, Ascension, like Easter before it, suggests that the followers of Jesus need to get up from where we’ve stayed too long. (Remember how often I introduce the passing of the peace with “it’s a time to stand up from where you are and move to a new place in order to encounter and engage others and share the Peace of God.” And those are all only the distances between us in the Sanctuary!) Church, we need to get up and move — or be moved — as we follow Jesus to places we never expected and towards people who surprise us.
The good news is that Ascension once again gets us looking in the right direction and beginning to see again that there is a High Road that can keep us closer to Jesus… even as where else and with whom aren’t quite what we expected!
See you in church,