Thursday, May 14, 2015

While He Was Blessing Them--A Sermon for Ascension Day

“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven”St. Luke 24:51
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
            We remember last looks.  The last time we see an old friend in the hospital before his death, smiling faintly, ready to face what comes next.  Our mother’s tears as we waved away that car from the college dormitory parking lot on the first day of freshman orientation.  The triumph of a retiring athlete or musician, scanning the crowd one final time with joy and gratitude.  The last look tells us so much.  It reveals the heart, brings to life what is most important in the relationship we share.  Often it points to what lies ahead.
It is so too in the mystery we celebrate today: our Lord’s glorious ascension.  “While he was blessing them,” Saint Luke tells us, “he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven.”  The last look for Jesus’ disciples, that parting vision that would be fixed forever in their mind was of their Master, his arms lifted confidently, pouring out on them his blessing, the assurance of His love.  It’s just this that the great painting over our Altar depicts: Christ in strength and glory, lifting up His precious hands to bestow once and for all His blessing on all who love Him.

Jesus was not surprised to be going away from them, returning to His Father.  Even before His death, in the Upper Room, he had warned them that He would go away, that He must go away to complete the mission His Father had given Him.  For forty days since His resurrection He had been with them, but here and there, appearing for a moment to reveal a truth or summon them to action, and then gone away again.  He was preparing them for this moment, when He would be pulled away once and for all.  In the Gospels, the Ascension is always described as coming after a commissioning, carefully chosen final words Christ delivered to His apostles.  He knew that this moment was coming, when like the righteous heroes of the Old Testament, He would rise in glory to heaven.  There’s no surprise on His face, no regret.

For this is a glorious day.  What was begun in His resurrection is now complete.  On Easter Day he showed that sin and death were defeated forever, and on this day He opens the gates of heaven to all believers.  He ascends to full immortality, shining glory, to stand before the Father in triumph.  The words of our Ascension Day hymns tell it beautifully:
He has raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand:
Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension we by faith behold our own

In His moment of greatest glory, He does not look up to the Father, but down to us.  He is always drawn to His own, and He urges us not to fear, but to trust in the promise that we too will follow Him, that still greater things lie ahead.  “While he was blessing them, he was carried up to heaven.”  His going from us, He would tell the disciples in John’s Gospel, is for our good, for if He does not go, we could not receive the Spirit.  So His blessing on this day points ahead to the mystery of Pentecost: the descent of the Spirit of God, who comes to draw us into the very heart of God and to fill us with all His blessings.  “You will receive power,” He tells them, “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”  The blessing will be complete.

Jesus blesses us as He ascends.  He bids us, in his very last moment in our world, to turn away from fear and doubt, to trust in the full power of His promise.  Why should we be discouraged, for Christ has poured out His blessing on us?  Why should we have doubts and fears, why so much caution and hesitation and small expectation.  The Lord of glory has blessed us, and His blessing given that day remains on His Body the Church until the end of the world.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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