The Seventh Sunday of Easter
St. Thomas Isle of Hope, Savannah
May 29, 2022
The Rev. Canon Loren Lasch
This past Thursday was Ascension Day, a very important day in the Church year. This principal feast, which is on par with Christmas and Easter, commemorates the day when Jesus completed his earthly ministry and ascended into heaven. It is a day of great joy, a day to celebrate the fact that our God, who lived among us, who died and rose again, has returned to a place of great glory and honor.
Two readings on Ascension Day tell the story of Jesus’ ascension. In the account from Luke’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus led the disciples “out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
In the account from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”
Personally, I feel like the account from Acts is a bit more realistic, with the disciples gazing toward heaven, probably open mouthed with confused faces, watching their Lord and teacher and friend grow smaller and smaller until they could no longer see him. Obviously we know that they didn’t just stand in the place, forever, but I imagine it took them some time before they could unroot themselves from the spot and head out into the world, not quite knowing the way without THE Way to guide them.
Jesus, of course, had told them this was going to happen. We just heard it in last week’s Gospel reading, which ended with him saying “And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” But, I wonder if they still didn’t see the Ascension coming. Maybe they just weren’t listening, or thought Jesus was speaking in metaphor when he said he was going to return to the Father. I think it’s more likely they were willfully trying to pretend it wasn’t going to happen. After all, they had already experienced a world without Jesus, and it had left them broken.
I think that’s why the account of the Ascension from Acts feels more likely to me, because I can easily imagine them standing there that day, unable to move, feeling the weight of Holy Saturday enshrouding them once more as they watched Jesus leave them forever. Leaving them utterly bereft.
That image of the disciples especially resonates with me this week, because that is how I have been feeling, as though I’ve been watching goodness and mercy and love slip away, ever since I first heard the news about the unbearably tragic killing of 19 children and 2 teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Utterly bereft.
I’ve felt other things, too, of course. Overwhelming grief. Paralyzing fear. Pounding anger. Over and over again, in turn, as more details come to light. And I’ve found myself searching for Jesus, desperately, as I’ve prayed for these families and this community. As I’ve hugged my two elementary aged children as tightly as I can. As I’ve searched for the right words, or even any words, to say after such a horrifying moment in our shared lives.
But, I will freely admit, I’ve felt like the disciples after the Ascension, like I’ve been gazing up into heaven in vain. Not because Christ isn’t there. Because of course he is. But at times it’s been almost impossible to glimpse him through the tears.
As a preacher, I’ll often go back to previous sermons about certain readings or topics, to see which ideas still speak to me. And it’s always a delight to find words previously preached which could work again, reworked to fit a different context, at a different time. But it’s almost unbearable to know that I could have looked back and found a sermon for something so horrifying, preached after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School almost a decade ago.
I imagine I’ve not been alone this week. I imagine I’m not the only one who has wondered how, HOW to get through something like this…again, in the midst of all of the rest of the pain and sorrow in the world. I imagine I haven’t been the only one who has been, like the disciples, desperately trying to see Jesus.
Here’s the thing about the disciples, though. Bereft though they likely were, they knew, on some level, that they weren’t really alone. For starters, they were in community. They were connected by their shared experiences as followers of Jesus, shared moments of sorrow and joy, shared yearning for continued communion with Christ. The bonds they had formed didn’t cease to exist in the face of uncertainty. They could lean on each other, look to each other for comfort and guidance as they together worked out what they would do next.
But they also knew that they weren’t alone because Jesus promised that they would soon receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.”
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you”
This may have seemed like a nebulous promise at the time, but it was a promise, and Jesus has shown them time and again that he was trustworthy and true. So they knew that the Spirit would be coming, help would be coming, power would be coming, to move alongside them and through them as they continued to spread the Good News of God in Christ throughout a pain and sorrow-filled world. To remind them that they were not alone, would never be alone, even in the midst of the darkest of times.
And that gift of the Holy Spirit, the power of God, the promise of Christ, is with us. Always. Next Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate that gift with great joy. But the Spirit is already here, will always be here, reminding us that we are not alone. In today’s Gospel reading we’ve gone back in time, and Jesus is praying to the Father, seated with his disciples at the Last Supper. He says: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
The Holy Spirit is among us to remind us that God’s love, Incarnate in Christ, remains with us. And not only that, but we are conduits of that love. The Holy Spirit is known as many things: the Advocate, the Helper, the Sustainer, the Comforter. The Spirit is present with us in all of those ways, and many more, and enables and empowers us to be present in those same ways in the world.
That looks different at different times and for different people of course. The ways in which we advocate for and help others, the ways in which we sustain and comfort others, are unique to each of us, and our ability to do them may wax and wane. Some days we may be ready to take on all of the injustice in the world head-on. Some days we may be able to provide words of comfort and solace to someone who is utterly bereft. And some days we may only be able to offer a hand to someone as we search for Jesus together. But the power of the Holy Spirit, moving alongside us and through us, is ever-present. Even in the darkest of times, we are not alone.
No matter what, we are never alone.