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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=140


 

7 Easter Year C (May 8, 2016)                                         St James', Peace River

I have to tell you, for me, preaching during these last few weeks of Eastertide has been a pretty touchy subject, especially as we reach and pass Ascension Day, which we celebrated last Thursday. Talking about Jesus going away, and preparing his disciples for his departure – well, as you can imagine, it's kind of a sensitive topic! Now while I'm certainly not imagining myself in his place, I think I've begun to sympathize a little more with some of Jesus' perceptions of what his moving on would mean: his conviction that it would be OK, his absolute confidence in the people he trusted not just to carry on the work they'd started together but to take it to new heights, and his faith that this was the Father's plan.

On this Ascension Sunday, though, something else I notice is the range of perceptions amongst the disciples – both at the time and ever since – of what it meant for Jesus to ascend to his Father. The two most basic ones were the feeling of separation; but also the realization that it was, indeed, over to them to take up responsibility for the mission and to prepare themselves, as they waited for the gift of the Holy Spirit. But on this Sunday, in particular, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves, as I'm sure the first disciples did too, what actually happened to Jesus? Where did he go? What was he doing after he left them behind and left them on duty? Some of the most obvious and popular answers to those questions, while right in principle, are subtly wrong in their incompleteness. The most obvious of these is, “He went to heaven to be at the right hand of God.” Right on, in a sense, and an apt acknowledgement of the glory given to Jesus, the ratification which God the Father gave to everything his Son had said and done by giving him back his proper place. But if we say it in a way which suggests that Jesus is no longer here, or that the time of his earthly ministry was just an episode, an interruption of his eternal glory – then we are missing some important truths. Jesus ascended is not farther away, but somehow paradoxically closer to us; and Jesus ascending does not leave behind who he was and what he did on earth, but takes it (and all of us) with him into heaven.

Another version of this was in a website headline this week which made me laugh: “Jesus' ascension not a sabbatical!” I guess you could look at it, and maybe some people have, as though the ascension was a well deserved rest after a long and exhausting three and thirty years of earthly life, and after the even more mysterious forty days of chasing the earth around the sun in Jesus' resurrection body. Time for a break, time to take a rest somewhere farther up and farther in amongst the celestial spheres. This too has some truth to it, funny though it may sound – recognizing the real cost of the incarnation, of what it took for God the Word to be part of our world; and also pointing to God's desire to share the sabbath itself with us and with all the creatures he made – that moment at the end of creation when we share in God's time set aside to rejoice and to see how very good everything truly is.

But Jesus' ascension is not quite a sabbatical, in that sense of taking some time off, or even getting to that day of rejoicing just a little ahead of all the rest of us. Because, again, he has not really left us; and neither is it the case that his work on earth is over and done with and ready to be left behind. On the contrary, the glory of the Son of God is that he takes what he has done, what he has accomplished, how he has demonstrated the love of God forever at the cost of his life, how he has defeated sin by uniting God's very identity to our human one – he takes that and places it, not “in some heaven light-years away”, but rather at the very core of what we are and what the universe is and what God is: that is to say, at the right hand of the Father.

The power of that reality is what fuels the mission of Jesus' followers in the rest of the New Testament. They don't wonder if they can take up his mantle now that he has gone – they do what they do in his name, and in the full conviction that he is working with them and in them and through them. They don't speak of him in the past tense, as someone who did great things that ought to be remembered and used as an example – they proclaim him as Lord and King over all things right now. And when they are in their hour of greatest trial, they don't close their eyes and wish he was still with them; they open their eyes and look up to heaven and see him right there watching them, with great compassion, great love, and great confidence. And then they go and tell everyone, they want everyone to know! Not because they think people could do a better job of living if only they listened, but because there is something brand new and unexpected to say about what being human actually means: it means to belong with God and to belong to God, and we know this because, in Jesus, God joined with humanity and humanity is joined forever to God's own very self.

When we think about what that meant to the early disciples, how excited they were about it, we have to realize that to them it wasn't an abstraction, not some fuzzy theological concept. We sometimes say that an issue is so urgent it's a “matter of life and death”... well, to the first Christians, this new discovery about human life went even deeper than that. It made the difference between life and real life. That's what they felt for themselves, and it's what they wanted so much to share. You can see that in this week's reading from Acts, which contains another couple of stories of the Easter people, both of which are in a sense about the freedom that happens when you discover how your life is joined with God.

First, there is the slave girl whose owners are using her strange condition to make money. Whether it was a hoax, a mental illness, or something more mysterious, it wasn't right. The only good thing that came out of it was that the owners took some care of her, as you would care for a valuable investment. While the practice of slavery is very far from our immediate cultural environment, the idea of treating a person as an investment isn't – think about the way business talks these days about “human resources”. Many of us and many of our neighbours have the experience of being treated as valuable only in the sense of what we can produce for others. That's life, we might say. But it's not real life. In the case of the slave girl, Paul cuts through the mummery, the mystery and the mistreatment, and reconnects her life with God, through an appeal to Jesus who is watching from heaven. She loses her job, and maybe her security, but she gains a world full of possibility. How many people do you know, who want and maybe need to have the world open up to them like that, in a way which can really only be seen or imagined from the God's-eye view Jesus has at the right hand of the Father, and yet still shares with us here and now?

Ironically in the very next verses, Paul and Silas and the others with them experience the loss and restoration of freedom in a more literal way. But this is almost a mirror image, because what we see is that even locked in chains, they are free to experience the fullness of real life. That's another gift that many of us need, as we experience outward restrictions on what we can do or achieve, which might take away our dignity or sense of worth if we did not know that Jesus sees us very differently. And that, again, is not just a gift for us, but something we would want to offer to others who need it too. Not everyone will appreciate the offer – the jailer certainly did, but the slave girls' owners clearly didn't. But the possibility of real life is there for us to share, not to withhold – God will take it from there.

I think we can see how important all this is, if we set it in the context of the events of the past week, the fire in Fort McMurray and the disruption of so many lives of people who have had to evacuate, and who don't know what their immediate or longer term future will hold. The crisis has not touched just them, either, as people all over our region and further away have realized something about how fragile and uncertain our day-to-day life can be; many of us also know the people who have been affected most directly; and so many more have reacted with generosity and concern even for people we don't know.

The amazing thing about what God offers us in a time like this is that it is not far away, distant, abstract, heavenly, or beyond this life. As with the slave girl and the jailer, God reaches right into exactly what we are experiencing and going through, and makes a difference in the lives we are living. But the difference God makes is precisely by not leaving us simply in this world, with this world's frame of reference. If we were to look at this disaster and have nothing more to say than, “Well, that's life,” - we would be telling the truth, but it wouldn't help anyone.

When we look at it instead through the perspective of Jesus ascended, there is so much more to see and to say. We know that where Jesus is now, he sees every trial, every loss, every fear, and holds all the sympathy and the compassion in the world for the people who have lost homes and livelihoods, and then some. But we also know that his sympathy and compassion is not distant and heaven-bound, it is right here, being expressed both in the people who have been so moved to help, and also in the spirit of the evacuees themselves, who are discovering strength and courage they didn't know they had. And so much of that comes from looking beyond the immediate circumstances of life, to see what real life looks like in these circumstances. Real life looks like holding on to the people that matter, not the stuff that doesn't. Real life looks like dropping everything to get your neighbour what they need. Real life looks like people helping each other out of danger.

When you think about it, those are exactly the qualities that Jesus taught people to look for in the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom which he took possession of on the day of his ascension. But if that's true, then we know the heaven we are talking about is not separate or apart from us now. It is bigger than what we know in our day to day life, but it is close enough to see and to feel and to change our lives. Jesus is there, and that means he is with us more, not less, than if we could reach out and shake his hand. And we stand with one foot in heaven, not making us less interested in what goes on in the world around us, but so much more, because this is where real life, the life of heaven, is waiting to be discovered, lived, and shared.