Yesterday was one of the least celebrated festivals of the church year, the festival of Ascension. It is rarely celebrated or talked about because it falls 40 days after Easter, which means it is always celebrated on a Thursday. And let's be honest, not many congregations are going to gather on a Thursday in the spring for worship. And as a pastor, I'm ok with that, because it would be a challenging text to preach once, let alone year after year.
The Festival of Ascension is the day we celebrate Jesus ascending into heaven after the resurrection. After Easter, we know Jesus appeared to the disciples and other followers, offering them peace and encouraging them to share with the world all that he had taught them. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit upon them, something we remember on Pentecost, to equip them in their work. But Jesus also knew in order for that to happen, he could not stay. And so, he gathered with his disciples on a mountain top outside of Jerusalem and ascended to heaven on a cloud. It is one of those Biblical stories and texts that is decidedly other-worldly and hard to make sense of in our world today.
And yet, this year, I see more and more pastors and congregations who celebrated Ascension because, one, they could do so online. And two, because we can related to the Ascension story more this year than most. After all, the disciples had gathered with Jesus everyday for years and now suddenly had to continue his work while being separate, without the same form of communication. The disciples would soon be scattered, a community separated and apart. Sound at all familiar?
Pastor Carrie Ballenger, an ELCA who serves the English speaking congregation at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jerusalem gathered with that congregation for an outdoor worship service on Ascension, the first time for any gathering since March 8. Here is a portion of her sermon.
It's not always easy to translate the story of salvation into the language of life today.
But I want to say that this week-in a different way from ever before-I have heard the voice of our Living God speaking very clearly through the story of Jesus' Ascension.
Scripture says that Jesus "led them 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."
So we read how the disciples-
who had just lived through an intense time of being separated from family and friends,
a time of doing things they never imagined they would do,
a time of living through things they weren't even sure how to talk about-
these same disciples watched their teacher and friend ascend into heaven.
And then they returned to Jerusalem.
They went back to the city.
They went back to life.
And here we are today, after Corona:
Returning to Jerusalem.
Returning to community.
Returning to life.
And yet, we all know this is not normal.
We are not returning to life post-COVID-19, because there is no such thing. There is only life with COVID-19-at least for now.
We too, with our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem and around the country and world, are beginning to return to normal. Sort-of. Restaurants and stores are beginning to re-open, but nothing looks the way it did 3 months ago. We are hopeful to begin gathering for worship in person again, but at the same time do not want to gather until we can do so safely and it will not look like what it once did. And yet, Pastor Carrie continues:
But hear me when I say that just as there is no world that is post-COVID-19, there is no world that is post-Jesus.
Even after the Ascension, there is no world that is post-God's presence. There is no world that is post-God's love and mercy, God's forgiveness and grace, God's empire-shaking and wall-crumbling activity.
I don't know about you, but that is good news I needed to hear. And it is good news that we can cling to and proclaim. For all of the things that have changed and that will be different - God remains the same. God is present. God's love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and death-defeating power surround us and go with us every day.