Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In my Easter Sunday sermon, I shared with you my conviction that “Faith in the resurrection comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.” And so throughout the season of Easter, we have reflected on the changes that the resurrection brings: the elimination of fear and doubt and the word of forgiveness; we have meditated on the resurrected Christ’s promise of protection and security and our changed perspective on the world through love. Today we turn to the resurrection’s prophetic announcement that Christ has gone to prepare a place for us.
Saying “goodbye” is one of those activities that seems so simple that it should it hardly require much advance thought, but the truth is, there is an art to saying goodbye. And so in between that steady stream of hellos and goodbyes in our lives, we struggle to find the right words that express everything we have known and felt. Sometimes, we turn to inspiration from literature- after all, even Winnie the Pooh dared to say, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying Goodbye so hard.” That may be the feeling you have when you finally let go of your children, as they begin life’s journey on their own. Or there are the words of farewell you say to a friend who is moving away. “Friendship is not about whom you have known the longest or who cares the best it’s about who came and never left.” There are the words of affection you say when someone retires. “With your resignation, your employment in this company may finish but the sweet memories will always remain.” And there are the words of farewell that we grow to know and understand at the death of a parent. “Love your parents and treat them with loving care. One day you’ll know their value when you see their empty chair.” Yes, there is an art to saying goodbye.
This morning’s celebration of Christ’s ascension into heaven is more than a final chapter in the Easter story. It is a lesson in the art of saying goodbye. For in Jesus’ words, we can learn to say to those whom we have loved and have died, “Goodbyes are not forever. Goodbyes are not the end. They simply mean I’ll miss you until we meet again.”
St. Luke must have been enchanted by the story of Christ’s ascension. After all, he actually described the ascension twice. First, in the closing chapter of the gospel of St. Luke, and then again in the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. He even added a few details that he overlooked in the gospel. In the Acts of the Apostles, there are the descending angels who greet Jesus on his homeward journey, and then the messengers appear who ask his disciples, “Why are you looking to heaven?”
In the Middle Ages, this embellished version of Jesus’ ascension delighted believers. Mystery plays were presented in village churches to re-enact the story. In a monastery in Bavaria, it was written that a rope was attached to a statue of Jesus and then hoisted towards the roof of the church where angels descended to escort the ascending Christ into heaven. These angels, played by costumed choir boys, met Jesus as he neared the clouds, which were represented by draperies of silk. After the statue of Jesus disappeared into the clouds a sudden shower of lilies, roses, other flowers, and communion wafers dropped from the roof to the disciples waiting below.
There is one more detail which St. Luke overlooked in his gospel version, but which he records in the Acts of the Apostles. It is one of the most poignant and beautiful passages in scripture. In Acts, St. Luke writes that Jesus doesn’t simply disappear. Instead we read, “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” For me, that is not simply a description of Jesus’ ascension. It is my understanding of the reality of death, and those who have died in the Lord. They never truly leave us. They have merely been taken from our sight.
That is, of course, the surprise we discover in the story of Jesus’ ascension and the disciples’ response. How could the disciples be happy? 40 days earlier on Easter morning, the beleaguered disciples were empty and anxious at the sad farewell they had spoken to their master. They were overwhelmed by grief and despair. But now 40 days later, they could say farewell and indeed, celebrate their master’s homeward journey with wonder and delight. They had grown to understand that Jesus would still be with them, though they would no longer see him.
It’s part of our reality as well. We may cry in our sleep, fearful that we will lose the memory of our loved one’s voice, their walk, or their smell. Truthfully, we don’t lose anything we ever really had. The disciples would soon discover that Jesus was with them forever in another form through the Spirit. He had merely been taken from their sight. That is your assurance as well, for those whom you have loved. “Faith in the resurrection, you see, comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.”
There are many well intentioned people who don’t understand the poignant, beauty of that tiny verse of scripture- nor do they understand the wonder of the resurrection. In your hours and days of mourning, acquaintances may come to silence you by telling you to “move on,” and “let go,” or worse yet, “to get over it.” Our confidence in the resurrection reminds us that, “Goodbyes are not forever. Goodbyes are not the end. They simply mean I’ll miss you until we meet again.”
My friends, the true art of living and saying goodbye is finding a way to acknowledge that people do come and go in our lives, and they do leave a permanent imprint in our character and our hearts, but as an Easter people trusting in the resurrection, we know and trust that they have merely been taken from our sight. And that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for them, and one day for us- where we will be reunited with all those we have known and loved.
Until that glorious day, when we are reunited, however, we must all learn to say goodbye. We must learn to know what to hold onto and what to let go of. Otherwise, we too can be overwhelmed with loss and emptiness. We can be driven to despair within ourselves.
If you have ever lost a loved one or if someday you live long enough to be left behind, I hope that you will find some grace in goodbyes- and then to find your renewed strength in the promise of the resurrection. And to live with the sacred assurance, that for a time, they have been taken from your sight- but that you will see them again. “Faith in the resurrection comes slowly, but when it comes, it changes everything.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.