Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Empress Helena, the mother of the 4th century Roman emperor Constantine, is often referred to as the first pilgrim to the Holy Land, and f not the first, she was undoubtedly the most important. She requested that her son build churches over the important sites of Jesus’s life on earth. In 326 AD she began in Bethlehem with the Church of the Nativity and in Jerusalem with Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and then she was guided to the Mount of Olives to the site of the Jesus’ ascension. She ordered that a chapel be built there with no roof- simply open to the sky, as if awaiting Christ’s return. That first church was destroyed in war 600’s. A century later, the second church, which was octagonal in shape, much like the one seen on the bulletin was built on the site. Eight lanterns placed in each arch guided Christian pilgrims, and in the very center of this open chapel were the footprints of Jesus- the last place where Jesus last stood upon the earth. Four centuries later, when the Moslems conquered the city, they converted the chapel into a mosque, placing a roof over the chapel and prayer niche in the wall directing the Muslim worship to Mecca. The left footprint was lifted from the earth and was placed in the Al-Alaqsa Mosque. Today all that remains in the Chapel of the Ascension is the right footprint of Jesus.
A footprint is an interesting symbol of Jesus’ presence and absence on earth. After all, a footprint can only be seen when the foot that made the mark is gone. Admittedly the same could be said for the imprint of any body part, but the foot has a special significance. Feet symbolize Christ’s very incarnation and humanity walking upon the earth. But it isn’t Jesus’ footprint that I would like to speak about this Ascension Sunday, as intriguing and as whimsical as they may be. No, today I would like to talk about Jesus being lifted up into heaven.
St. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ ascension twice, first in the gospel and then again in the Book of the Acts of the Apostle. On the fortieth day after his resurrection, Luke writes that Jesus was speaking to his disciples one last time, and he opened his disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures. In these few words the evangelist describes one of the truly transformative events in all human history. Suddenly, for the disciples, Jesus life and death and resurrection, all made sense. Suddenly, they could see Jesus’ footprints in the sand. And then we read, that when he had said these things, and as they were watching, he was lifted up, blessing them. Ever since that day, we have been taught that we can dare to lift up our hearts to the Lord, that we can dare to look up to the heaven, and trust that Jesus is there. And so the story continues that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Now I will be honest, the disciples’ response has just never made sense to me. But for those of us who have lost a beloved parent, an inspirational friend or mentor, although we can surely relate to the fear of losing someone significant, we do wonder: But Lord, how do we move forward? We certainly can’t imagine running to church with great joy and praising God continually. Frankly, we wonder what’s wrong with Jesus’ disciples. They do not go away from the Mount of Olives sorrowful, or mourning the loss of their friend Jesus. Instead, they seem to be experiencing Jesus’ presence in their lives in a whole new way.
In my theological education I was taught unemotionally that Jesus had to ascend into heaven, so that the Holy Spirit could descend upon us. I was taught that Jesus had to end his earthly fellowship with his disciples, so that they could begin the work of the church. I was taught that his was all done so that Jesus could use the powers of his resurrected body appearing and disappearing, and entering through closed doors to be “present anywhere and everywhere he chooses.” Now I don’t disagree with that, but I just don’t find it personally satisfying. Where is this human sense of loss and absence that you and I know so well? What is that the disciples saw in Jesus’ ascension from the Mount of Olives that I cannot see?
Faithful Christian, of course, have grown used to hearing that there will be no bad outcomes in life, only sad ones. So we have to come to terms with the reality that our loved ones experience. And that is as God intended. But Christ’s ascension into heaven reminds me that you and I can keep our spirits, our hearts and our heads lifted up. God’s future for us is greater than anything we can see. Life in the ascended Christ is stronger even than death, and more powerful, by far than our grief.
Frankly, I think that’s why St. Luke chose to tell the story again in the Acts of the Apostles. The difference of wording is ever so slight, but reveals something so much more reassuring. St. Luke writes, “As the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” You see, even though the disciples could not see him, they knew that Jesus was still present with them. He was there and they could see his footprints.
My friends, that is our hope as well. When we proclaim our faith in the ascended Jesus, we too are confessing that even though we cannot see him, we know that he is with us here and now. We too can see his footprints in our lives. Jesus goes walking into the future ahead of us, wherever that may be. There is no place in our journey that Jesus will not there to greet us- even in sickness and in death. No matter how dark the bend and how terrible the destination may seem, Christ is there- even if you cannot see him. But step by step, footprint by footprint, you can trust that even though a cloud has taken the ascended Jesus from your sight, he is waiting for you with those you love. And until that day, he will make himself known to you in the very ordinary places of life with extraordinary grace and love.
Because of Christ’s ascension to a place we cannot see, you and I are free to live and walk in a new reality, where death and the threat of death no longer have dominion over us. And what a difference it makes. Our hearts and live and minds are open to new possibilities. Yes, we can dare to live for others in a world that has yet to hear this good and wondrous news. We can dare to live courageously, even in a world where the fighting is still going on around us. We can dare to be free to experience the Jesus of the future, who still breaks into our present world.
So why is Christ’s ascension so important the church? Simply said, it teaches us that we do not know where Jesus is, so much as we know that Jesus is with us. We do not know what the future will bring, so much as we know that the future is safe in Jesus’ hands. And so like the disciples of old, we can keep our heads and hearts held high, rejoicing and worshiping and blessing God continually trusting that Jesus is always near. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.