In my church growing up, the Ascension was rarely discussed or touched on. The only way I really knew about it was through our monthly reciting of the Apostle’s Creed on communion Sunday: “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father, Almighty.” But even though I recited this every month, I didn’t really understand what the Ascension was about or recognized its significance for Jesus’ followers 2000 years later.
However, in the past few years serving in my Lutheran congregations, I have come to appreciate and see the Ascension as something really important in our Christian life.
I have my 6th-12th grade Lutheran youth to thank for this.
In these past few years, my youth have led the joint Ascension worship service for our three ELCA congregations in our neighborhood, Edgewater, which is on the north side of the city of Chicago. (Our youth ministry is a joint ministry among these three congregations and consists of youth from each of them, as well as some youth from the neighborhood.) Both years, I have asked a few of my youth to look over the different texts for Ascension Day, reflect on them, and write a short homily for our service.
Both years, I have learned from my youth and have been touched by their thoughtful reflections on the Ascension and how it is important for our Christian way of life today.
As several of my young preachers have suggested, it must have been extremely difficult for the disciples to deal with this emotional roller coaster of watching Jesus journey toward his horrific death on the cross and grieving as they thought they’d never see their dear friend and teacher again, then being surprised and thrilled to have him back in their lives, only to then be left by him once again as he ascends into heaven to sit at God’s right hand.
What the heck!?
As Steve, a 7th grader in my youth group will say in his sermon tonight: “I mean: to see Jesus die on the cross, come back and then just randomly go to heaven. That must have been hard for the disciples. If I were one of the disciples at that time I would have felt as though Jesus was playing tricks with me the whole time, and to be honest, I would have probably felt that he abandoned me.”
I think many of us today can relate to this feeling. Throughout my work as a pastor with youth and children, I have heard numerous stories about experiences of abandonment… by my youth’s peers, by their most trusted friends, by family members, by politicians who don’t make decisions that promote equal rights for their families, and even sometimes by the Church. And I’m sure this is not just a common story for our young people today… I know too well that – though we may not share these struggles as openly as we grow older – the more years we’ve lived life on this earth and the more people we have encountered, the more times we have experienced abandonment.
And as humans, we too often place God in our own image; telling ourselves that this human abandonment in our lives is proof that God has abandoned us, as well. Just when God has come to be with us in the flesh, Jesus dies on the cross, and just as we get comfortable knowing he has returned to us through his resurrection, he ascends into a place that we too often feel is far, far away… up into heaven.
And we are like those early disciples, left looking up towards the sky, wondering in our darkest moments: “Where in the world are you, God!? Why have you abandoned me!?”
As Luz, one of my sophomores, explains in her sermon: “Throughout my life I lost hope in God. I did not believe he was there with me in the Holy Spirit anymore. I believed he left me for good like he left the disciples… This year, things were pretty rough… and I lost hope. I thought that things would never be okay again.”
And yet, in the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t just leave the disciples abandoned and alone, as they stand on the ground gazing hopelessly up at the sky. And in the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t just leave us on the ground abandoned, alone, and hopeless alongside those disciples, either. In the Ascension, all of Jesus’ disciples receive the gift of the Holy Spirit: even though God will no longer be physically present with the disciples through the Son on earth, God will be present with them always through the Holy Spirit.
Katie, who was a 6th grader when she preached her sermon at last year’s service, explains: “After Jesus ascends to heaven, these angels appear to the apostles and tell them to stop looking for Jesus in the sky. What I think they meant by this was that the apostles would never see him come back to earth again. So, instead of looking for Jesus in the sky, they should look for Jesus all around them. And this is also a message for us today. No, we’ll probably never physically see Jesus. But we can see the people that represent Jesus. The church community is the first thing that comes into my mind. We all represent Jesus in the good things we do. I mean, we’re not the perfect servants of God. Nobody is perfect. But we see people do good things for other people all the time… As a church community, we help, we serve God and others, too. We pray. We forgive and also ask to be forgiven. That’s just the little part of God inside of us that tells us to do good. So WE are the Jesus of the Earth.”
And as Luz continues in her sermon: “[Although I thought that things would never be okay again], I was wrong. In the midst of my toughest times, I felt God’s presence with me and within me. He never left my side. I started noticing the little things that made me know God is here.” She explains how our youth group has embraced her and loved her for who she truly is and how it is in them and through them, that she knows God is present. Then she urges the congregation: “Just sit for a moment. Think about how the Lord has blessed your life even through all the obstacles you’re going through. Jesus went through many similar obstacles, too. And yet, God blessed him. We are all brothers and sisters, we are all alike no matter what we’ve been through or are going through right now. I know at one point I was confused like the disciples, about how Jesus could just leave us, but honestly he never did because he’s in you, and you and even you. Our Christ is everywhere.”
And this is where we see the meat of the Ascension message. This is where we see and hear our great commission. When Jesus was building his ministry here on earth: preaching good news to the poor, and proclaiming release to the captives, he began his work of empowering and equipping others to do so, as well…
Because this work is not just his work: it is the work of all of his followers.
And the Ascension is where Jesus passes on this great work to all of us. It is when Jesus declares that though he will no longer be physically on this earth to preach the good news himself, his work will continue… in and through each one of us. And we can continue to do this work through the power we receive in the Holy Spirit as we share and build that power by being witnesses of God’s love.
As Ngbarezere, who was a 9th grader when he preached his sermon last year, says: “The Holy Spirit gives us a choice to act, and we have a decision to do the act for good or for evil. This is the power Jesus was talking about, the ability to do good or bad, the choice is ours.”
Steve expands on this: “[Jesus] calls his disciples to be his witnesses, not just witnesses, but witnesses to the ends of the earth. Now what do you really think it means to be a witness? These disciples had seen some pretty amazing things and I think Jesus wanted these disciples to tell people what they had seen… So how [does this] form us in our lives today? To me the end’s of the earth is at our Care for Real food pantry, which is only a few blocks away from here, where we are witnesses of God’s love when we help all of these hungry people get food and feel loved.”
And Ngbarezere adds: “Jesus said ‘And you will be my witnesses…’ How are we witnesses? With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can be Jesus’ witnesses to all people – to follow in Jesus’ footsteps of loving the oppressed and standing up for justice and equality.
Here’s an example of standing up for justice and equality… A couple months ago I attended a community meeting, and the main cause for it was that they were about to close MY school down. Of course I had to go, and although going helped a lot, I felt I could do a lot more due to the fact that it was MY school. I not only marched with over 500 people, but I also said a speech in front of 500 people, of how I felt about [the city] trying to close MY school down. (They didn’t close the school down by the way).
Now, how do we love the oppressed? We can contribute to changing their day by simply saying a hello. A simple hello can change somebody’s mood, like for another example; I was at the Care For Real food pantry and I was helping distribute the food. Every time I saw someone I tried having a small conversation with them, hoping that I can lighten their day in any way possible. Although tiring, I enjoy going there every time I can to help out. This is an act of what Jesus meant. During these periods of time, I used the abilities that I had for good, for justice, and equality, and each of them contributed in a positive way… When we leave here today, I want you- No even better, I challenge you – every day to receive the Holy Spirit and become a witness of Jesus.”
As my wise young preachers have articulated, the Ascension is not an event that we should just gloss over. It is an event that is central to our Christian faith and how we must consider what it means to live as followers of Jesus.
Jesus did not just leave us alone and powerless when he ascended… He left us with empowerment through the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we, too, can be witnesses of God’s love to the ends of the earth.
This Ascension day, may you be blessed by these wise words of my amazing youth who are doing just that.