“He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father, Almighty.”
These are familiar words to many of us, as we may have recited or read these words from the Apostle’s Creed at one time or another.
However, we rarely ever talk about the Ascension. And while our church calendar extensively prepares us for Jesus’ birth, takes us through Jesus’ miracles and teachings, and emphasizes his final days on earth, his death on the cross, and his resurrection, we only get one short Thursday at the end of the Easter season to celebrate the Ascension. (And we seldom even celebrate it then.)
However, I think the Ascension is a crucial part of our Christian faith and way of life. And my 6th-12th grade youth have a lot to say about why this is.
Every year, my youth lead the Ascension Day service. Last year I wrote a post with some reflections on the Ascension that some of my youth preached about in their sermons during this service in the past few years.
As some of these wise youth said, the Ascension of Jesus must have been very difficult for the disciples, as they were just getting adjusted to Jesus coming back to live among them after he had been violently killed on the cross and then was resurrected from the dead. And now, not too long after his resurrection, Jesus ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples behind again. And as several of my youth have shared, it can be quite difficult to understand why Jesus would have left the disciples (and all Christians throughout the centuries) to live out this Christian faith without him physically present on this earth. And yet, in the midst of this confusing story, my youth have found meaning in this event, as it calls us into a particular way of life. And I think we can all learn from their reflections and stories.
As Luz, a junior in high school will say in her sermon tonight:
“I know that when Jesus’s 12 disciples had to see him leave them when he ascended into heaven, it would have been extremely confusing and hard for them. I know that feeling because I know how it is to lose something great…
For many who don’t know me here today, I am a person who very much puts others first before myself. “Love thy neighbor” is something God very much teaches us in the Bible. Funny thing, it seems to me that every year, around this time of the season, something happens in my life and I begin to feel depressed and alone. Two weeks ago, I struggled to get out of bed. I was scared. I was scared of taking two steps back every time I took a step forward. I finally decided to get off my bed, go to school, and then work.
As I was getting off of work, I decided to take the bus back home. A homeless man got on. I could tell he hadn’t eaten much for days and I decided to give him a box of animal cookies. He smiled and laughed and said to me, ‘how did you know that animal cookies were my favorite?!’ I laughed and smiled too and said, ‘my heart just told me you did and I didn’t like them anyways.’ He said, ‘You really are kind and genuine. Like a light that shines. Thank you.’
Little did he know, my name is Luz, which – in Spanish – means “light.”
This has honestly given me a different perspective in life. This loving man made me realize so many things by just a few words. We all sit here and cry about break ups or something that won’t matter five years from now, but this man was homeless with nothing but a bucket and a jacket and he smiled like he was living a happy life. It comes to show that materialistic things can’t necessarily make you happy. You can be rich and still wonder what you’re doing with you’re life and then you can be poor and have nothing and be the happiest man on the planet. This affected me in a way that I would have never imagined, I want to be as happy as this man was and I think everyone deserves that…
What is the Ascension? My interpretation of it is this: Jesus died for our sins. He died and was resurrected because he loved us so much that he wanted us to live a better life than the one we were currently living in. And this is where the Ascension comes in. It marked the beginning of our freedom to choose to live as God calls us to live. It reminds us of how we should be treating our neighbor. Jesus was put on earth to teach us how to live our life not by materialistic objects but by peace, love, and faith.”
As Kylie, an 8th grader will share in her sermon:
“A story I want to share with you today occurred a very long time ago during the 1940’s in Poland. Janine Oberrotman who is now 89-years-old came to my school to tell us the story of how she, a Jew, survived the Holocaust. When she was fifteen, Janine was living in the ghettos with her mother and one day as they were walking, they found this gate that was unguarded and Jewish people from within the ghettos were escaping. They soon realized that this portal to safety was closing up so they rushed there and when it was just about to close her mother did something that Janine will never forget. She pushed her daughter on the other side. Janine remembered how she cried and cried out of sadness and fear. She was now alone and there were no familiar faces to be seen…
In 1953 Janine immigrated to America and settled down with her husband. She has kids and grandchildren and she continues to share her story to this day at the Holocaust Museum and at other schools. The lesson of Janine’s story is very strong to me and it ties into the passages that we have just read from the Bible and also into my life.
In the gospel readings, Jesus ascends into heaven leaving the disciples with only the memory of himself and his teachings. However, Jesus comforted the Disciples and reassured them that they would be okay. Jesus told them that they had his words and that everything about him would be fulfilled. He gave them a blessing, and then ascended into heaven. While Janine’s sudden parting from her mother during the Holocaust was traumatic, she was given the opportunity to survive and to tell others her story. The Disciples were also able to tell the story of the promises of Jesus.
Although Janine’s story and the disciple’s story are very different, there are threads that they have in common. It might have been scary at first but they found courage to carry on. As for me, I am going to be confirmed this year at my church. This ceremony represents the time when I get to take the lessons I have learned in my confirmation class and use them independently. I will be confirming my faith in the teachings of the Church and in promises that Jesus shared with the Disciples. Janine Oberrotman, the disciples, and I all had to get prepared for our next phase in life. I am thankful I got the opportunity to learn about Jesus and his stories because this gave me the opportunity to incorporate the lessons into the decisions I make throughout my life.”
And as Katie, an 8th grader, will preach tonight:
“Tonight we celebrate the ascension of Jesus. The night that Jesus died, rose, and came back to his disciples for 40 days before essentially abandoning them and returning to heaven. The disciples are told that they will be baptized by the power of the Holy Spirit instead of with water. Easy enough. Right? Listening to the story like that makes it sound like the equivalent of being energized by a caffeinated soda for your entire life and suddenly, one day, you’re told you can only drink coffee for the rest of your life because it follows the norm.
You have to think to yourself, though, that Jesus did this for a reason. He didn’t suffer and hang on a cross for no reason. You don’t go to school for no reason. Even though it might not seem like there’s a legitimate reason for both occurring, you have to look into Jesus’s words and maybe into the future. Sure, you can not go to school. But your future might be affected. In the same way, Jesus could have not hung on the cross. But we wouldn’t have been forgiven. We wouldn’t know how strong God’s love is. That minute that Jesus left this earth after being ascended into heaven, humanity was baptized with God’s love for all of eternity. We only felt that because of Jesus’s sacrifice.
Why I’m not still confused by this story amazes me. I’m not as confused by God as I was before, but I am bewildered by his power. To understand why, my story really starts early last summer when my eating habits were a little off. I had lost five to ten pounds in a week and I didn’t understand why. I went to the doctor where they checked my blood and tested it over a fairly long period of time. It took a few months to get a fair result, but in those few months… I felt so alone! Why was this happening? Why was I so depressed? Why did I hurt inside when nobody had done or said anything wrong? Why did everything seem horrible when in reality, I had a normal life like everyone else? Why was I super cold when everyone was hot? Why did I feel so abandoned? To be honest, I began to push God away because I didn’t think he was doing anything for me. If he didn’t do anything for me, then why should I put my trust in him?
…It’s time I introduce a new character. This character normally goes by Maggie. Before I knew her, she seemed to the world a normal but quiet individual who liked to play on her tablet and listen to music as loud as possible. She was (and still is) very friendly and loves hugs. I didn’t know her too well, so we didn’t talk much. Some time in late November 2014, I had no idea what I was doing. I can’t remember if someone had said something to me or what, but I felt so alone… She became one of my best friends. We understand each other fully, are able to share anything without thinking twice, and love each other with everything we have…
I was sitting in my room one night, thinking back to my questions, and it suddenly hit me that they had been answered. When I had been alone, God came to me, but indirectly in the form of Maggie. I never felt alone around her. This new happiness came because of her, and from the cold I normally felt, I felt a comforting warmth because of her. I found God again that day. He had never left, but sent his love through Maggie to help me. I could have become an emotional trainwreck, could have destroyed everything in sight, could have lost my mind. But I didn’t. God (and, of course, Maggie) is to thank for that.
You have to think to yourself that God doesn’t always present himself as a luminous figure or a reincarnation of Jesus. He almost never appears directly. You have to think to yourself, have you ever felt alone and been comforted by someone who loves you? Have you ever thought of what you could have become without that person Or if God was behind that person?
Maybe that was the purpose I had been looking for all along; to spread that love that is so desperately needed. Think about it. God is within all of us. It is our mission to express his love when it is needed. This is my message. Take it home, think about it, thank all those who have done good for you and thank God for being here. Go out and spread the love.”
And so I leave you on this Ascension day, with these powerful words from my very wise youth.
May you, too, find meaning in the Ascension and be blessed.
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.