In my young life, I have said goodbye quite a lot. I have more 12 times since I left home for West Virginia University in 1998. That is more than I would like.
Soon, we will make move number 13 when we leave Mackville and Antioch and take on a new challenge in Covington. We are already preparing for the move. Packed boxes are being stacked in the dinning room. Discarded items are being sorted. Reasonable quotes are being sought to move a family that came in as two and leaves as three to their next appointment.
All of this I can handle with relative easy. Packing a few boxes causes only momentary sourness. Getting rid of unused items reduces unwanted clutter. Finding a reliable and reasonably-priced moving company reduces the stress of quickly and efficiently moving.
What is difficult for me is the actual process of saying goodbye. It is not easy to say goodbye, yet I find myself in the beginning stages of this process. I find saying goodbye difficult because of the finality that comes with saying that word. The finality comes in the closing of one season of life or the redefinition of treasured relationships. Those are both difficult. From personal experience, relationships tend to fade once a goodbye has been said. Shared experiences are no longer shared and life begins to take on a new direction.
Granted, there are times when saying goodbye is important and can produce healthy and holy positives. As your pastor, it is important that I am able to separate myself mentally, physically, and spiritually when I live. That separation allows your new pastor to come in and effectively serve, while at the same time allows me the ability to freely serve my new congregation. At the same time, a church must also be willing to say goodbye in ways that lets go of an old pastor. This allows a congregation to welcome a new pastor with open hearts and arms.
This doesn’t mean saying goodbye is easy. No one can honestly say they enjoy saying or receiving a goodbye. When relationships and seasons end it is very painful and difficult. Goodbyes are tough.
Our reading, this morning, from Luke 24:44-53 feels like a goodbye. The bags have been packed. The moving truck is loaded. Everyone is standing around looking at each other waiting for someone to say, “it’s time to go.” This passage describes Jesus’ departure from earth. We expect this to be a sad story, but no one is sad. Instead, Luke reports that the disciples are filled with a worshipful joy.
While today is Mother’s Day, a day in which we honor the importance of our mothers, it is also Ascension Sunday. It is the day we give voice to an event that took place 40 days after the Resurrection, which was Thursday. The Ascension serves as a bridge. It moves the church from the celebration of the Easter season to the remembrance of the church’s birth at Pentecost. The Ascension of Christ is one of the most theologically significant events. It marks the moment when Jesus departs from the disciples and physical earth to take his place at the Father’s right hand. At the same time, it is also an event we struggle to understand. What does the Ascension mean? What does it say to us? How does it inform our witness and lives today?
These are key questions Luke tries to answer. Luke is the only gospel to focus on the Ascension. He covers the topic twice, both here and in Acts 1. This description is the shorter of the two and a more fuller description comes in Acts. What takes place in Bethany at Mount Olive anticipates what would occur in Acts and today.
At the most basic level, the Ascension is the moment when Jesus departs from earth and goes to heaven. Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples after his resurrection. This was time spent in fellowship, which included moments of teaching that equipped them for the ministry they would live in to. The Ascension marks an end to these encounters, which will not happen again until Jesus returns in his final glory. Jesus departure, then, marks the end to his earthly ministry.
Jesus can leave, in a physical sense, his disciples and the earth because his work is complete. He finished what he was called to do. Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth to be the Lord and Savior of all. It was a work that was evident through his actions of healing and teaching. Most important, it was seen in how Jesus gave of himself so everyone can experience the grace and depths of God’s love. The cross was the means of redemption and the resurrection is the proof Jesus won the battle over sin and death. The work is finished.
That’s what took place, but what does the Ascension mean? It means Jesus has left to resume his place with God. His glorified body ascended to heaven and took the place the Son of God has held since before time. Jesus is now with God. It is a Trinitarian event that takes place. The Father sent the Son and now the Son has returned to the Father with the promise of the Spirit to come. From this heavenly place, Jesus will exercise his authority as Lord of all. According to theologian Thomas Oden, the Ascension marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in heaven.
The Ascension also means something else. It is a point Mark Tranvik focuses on his commentary on the passage. Because Jesus has returned to heaven, we can have confidence knowing God is approachable. This is because our Lord knows our pains and struggles. Jesus experienced them all. God “knows” our “loneliness, betrayal, rejection, thirst, and even death,” Tranvik writes, through Jesus’ earthly ministry. Our God is not a distant god who does not know what we feel. We worship the true God who has experienced our hurts and has walked where we have walked.
Worship is a key thought to focus upon. It helps us understand what the Ascension means today. Because Jesus is the Son of God, he is worthy of our joy and praise. This is why the disciples are overwhelmed with a sense of joy and worship the Lord after he departs. In Luke’s gospel, this is the first time the disciples respond to Jesus with acts of worship. To worship means we show our love and connection. It is right to worship Jesus because he is not just a teacher. He is not just a healer. He is the Son of God.
As well, the Ascension means something else to us today. Jesus’ departure was not a goodbye. Yes, it was an ending. Jesus would depart in a physical sense, but he has never really left us. The Ascension was the start of something wonderfully new, which would be experienced through the lives of the disciples and the entire church to come. Jesus’ living presence is all around us through the life of Holy Spirit working in and through us. We are never alone. The promise of Holy Spirit reaffirms this for us. The fact Jesus does not completely depart reminds us that we do not worship a distant god who is never here. We worship a God who is active, present, and involved in our lives.
This is what we are called to give witness to as a church. Luke records Jesus’ commissioning the disciples then and today to the work of telling the Good News of Jesus Christ to every nation, which means all cultures, regions, and locations. In a world that sometimes believes God has left or is no longer hearing us, the Ascension reminds us God has never left. Though Jesus departed in a physical sense he never said goodbye. Jesus is at work through the presence of the Holy Spirit and calls the church today to respond by telling the entire world that God is alive, is real, and is there for each of us.
We are called to witness to this fact that God has never left by the way we share this hope to the world. It’s a work we cannot do until we have experienced Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Ascension gives us the mission, while Pentecost gives us the ability to serve faithfully in the task before us.
For now, we find ourselves in the same posture the disciples found themselves on Mount Olives. That is a sense of awe of who our God is and the majestic nature of his work and name. We find ourselves rejoicing in the fact that Christ never said goodbye. It is joyous news that Jesus is with us always. This is news worthy of us to experience and to embrace. Jesus left to go be with the Father, so that we can experience a life with God in a deeper way. Praise be to God, indeed, for the Ascension.
I hope we find ourselves, this morning, simply in awe that Jesus is always with us. He has never left. Even though we expect to hear Jesus say the words “goodbye,” Jesus once against doesn’t give us what we expect. He gives us what we need to hear. That is the truth that Jesus is always with us, even when it seems like sometimes he is not. The Ascension reminds us that Jesus is actively involved in our lives by the fact that he sits in his place as the Son of God and Lord of Lords. His presence is felt through the presence of the Holy Spirit, God’s living presence which is active in each of us, the church, and the world.
Jesus may have departed in a physical sense, but it doesn’t mean he has left us to figure out this world on our own. Jesus would never do that. Our Lord is always with us. Jesus never says goodbye.