Sermon for Ascension Day, May 21, 2020

Sermon for Ascension Day, Luke 24:44-53 May 21, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.

44Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Ascension Day is a major festival in the Christian calendar, but it usually doesn’t get much attention in our churches in the United States. In some places in Europe, Ascension Day is still a national holiday – but people there who get a day off work and school are probably not paying much attention to the religious significance of this holy day either. So, what’s this day all about? In brief, today we celebrate Jesus’ return to his Father, his ascent into heaven, the logistics of which I chalk up to mystery.


This is a day of celebration, to be sure, but it is bittersweet. Jesus’ original followers surely had mixed feelings about it. After all, they were enjoying the spiritual mountaintop experience of Jesus’ resurrection and his many and various appearances to his followers. And then suddenly Jesus disappeared.

It strikes me that the days following the resurrection must have been like the experience on the literal mountaintop when Jesus was transfigured before a select few disciples. That was such an amazing experience that Peter, not knowing what to make of it all, offered to build dwelling places so that they could stay on the mountaintop. “’Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ – not knowing what he said.” (Luke 9:33)

But we all know from our own experiences that we cannot stay on the mountaintop forever. Celebrations come and go. Once in a lifetime events live up to their name, for they are rare. Most of our lives we slog along down in the valleys of one sort or another with our ordinary routines.

Ascension, again, is a bittersweet sort of festival day. It was great for Jesus that he returned to God the Father in heaven in great victory – mission accomplished! But then, where did that leave the disciples? In addition to their own joy recorded in Luke’s Gospel, they surely felt some grief and sadness about Jesus’ departure. The disciples undoubtedly also said to one another, “Now what do we do?”

Ascension Day is one of those pivotal, fulcrum-like festivals which denote a major transition into new realities, a tipping point from one era into the next.

But on the day of Jesus’ Ascension, the disciples were not yet in the new reality. That came on Pentecost with the sending of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ Ascension actually introduced a kind of limbo period for the disciples.

Jesus left them with this promise and this instruction: “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49) The promise is the coming of the Holy Spirit, that is, being clothed with power from on high. The instruction is to stay in the city, in Jerusalem. In other words, stay put.

That sounds rather like our lives and circumstances right now doesn’t it? We are instructed to shelter in place until the gradual re-openings – maybe through June here in Virginia…. Who knows?

Not unlike Jesus’ followers, we are grieving the loss of so much right now. And not unlike those same disciples, we are wondering what’s next for us personally and in our families, what’s next for our congregation, and what’s next for our places of work, for our nation, and for our world.

Thus, we’re also in a kind of limbo state right now. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Staying in the city until….

Until the new normal is ushered in – whenever and whatever that will be.

Plagues and pandemics in past centuries have on occasion profoundly changed the course of human history. I have read, for example, that the Bubonic Plagues of the Medieval period in Europe helped goad Western civilization into the Renaissance. The need to engage in scientific study because of the plague helped bring about new realities for Western culture, beginning a more scientific age.

In contrast, the lingering effects of the global pandemic of 1918, some historians argue, made Europe more ripe for fascism in Germany and Italy several years later.

Thus, a pandemic can bode well or ill for us. Maybe both? But there is that sense that the new normal, whatever it will be, is not going be like our old normal. We shall see. Time and world history will tell.

Until all of this begins to come to pass, what do we do as we wait, as we stay in the city, as we shelter in place? How best should we spend this time?

We do well, of course, to take our cue from the disciples. What did they do while they waited? The Gospel writer of Luke tells us that the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:52) In other words, they worshiped.

Moreover, we also know from the second volume of the Luke-Acts set, that when the disciples were not in the Temple, they stayed in an upper room where they continually prayed. “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14)

Additionally, the disciples also used this time for discernment and decision making about leadership. Judas had betrayed Jesus and then died. So, they needed to choose another to be numbered among the twelve. That’s when those chose Matthias, having cast lots to make the decision.

And finally, reading between the lines, surely it is true that those first disciples continued to dwell with Jesus’ words while waiting. After all, Jesus’ last act with his disciples before his Ascension was to teach them. He said to them, “‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45a)

In short, Jesus’ followers filled their time with meaningful activity while sheltering in place, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit – they worshiped, they prayed, they resonated with the words of scripture and Jesus’ teaching, and they engaged in discernment about choosing another leader.

We are in similar circumstances as we await what’s next, and we are doing in our own ways what Jesus’ followers did in ancient times – we worship (at home, alas, and not at our temple), we pray, we dwell with Jesus’ word recorded in scripture, and as you have chosen me to be your pastoral leader, we embark on a journey of communal discernment as we begin to plan for whatever may be next in our mission and life together as a congregation.

I pray that this season of staying put will indeed continue to be worshipful and prayerful for us, and filled with the echoes of Jesus’ words, even as we shelter in place in our homes. For such worshipfulness and prayerfulness and attentiveness to Jesus’ teaching – all of this – cultivates the presence of mind essential to the discernment that will lead us faithfully into a new era of mission and ministry together as Resurrection Lutheran Church.

Our time of waiting cannot be wasted and will not simply be a holding pattern when we spend our time worshipfully and prayerfully, dwelling with the Word. Therefore, may God bless this season of our life together as we continue with the guidance and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

For Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.