This past week we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord. For forty days the risen Jesus remained with the disciples in Jerusalem, teaching them everything about him in the scriptures, eating and drinking with them as his friends, modeling the love that must characterize the life of the church.
On the 40th day after Easter, a Thursday, he led the disciples out of the city to a place where St. Luke tells us he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight.
The Ascension doesn’t get much attention from us. But it is worth our full attention.
One of the reasons we don’t celebrate the Ascension is that we don’t know what to say about where Jesus went. For those first disciples heaven seemed to be a place just beyond the clouds. It was definitely strange, but perhaps they could accept the idea of heaven as a physical place in the clouds. But heaven for us is not a place like another planet.
I tend to think of heaven in terms of time rather than place. The landscape of time, even just momentarily past or yet to come, is completely hidden from our intuition. At best we can deduce time past from tell tale signs left behind, or imagine time future based on the continuity of motion that we experience in the present. Heaven is simply where God is, in us through the Holy Spirit, and as near to us always as the previous and the next moment, deducible based on the witness of others and imaginable, but veiled to us.
The Ascension poses difficult questions about cosmology, but the main reason we don’t pay much attention to the Ascension is because it is all about losing, letting go, and taking up the work Jesus has given us to do, rather than relying on him to do it for us.
Our favorite moments: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints, are all about getting something amazing from God, being united or re-united with God in some certain and reassuring way. But Ascension is about letting Jesus go and about learning to rely on what he taught us, to move beyond the joy of getting and into the joy of giving up ourselves for the love of the world just as he gave up himself.
Why did Jesus have to leave at all? Why couldn’t he just stay, teaching successive generations of disciples, performing miracles to prove God to us over and over, being our constant model of Christian love so that we could never doubt or despair or fail?
Because if he stayed we would not do the all-important work of faith. We may still choose not do the work of faith in his absence, but we will certainly not do it in his presence. If Jesus had stayed we would keep trying to be close to him, to make him teach, heal, and prove God to us, and we would never make his joy complete, by becoming doers of his word, bearers of the beautiful fruit of faith, and love, and justice for the world.
Jesus leaves so that we will start doing the work of faith we will not do if he stays with us. But it is so important to recognize that he does not leave us alone. He leaves us with a community of witnesses, friends bound by the experience of his love for them and for the world.
It is tremendously difficult work to keep faith and do justice and to live with loving kindness in a world that is inhospitable to love, and faith, and justice, a world that seems not to want or treasure these gifts.
We all wrestle with the difficulty of keeping the faith, of staying in community.
But there is no doubt that the world desperately needs faith and the love of God, and that the most convincing witness is the witness of normal people whose lives have been transformed, and by whose efforts the lives of others are transformed through gathering together as a community of love and prayer.
We see the disciples begin to do this wonderful and difficult work in the reading from Acts. Jesus is not there to select the apostle who will take the place of Judas and again complete their number. So together Peter and the others discern first by setting an agreeable, reasonable standard: One who has accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.
Then they select two who fulfill the standard. Then they pray. And then, in an acknowledgement that they cannot be certain, as an act of faith, they throw lots.
Jesus isn’t there, but they are figuring it out and learning to become the community of love and prayer that will have power to transform the world by bearing God’s love for the world.
Today we are close to the time when a dear friend and faithful companion will be leaving us, not in time so much as in place. Jane has accompanied us in this place at nearly every Sunday and Festival service, Special liturgy, wedding, and funeral for over 33 years. In three Sundays she will be gone, not forever, but from this place and from this work we have shared.
For 33 years Jane has given of herself. She has taught us how to listen for the music of the soul that is the source of all the music of the church. She has prayerfully selected hymns and service music that enhance the meaning of each liturgy. She has led us into singing and making the gift of music for the world.
And of course she has shared herself with us, her joys and sorrows, her strength and weakness of faith, her pride in accomplishment and her humble imperfection.
Above all, she has helped make worship beautiful for all of us and with all of us. She has put mind, body and soul into making the music of the heart something we can feel and share and give to others.
While we know how much Jane loves to make and share this music, we should never be deceived that she this work was easy and without sacrifice. It is not only hard physical work to do what she does. It is hard spiritual work. Of course those of us who give our lives in service to the church get compensated, but that does not make faith and love and prayer any easier than for any one else.
Jane has been offering her self up to God and for the world with the community of believers in precisely the way that Jesus was hoping and praying would happen as he prepared to take his leave of his disciples. When Jane takes her leave of us in two weeks we will try to discern the next person who will help make worship beautiful for us and with us. For that we will need prayer, and mutual love, and the help of God.
But for today and for the next two weeks we should give full attention to this leave taking and appreciate with heightened awareness and the gifts we have shared with faithful companion who has blessed us all with her gifts and talents, who has helped us boldly and wonderfully praise God, feel and know that it is more blessed to give than to receive, inspired us to live God’s praise and love not only with our lips but through giving up ourselves to his service and make music for the world which often seems not to want the gift of God’s love, but which needs it, and needs to be drawn up into it with us, and brought into full song, complete joy, as when organ, choir and congregation sound together.