Christ Centered Resources

The Presence of Absence

Rev. Ed Searcy

Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
University Hill United Church : Sun, May 24, 1998
(Voices United #192 "Forsaking Chariots of Fire") Ascension Sunday. Is it highlighted on your calendar? Have you been waiting with bated breath for this day? I thought not. In the season of Advent we count down the days and decorate the house in anticipation of Christmas carols and gifts. Lent brings forty days of patient waiting in the wilderness for Easter news. But the Ascension of Jesus to his location at the right hand of God goes as unnoticed by us as did his arrival in a cattle stall two millennia ago to all but an unlikely few. There are reasons, of course. Good reasons. Or so they seem. After all, how are we to explain a miraculous levitation to a world that demands to know how the trick is done? And even if we could make sense of the cloud that carried him away, what of Christ's new heavenly locale? Our Moderator is not the only one who would turn our gaze earthward, leaving such other-worldly speculations to be pondered by others. But today, Ascension Sunday, we stand beside the disciples whose eyes are raised skyward, watching as Jesus exits the material world. Perhaps a moment as mysterious as this cannot be captured in the carefully constructed argument of an academic paper or of a logically argued sermon. Maybe we can only see the Ascension of Christ through the eyes of an artist or of a poet ... Forsaking chariots of fire and fanfared brass, as strangely silent as he came, the Saviour leaves and God, with heaven's caress, the Son receives. A chariot of fire. At least Elijah had the courtesy to leave this earth in a chariot of fire. And Moses ... Moses, too, was assumed bodily into heaven. Imagine living in a world where such mysteries could still be contemplated ... a world where everything was still possible for God. Maybe, just for today, we can allow ourselves to re-enter such a world ... a world in which the miraculous is still possible and in which the heart as well as the mind ponders the work of the Divine. On a university campus in a world of reason this means 'suspending disbelief' ... pretending that the world is different than it appears to the rational mind. But for us who have inherited the ancient stories of faith it means rediscovering belief ... belief that there is more going on than meets the eye of the telescope and microscope ... something that can only be seen through eyes that gaze at the ascending One. He has to go, as from the grave he had to rise: in order to be everywhere he must depart to live, not in one place, but in each heart. We forget. We forget that the Resurrected Christ existed. True ... he was not a rescusitated corpse. He was not the person he had been. But he was not some ethereal unearthly spirit either. For a time he was present on the earth beyond the grave. Present to the disciples in ways that they struggle to describe ... but present nonetheless. For how long? For forty days says Luke. Forty days. Does he mean forty days on the calendar ... forty mornings and evenings? Or does he mean forty days like the forty days of the Flood and the forty days of Moses on the mountain with God and the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness with the Tempter? The Risen Christ walked the earth for forty days says Luke. But then he had to go. He did not remain to lead the mission he had begun. He absented himself and left the disciples on their own. We know this reality. It is ours, too. Ascension Sunday helps us to name it. We live in the presence of the absence of Christ. The mission he was given has been given to us: "repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47) The first disciples wonder why they have been left on their own with such a daunting Mission Statement: Repentance ... the call to turn the world around, to end the self-destructive behaviour that wastes lives and the earth's resources. Forgiveness ... the healing of relationships broken by sin, even the most well-intentioned sin of the most well-intentioned community of sinners. All nations ... a mission that is mandated not just for one time and place, but for, and to, all people. We know their struggle. We, too, are overwhelmed by the complexity of relationships and by the ambiguity of history. So we draft Mission Statements with more modest goals. But look. Jesus ascends. He is not located on the earth. He sits at the right hand of God. He is God's 'right hand man'. All 'left-handers' everywhere know what that means. In a world of right-handers this is a simple code to break. Jesus ascends so that the mission which seems so impossible can become a possibility. Jesus is God's right hand ... the One who does God's will. He leaves the world, paradoxically, to become more accessible to the world. No longer is he present only to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John ... or to Salome, Martha, Mary and Mary. Whenever, or however, it occurred the Ascension of Christ is the one thing and the one thing alone that made possible the mission of healing and reconciliation that continues to this day and to this place ... So, Christ ascends; air cradles him, disciples stare. Their Easter joy, his seven week's stay seem now to end. But no! The Spirit's sending they portend. The absence of Christ's presence. This is the stark reality faced by the church. Easter comes. And Easter goes. He is risen. And then he is gone. And without the presence of the living Lord, the One who calls others to follow, how can the church dare to act? Suddenly the marking of Ascension Sunday seems somehow strangely fortuitous. We, too, wonder how the church dare act. In an age of diminishing numbers and budgets, a time of shrinking energy and courage we imagine that the church, like some rare species, faces extinction. So we grasp after marketing schemes dressed up as 'Growth Programs'. Like the society around us we place our trust in the 'quick-fix' of an earth-bound solution. The Ascension marks that time between the presence of the Risen Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. It is the season of the presence of absence. Too many of us and too many of our churches know this season all too well. So well, in fact, that we begin to believe that the absence of the presence of God is to be expected ... that such a barren time is all that we can hope for. But Ascension is the necessary prelude to Pentecost. Absence must make way for Presence. In between times, the disciples live, not in anguished despair bemoaning their bleak future, but in eager anticipation of the potent Spirit of God that has been promised by One whose promises can be trusted. Here is the reason to take delight in this particular community of faith. We are no model church, embodying the best of strategies for institutional growth. Nor are we always the gracious, faithful Christians we intend. But here one often senses a living hope in the power of God. It is not a rational hope based on a careful analysis of the data that leads us to trust in the Holy Spirit. It is, instead, a hope grounded in the heart which is open to the wonder and mystery of God's determination to be present in the world. 'The Spirit's sending they (and we) portend'. Let angel harmonies resound, let trumpets blare; let heaven's banquet guests applaud the welcomed word and earth anticipate her coming Lord. We dare to rejoice on a day that recalls Christ's flight from this world. Not grief of ending but anticipation of new beginning is the tone we set in our life together. There is joy in heaven at the safe return of the One who lifted the Word of God off of the written page and lived it in a human life. On earth there is expectation. The church lives its life expecting the return of the Word made flesh, God's right hand, before its very eyes. It is an act of faith that draws our gaze away from the clouds and directs our attention to the earth where we watch expectantly for the coming of the Christ. Because the ascended One is absent and has promised to be present again we are always watching in expectation. Mother Theresa names this expectancy ... "Because we cannot see Christ [in the flesh], we cannot express our love to him; but our neighbours we can always see, and we can do to them what, if we saw him, we would like to do to Christ ... In the slums, in the broken human body, in children, we see Christ, and we touch him." For those with eyes to see, the ascended One re-enters history moment by surprising moment as incognito as ever. No throne. No chariot of fire. First a manger. Then a cross. Now a stranger's face. So it is that we live life expecting ... expecting that the ascended Christ will come close ... close enough to see and to touch.