Thursday, May 24, 2012


Scripture for the 7th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, his people will rise, renewed with power from on high. The fiftieth day of Easter, the Day of Pentecost, trains the church to look up and open up to that rushing wind of the Spirit of God, that pouring out of “amore”, the love that sweeps us off our feet and empowers us to love God in all things, receiving the love that is above all things, the passion that sends us into the world to see what we can do with such power.

But before we get to the fiftieth day of Easter (next Sunday), we arrive at the fortieth day (last Thursday), when the church is challenged to raise its sights, looking up not so ready to receive as to grieve; for on that day, the Ascension of Jesus slaps us in the face with an ultimate puzzle. Our Lord appears to be taken from us, yet all the language of the day claims that this happens so that all things may be filled with his presence. He is in all things; he is above all things.

On the Day of Pentecost, remembered as the birthday of the church, some congregations serve a great big cake. On the Day of Ascension, the conflicting themes of disappearance and omnipresence make it sound as if we get to eat our cake… and keep it, too.

These great fifty days provide the spin to the church year and make it behave like a roller coaster ride. Our faith tells us that the cross of Good Friday is actually the tree of new life (shown in the central and topmost window above our altar as a bright green cross, have you ever taken that in, while at the rail?); but bitter is the grief that rivets mother Mary and friend John to that dark hillside, and for at least a while the whole company of disciples is plunged into despair. Until Mary Magdalene explodes in joy and Team Jesus, in ones and twos and threes, experiences the fresh but familiar presence of their mentor, become convinced that death has not been able to silence him, and so become witnesses to his resurrection.

But this isn’t a fairy tale where they’ll all live happily ever after. Joyfully, yes. Powerfully, creatively, generously, bravely, yes. But it isn’t happy faces on those disciples, the fortieth day out. He is taken from them. The roller coaster lunges one more time, and their hearts sink as they face a heaven that claims the brightest and best. How will they come down from this mountain of loss and navigate a world without him?

This is part of the Gospel story that it’s tempting to rush over. But the answer for them can’t have been much different than the answer for us. We navigate our losses by passing through them head on, heart on, recognizing that it takes time to heal, takes a community of caring to heal, takes openness to the promised Spirit of God in Jesus to heal, takes reliving and retelling the story of our gains and our losses, to heal.

The story of the Ascension is the church’s story of her gains and losses. It works best as a story. Try to depict it realistically in a painting, and you have to deal with dangling feet and gaping mouths. But as a story, we get to imagine the impact, sense the mystery, and treasure the metaphors as we let it become our story.

For each of us is on a roller coaster ride that ascends in love of life, in love of God, and can come rumbling down in stomach-flipping speed in the loss of someone upon whom our life has hinged, or can take an abrupt turn we weren’t anticipating and we then face intensely the challenges of adapting to change. It is then that we dare to take him at his word and trust his promise, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be smarter not to wait until then to practice the adaptability of faith in Jesus? To hinge our lives more intentionally on him, building familiarity and facing mystery in our praying, having an honest and open conversation with scripture, finding spiritual community with one another, seeking and serving where we are needed?

These must have been the same choices embraced by the church between Ascension and Pentecost, moving them through grief to joy, through helplessness to leadership, through dizzying change into transformation in the way of Christ. The story of this between-times is our story.