May 29, 2022
Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension Sunday), Pastor Lois Pallmeyer, May 29, 2022
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
How many of you know that disappointing moment when a helium-filled balloon slips out of your fingers and floats away into the sky? For a second, there’s that fleeting sense that we’ll be able to grab onto it; that it’s right there and still somehow within reach. But all too soon, we realize that no, in fact, the string is moving up and away too quickly, the wind is lifting it out of our range, and the balloon is gone for good.
How many of you have had that same sensation in the last few days? We have momentary glimpses of joy or beauty, only to have them blown away by stark realities of pain, brutality, ugliness, and this week, once again, utter madness.
Many pictures and descriptions of Jesus’ ascension seem to convey a picture like that. Goodness, hope and promise seem to drift out of reach, and we are left on the mountain with the disciples, confused, abandoned and afraid.
The universe was once seen as a three-level reality, with earth here, heaven above, and something else entirely below, each wholly separate and removed from the others. With that spatial interpretation of the cosmos in the backdrop, Jesus ascends into the clouds because that’s where heaven is, and once there, he is out of the picture. Jesus seems to leave the day-to-day reality we face, seemingly telling us that we’re on our own now, and he’ll be in touch.
But Luke’s gospel never describes things in such terms. Throughout his account, earth and heaven are not portrayed as two separate, untouchable spheres. From the beginning, we hear that Jesus brings heaven to earth. Divine life enters our human story; angels link a song of glory to God in the highest heaven to peace for God’s people on earth. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he forgives sins, calms storms, and tells people to stand up and walk. Whenever he preaches, he announces blessing to those who are hungry, and good news to those who are poor, not just for some eventual time in some remote other level of the universe, but for today, in their daily lives here on earth.
I know it can be hard to keep that truth in mind, when life feels so removed from heavenly bliss.
The last few days have brought us back in touch with the overwhelming reality of the power of violence and death in this world. Our society has become obsessed with cruelty and destruction. The slaughter of innocents isn’t merely a scene from ancient scripture but all too real in the 21st century, this time in a tiny rural school district, dashing the lives of 4th graders and their teachers in the last days of their school year. Only a week ago, we were learning with horror of gunmen massacring black lives at a Buffalo grocery store, and elderly immigrants at a church in California. Acts of vicious destruction have just about become too many to list[i].
We hardly need a hell in some remote, underground level of the universe, when hate, intolerance, and bigotry show up right in front of our faces here. And what good does it do us to have Jesus ascended into the heavens somewhere, when we’re crying out in sorrow right here?
Maybe it’s time for us to let go of that ancient cosmology to re-envision what this story is really telling us. What if Jesus isn’t being carried off like a balloon floating out of reach, into some unreachable place high above us, but rather becoming part of the space around us right here? Luke doesn’t present us with a divine disappearing act but a new way of knowing Jesus, still very present, in our very midst.
Did you catch the disciples’ reaction to seeing Jesus withdraw from them? They weren’t re-traumatized by his departure, feeling abandoned all over again, as it seems they would have been if they felt he were leaving them. The gospel says they were filled with great joy! In fact, it is still Easter. They are still celebrating life, and even as Jesus is removed from their midst, they discover his living presence remains with them.
Granted, they don’t return to Jerusalem with a blank check protecting them from danger. The power of Rome, of empire, of Herod, were still very much apparent, and we learn that they continue to face it, throughout the rest of their lives. But they do return with joy, somehow trusting a resurrected Christ was filling the very air they breathed, and confident enough to witness to the power that life offered them.
Jesus assures them he is sending them God’s promised power. Pastor Barbara Lundblad reminds us that in the Acts version of this story, Jesus more clearly calls that power the Spirit[ii]. The same Spirit that rested on Jesus at his baptism, that anointed Jesus to speak good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed, which was active in Jesus as he sat at table with unlikely guests, as he held children in his arms, as he reached out to those who had been pushed to the sides, as he questioned disparities between the wealthy and the poor, as he fed the hungry, and healed the hurting, and included the lonely, that very Spirit was now poured out on the disciples, and “by extension, on us”[iii].
Theologian Elizabeth Johnson emphasizes that the Spirit “is nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world … the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves[iv].”
Dear Friends, can we sense the Spirit still empowering us to share good news? Can that same Spirit still equip us to witness to the power of life that will not yield to viciousness or despair?
I know it can be hard to find hope in a world such as the one we’ve seen this week, but the disciples found great joy even while their lives were in danger. They found it while praising God for whatever in their lives was good, for the hope that they knew in Christ, and for the assurance that God’s love was stronger than death.
Might we also be surrounded with reasons to still praise God? Despite atrocities and massacres, there is still good in the world. We still know the joy of spring. We still sense the hope of gardens in late May. We still hold on to the memory of loved ones. We still are shown the compassion of strangers. We still find the will to stand up against the forces of hatred and violence and bigotry. We still have a voice to declare to them, “You will not win this fight.” We still witness to the nations every time we remind one another that the fullness of God is all around us, death has no more dominion over us, and love is still stronger than death.
Responding to the events of the last few days, poet Amanda Gorman sings,
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them
The goodness of God has never drifted away from us like a balloon caught in the breeze. No, the Spirit keeps blowing into our lives with renewed energy, with blessing, with power, equipping us again to be God’s people in this place. We still are invited into the world in which the Spirit of a Resurrected Jesus fills the very air between us with healing, hope and kindness, and the call to make this world a better place.
Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] For a sobering reminder of the number of mass shootings we are experiencing, see https://massshootingtracker.site/
[ii] Lundblad, Barbara. Commentary on Luke 24:44-53, Working Preacher, May 5, 2016. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ascension-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-2444-53-4. See Acts 1:1-11.
[iv] ibid, quoting 2 Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God I Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1993) 128.
[v] Gorman, Amanda, Hymn for the Hurting, New York Times Opinion. May 27, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/27/opinion/amanda-gorman-uvalde-poem.html . A version of this article appears in print on May 28, 2022, Section A, Page 20 of the New York edition with the headline: Hymn For the Hurting.