When Ascension Day is not separately observed and celebrated in the Church, we observe it here, on the seventh and last Sunday of Easter.
Luke’s version of the Ascension story comes at the very end of chapter 24, an action-packed chapter that begins with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women discovering the empty tomb and meeting the angels in dazzling white clothes who ask why they seek the living among the dead – in other words Jesus has risen and is alive. The women head back to the other disciples tell them the good news, and then later that same day, two of the disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus, struggling with all that has happened, and Jesus appears to them, though they don’t recognize him at first. Jesus lovingly chastises their struggling hearts and then interprets the scriptures beginning with Moses in light of his crucifixion and resurrection. And then, when prayers are said and bread and broken, the disciples realize this is Jesus who has been walking with them, and then he disappears. Now these two head back to the rest of the disciples at Jerusalem to tell them the good news about Jesus.
And later that same day - I’m telling you, this was quite the day - as the two from the road to Emmaus are telling the other disciples about how Jesus had appeared to them - Jesus appears to them all. And not just as an apparition, but asking for a piece of broiled fish, as though Jesus knows hearts will still be doubting and he’d better meet those doubts head on with some food!
And by this point - just 44 verses into chapter 24 - we come into our scripture text assigned for today, and Jesus reminds the disciples and us about how it had been foretold that Jesus would need to suffer and die and be raised from the dead for our sakes. And how they should stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit is sent to them “sending upon you what my Father promised.” And how repentance and forgiveness of sins - God’s unending love song for the world - is to be proclaimed to all nations. Then Jesus brings them out towards Bethany and offers one more blessing, and is drawn away from the disciples, up into heaven.
Holy smokes, what a day! No wonder the scriptures say next that the disciples were continually in the temple after this, praising God. Christ is raised from the dead. Christ appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Christ appears with the disciples in Jerusalem. Christ blesses them and ascends to heaven amidst the promise of the Holy Spirit coming to empower them in the work of sharing God’s unending love song – a call away from sin and brokenness and into redemptive living by Christ’s gift. Oh, we, too, thank you, God. We, too, praise you and desire to worship you – each Sunday as we gather, and every single day in all that we do, praising your holy name and wondrous works of love.
And we know that Jesus, ascending to heaven, is not leaving or abandoning us, but merely fulfilling the patterns woven long before time began. Jesus ascends on high so that the dance of the Trinity can continue as it always has and always will.
So, when the days seem endlessly long, we can look to God to remind us of this long, long first day of the resurrection, some 2,000 years ago. And when grief and loss ring in our hearts we can remember that Jesus did not ascend to heaven on high so as to leave us, but so that the continued saving and loving work of God’s mercy could come closer still. And in that closeness remind us not only of God’s love for us, but that we are a people sent to bear this love for all of this hungry, struggling, and needy world. Amen.