I have a childhood memory I hope you don’t share. As a child, my brother, sister and I would join our dad and his wife and her four children for summer vacation. Every year, all nine of us would pile into the family station wagon and drive across country. If you come from a big family, you may remember trips like these. Long days driving, skin stuck to leatherette seats, no air conditioning, bumping and jostling sweaty brothers and sisters for space in endless turf wars. And oh the relief when we’d roll into a rest stop or restaurant and tumble out of the car like clowns at the circus, thrilled to stretch our legs and move.
One day, on the long drive from Kentucky to Colorado, the rascal-y-est of my stepbrothers, Mark ….got left behind. Every child’s worst nightmare. After an hour of driving, the car felt strangely …quiet. And someone finally piped up, “Hey, where’s Mark?” His mother shrieked in a way so primal my skin crawled! My dad slammed on the brakes, u-turned the car and we sped back the hour’s drive in where Mark waited, sobs racking his wiry little body in that era long before the security of cell phones. The boy who climbed back into the station wagon – shaken. His worldview, enlarged now to include such trauma. Imagine what it was like for him…as he saw that overloaded station wagon drive off into the distance. Wondering if it would ever return.
It could have been any one of us. Left behind. We could feel his anguish. I can still feel it.
You and I know about loss. In some way or another each of us has felt left behind — by a parent, a friend, a spouse, a child. So imagine the disciples who love their friend and teacher Jesus like a brother. Love him so much they left their old lives behind to follow him from town to town, listening to him teach and preach, urging one and all: Change your life.
Just imagine the times they had together. The meals, the laughter. The mind blowing miracles. The healings. The quiet conversation. The public events. All of it, heady stuff, utterly extraordinary, and I’m sure not one of them ever imagined a life so full!
And then the loss. First, his mysterious warnings, which the friends try their best to ignore. Ultimately, the warnings come true, and they lose their friend to the unspeakable horror of death on the cross. What do they do next? Hide, ache, grieve.
Left behind, and surely it’s like no other loss they have experienced.
We know this story from scripture very well. And these past weeks, we’ve heard the resurrection stories too. The sightings. The dawning realization – he is risen. The wonder! Thomas’s breakthrough: My Lord and my God! And through it all, Jesus keeps on trying to help his friends understand what comes next. And in tonight’s passage from Luke – the what comes next. The moment Jesus leaves his friends – again.
If I were one of the disciples, I’m sure the past loss and anguish would come flooding back. Leaving again?! Wouldn’t I, wouldn’t any one of us, feel like my stepbrother did, left behind at a dusty rest stop somewhere in Oklahoma? Undone by the fear, the loss, the abandonement?
But, surprisingly, tonight’s story from Luke’s Gospel isn’t like this at all! In tonight’s story, the friends don’t argue with Jesus or try to stop him from leaving again. No, instead they listen calmly as Jesus prepares them in four amazing ways.
- First, he, “…opens their minds to understand the scriptures.” How about that?
- Second, he gives them marching orders: Proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
- Third, he tells them to stay put until, “…you are clothed with power from on high.” He is sending the Holy Spirit to fuel their work!
- And fourth, he blesses them. As he is being carried up to heaven, he is blessing them.
Jesus sees to it that his friends are ready.
What about us this Ascension Day? Are we ready? No matter how we prepare, feeling left behind is hard, and down through the ages, artists have tried to help all of us – Jesus’ followers – say goodbye and move forward. Here’s how:
Early ascension images show Jesus trudging up a hill toward heaven, and the hand of God reaching out of the clouds above to give him an assist. Clear message? God needs him to come home.
In icons, we see Jesus seated inside a full body halo called a mandorla, rising toward heaven in a very formal way. To me, this looks like doctrine: Jesus packaged for the next phase, life with God. And the ascension itself – austere and organized, as if to say – it’s official.
Beautiful images of the ascension, like Rembrandt’s, show Jesus standing on a cloud, hoisted upward by angels and cherubim. In works like these, sweeping elegance as Jesus rises.
The crowd on the ground changes from work to work, era to era. Sometimes Jesus’ mother Mary and other luminaries show up, helping us see the ascension isn’t just ‘good bye and get to work’ for the disciples, but commissioning for everybody – the whole church.
And the most delightful ascension paintings show…disappearing feet. Yes, for many years artists painted disappearing feet. Works like these show Jesus’ followers looking upward, gaping, just glimpsing a pair of disappearing into the sky. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what this means, but it’s playful, not scary. Disappearing feet always make me laugh.
And disappearing feet fit perfectly with this moment in Luke’s Gospel. The disciples are not sad to see their friend go. They do not grieve to be left behind. Filled with scriptural insight and a message to proclaim, and on the verge of Holy Spirit power, we hear they, “…worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and … were continually in the temple blessing God.” The disciples…filled with joy and gratitude. They don’t seem so much left behind as activated. Brought to life and purpose in a whole new way.
This Ascension Day, let it be so for us too. We humans know loss. Life can sometimes feel like one long exercise in loving and losing. And yet, what we learn in the loving – loving Jesus, and loving one another – is how it forms and commissions us. Not to fear being left behind, but to keep on loving. AMEN.
View accompanying artwork in this PDF.