What inspires you? Who inspires you? When have you felt that inner prompting to be more courageous or creative? Why did you move out of your personal safety zone to try something new and risky? When have you received insight that seemed to come from a source greater and deeper than your own wisdom and experience?
The first followers of Jesus experienced new insight, fresh courage and power far greater than their own limitations when they knew themselves to be filled by the Holy Spirit. We get to hear about their amazing stories in the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Both were written by the same author. The gospel ends with the reading we heard today when the resurrected Jesus departs from their presence leaving them worshipping and rejoicing. The book of Acts which often is referred to as the Acts of the Holy Spirit begins with the same event. It is the pivotal event that links the ministry of Jesus with the on-going ministry of his followers in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. It is one of the five great feasts of the Church year and it always falls on a Thursday since it occurs 40 days after the Resurrection as Luke describes it in Acts. I imagine it may have been a long time since you were at church for Ascension Day. I might even guess that many have never even been to such a celebration.
Because it’s on a Thursday only the very pious usually attend. And because attendance is low, many churches no longer have Ascension Day services, especially in the West.
It’s been years since I have held or attended an Ascension Day worship but this year a strange set of circumstances caused me to re-think this event so that we could gather today on the Sunday after Ascension to enter into the mystery and power of the Ascension.
Of course the first strange circumstance is that I am the priest of St. Luke’s! What an amazing gift it has been these past two months to experience the power of the Spirit in this place through each one of you and the ministry and impact this congregation has! This is a church with a very particular and unique experience of God’s Spirit. I have come to expect to be inspired each day by some encounter or event that could only be possible through the Holy Spirit. Some days I can hardly wait to show up, expecting God to surprise us and provide us with more than we can ask or imagine.
Because Jesus has ascended to the presence of God and there intercedes for us, we are given every spiritual gift necessary to live as his followers in the world. Because he has known and experienced every human reality by his incarnation, he has compassion and understanding for us and gives his strength, courage and wisdom in difficult times.
We are provided with spiritual riches, enlightenment, and power. The world may look at us or at the church or at St. Luke’s and see only weakness or poverty or foolishness but Jesus at the right hand of God has bestowed upon us every blessing that he received from the Father. We are able to stand up in the face of overwhelming obstacles because of the power of God in us. We are able to love in the face of hatred and humiliation because of the love of Christ which has been poured into us. We are able to give generously because we are constantly replenished by the grace and goodness of God.
Jesus has ascended so that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. He did not leave his disciples without comfort or blessing. He does not abandon us. As Jesus left his disciples he lifted up his hands and blessed them. Their last image of him was one of blessing. Their last gift from him was the gift of the Holy Spirit to be with them always.
Leave takings can be so important. They can last with you forever. I’ll never forget the last time my mother and I were with her mother. Grandma was 98 and had lived a good life. She didn’t have a terrible disease, she simply was wearing out, getting weaker. Finally she stopped eating. Our relatives from the East Coast called to say it was time to come out to see her. When we got to Virginia we found her in bed at the care center. She was thin and weak but in no pain. There’s no other way to describe it, she radiated love.
Although she couldn’t talk, she could write short answers to questions. As the good eldest granddaughter and priest, I met with her to ask if there was anything she needed, anything in her life that was unfinished, anything she wanted at the end. No, she said. It was all fine. I asked her if there was anything she wanted to tell all of us. She wrote down one word on her pad… love. That was it… love.
My catholic Aunt and cousin, my Mom and I gathered around her bedside for communion. She was incredibly present as we prayed and shared the sacrament. She kept her eyes focused on each one of us, pouring into us her love. It was an incredibly holy moment as we shared the bread and wine, our last meal together before we celebrate that holy feast together in glory. There was peace and there was love and we all received her blessing. None of us will ever forget that.
When Jesus ascended he poured everything he had, everything he received from God, everything he had taught and shown his followers about the Kingdom of God into them. He poured his spirit, the Holy Spirit into them, filling them with the peace and love that would enable them to carry on without his physical presence. The Ascension marks that moment when they let go of his body and receive the fullness of his presence in their hearts and souls. Luke says that from that moment on, those who had been fearful and confused were now filled with great joy and themselves were blessing God.
The second strange thing around the Ascension that happened for me recently is that the joint Lutheran/Episcopal clergy conference last month had a speaker who is from a Nazarene college. That has never happened before! And his subject matter was the Holy Spirit! That has never happened before! He was brilliant and funny and hopeful and really helpful. For him the Feast of the Ascension is the absolute pivot point in the life of the faithful. No matter where he is in the world on that Thursday he locates a church that is celebrating Ascension.
He helped us to realize that unless Jesus goes, the Spirit cannot work in the lives of the disciples to spread the good news out to the whole world. The mission of the church can only develop once it is empowered by the Spirit of Jesus to continue his ministry far beyond the physical reach he had while on earth. After the ascension and Pentecost people of every race and nation hear the good news. After Ascension the gentiles begin to respond to the call of Christ. After Ascension those scared, denying, betraying, bickering, immature disciples are transformed into preachers, teachers, apostles and evangelists and through them the world is transformed.
The mission of the church depends upon the Ascension and we are here because of it.
The third strange thing for me about the Ascension this year is that I was staying at a Roman Catholic, Benedictine monastery outside of Twin Falls Idaho on the Feast of the Ascension. Any by now you probably can guess the name of the place… Monastery of the Ascension.
Here’s the wonderful thing about the work of the Holy Spirit. It didn’t start with the Ascension and it hasn’t ever ended. The Spirit moved over the face of the deep at creation. The Spirit inspired the prophets in the days before Christ. Jesus let his disciples know that the Spirit prays with us when we cannot find words for our deepest longings. When we are baptized we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes us one in Christ no matter our many differences.
We are continually inspired, empowered, comforted and led by the Spirit. We are given every gift necessary so that we may answer God’s call to serve the world in Christ’s name. We are filled with all the fullness of Christ. And our lives can be a gift and blessing to the world.