Seventh Sunday of Easter, Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
Leave-taking, saying good bye, is not easy. Even if what one is leaving is not the best, there are still the ties to continuity and to familiarity that leave us with regrets. And if someone is leaving us – well, we can probably march through all the emotions: anger, sorrow, betrayal, happiness for them – more than once – change is stressful.
The church has just celebrated the feast of the Ascension this past Thursday; as a matter of fact, the Episcopal church is one of the few branches of the church catholic in the US that still observes Ascension on Ascension Thursday. For us, this is the 7th Sunday of Easter, but also the Sunday inbetween – between the Ascension and Pentecost, the 50th day when we commemorate the sending of the Holy Spirit. So today we read and hear our scripture readings as a type of reflection with hindsight – a reminder to one another “what did he say” – “what did Jesus mean” as he was leaving?
The Gospel of John today has Jesus interceding for us – praying to the Father, to the first person of the Trinity, on our behalf – those who have taken the name of Jesus: “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name…I guarded them”. And so it is that our opening prayer today puts this is the context of next Sunday too – “O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us…” Jesus ascends-elevator up, the Holy Spirit descends-elevator down, and we are comforted in Jesus’ absence by the Holy Spirit – here we are, inbetween those celebrations, right?
No, it’s not quite like that – because the Ascension is much more than a bon voyage party – as much as the physical absence of Jesus must have been a tremendous sadness for early Christians, and the promise of a comforter joyful to hear – the Ascension has always been linked directly to the Incarnation in church tradition. God became flesh, became human, so that we might become divine, divinized. The incarnation, what we celebrate at Christmas, is this taking on of our humanity – God made flesh, the Word become flesh, as the beginning of John’s gospel says. If Jesus, as God, takes on our humanity, he takes it on – it is not reversible. So, at his death – we die – and at his resurrection – we rise, he the first born from the dead. And, of course, his ascension is the ascension of our humanity – it doesn’t peel off as he ascends, it is our humanity that also ascends, our humanity in Christ that now sits “at the right hand of the Father.”
So the farewell – this leave-taking, for these early Christians whose writing we hear today – is a sadness, it is the person Jesus whom they will not see again, will not eat with, will not touch. But it seems that it is already not the same person, and it is already not a complete farewell. Remember back to the beginning of Easter, Easter Sunday morning, and the gospel from John:
“Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, the women came to the tomb…” Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus, but does not recognize him until he calls her by name, “Mary”. She does the human thing – she reaches out for him, probably to throw her arms around him. But he says “do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Something was already transformed, something was already different. Especially for the way of understanding the relationship between Jesus the Christ and us, between the Trinity and us in the gospel of John, the Ascension isn’t an ending, or an abrupt change, it’s part of a process, an ongoing transformation that begins with the Word become flesh and just keeps going. Next week, as we bring this Easter season to a close, we will hear from John’s gospel one last time. Jesus says there: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…” We are given what we can bear – but none of this – this process of divinization – this process of coming into union with God (what we call salvation), happens all at once.
We have somehow – in the broader church – gotten into a very bad habit of understanding grace, salvation, judgment, sacraments - as products or events that simply happen, and then we’re done – done that, check. John’s gospel is a good reminder that this cannot be so. Grace is not a thing, it is the self-communication of God. Salvation is a process, sacraments are not things, but encounters with the living God. Baptism is a point in a lifelong process of journeying into the living God – but it is never done, it is never complete. The Ascension is an historical event, but for our humanity, it is a lifelong movement. Pentecost, as a moment to remember the Spirit of truth who guides us into all truth, is a memento of something that goes on and on – as much as we can bear. Now – maybe in a year, or 2000, we will be able to bear more truth. Perhaps it was that truth – that the Spirit, who had always been there – moving over the waters at creation, would be a presence of comfort and challenge, an advocate and trouble-maker, that helped those first Christians say good-bye to a particular way of being with and in Christ. Life was going to be different, not ended, but different. Christ would continue to be with them, but in a different way – manifest in the Spirit swirling around them, poking them, annoying them, reminding them that they were always in the presence of God.
It is that way of being in God that marks our lives in many ways – events that remind us of the journey we are on, as church, as individuals. It is that theology that links us with the first Christians, and keeps us from falling into the mistake of thinking things must be the way they have always been or not be at all. Vita mutatur, non tolliter – life is changed, not ended. And that summary of a very ancient theology is at the heart of our funeral liturgy too. One of the most important parts of our theology of death is this, embedded in the Eucharistic preface: ”For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” Death is the end of a way of being in relationship, but it is not the end of life, nor the end of relationship. Now it is new, it is different. The Ascension is not a farewell party for Jesus – the eternal Christ is now everywhere and with everyone – it is not over, it is different.
Easter will soon be over, our yearly reminder of the centrality of death and resurrection, of new birth and daily dyings, of a time when Jesus walked on earth as one of us, and of when we began to take up residency in heaven. Easter takes 50 days – some years it probably needs to take even longer for it to sink in – God so loved us that it is unimaginable. For the community of the gospel of John, that love was poured out in a very tangible way – the birth of the church, the body of Christ, from the blood and the water that flowed from Jesus’ side on the cross…love poured out for us – and continuing to be poured out for us and on us. At the beginning of the Ascension, life changed, but did not end. At the end of Easter life will change, not end. At the end of our lives, life will change, not end. In our comings and our goings, our farewells and departures, life will change, not end. The Spirit of truth will guide us into all truth – Come, Holy Spirit!