The great fourth century African bishop, St. Augustine, famously said, “We are Easter people and ‘Alleluia’ is our song.” As Easter people we know that no matter what the problem or difficulty God can make a way out of no way. As Easter people we find consolation in the blessed assurance that all will be well, all manner of things will be well. As Easter people we can tell Satan to get thee behind because victory is mine, joy is mine, happiness today is mine. No wonder “alleluia” is our song. However, as this Sunday reminds us, we are also Ascension people and “All by myself” is also our song. Ascension people feel grief and separation because someone or someones that we love and care for have been taken from us. Ascension people have a sense of loss and emptiness because despite our best efforts we experience a void or a gap which we expected God to fill. Ascension people are waiting and waiting for things to get better when they just seem to be going to hell in a handbasket. What makes being Ascension people particularly hard is that, like those first followers of Jesus on Mount Tabor, we have been given a taste, a glimpse of what it is like to have Jesus in your life. They (we) have felt the power of Jesus to bring healing, to show us life, life to the full, to encounter good news, to know ourselves as beloved children of God. Then something happens – the grace of closeness to Jesus in our hearts, in our lives is taken from us. All by myself, we wail. We get out of focus and bemused. There is a absence where there had been a presence.
As the story of the first Ascension people, the people on Mount Tabor, reminds us it is easy to get stuck in the empty place. We can remain “looking at the sky,” wishing that someone or something would intervene to make it all better. Why is everything so difficult! Then, the two men “dressed in white” give a proverbial slap on the face, an ice-bucket challenge to the “men of Galilee.” Get moving. Get going. We are Easter people so we know our future is secure. But as Ascension people we’ve got to live until the promised power of the Holy Spirit comes upon us filling us with strength and purpose. We’ve got to hold out until our change comes. Instead of bemoaning the absence of his presence we must learn to find the presence in his absence. The Scripture gives us some hints on how to do that.
First, we must be present to Christ in a personal way, even in the midst of absence. Sometimes when we hear people talk about their relationship with Jesus we can feel like we missing something that they have. I’ve been going to Church for years, how come I don’t have that same feeling of connection? Ascension people must find his presence in the absence. We learn to encounter Jesus in our family, a close friend, a church member. We meet Jesus in receiving Holy Communion or hearing the Word of God being read to us. We see his face in the homeless, in those who are hurting, in aimless youth. The very absence of Christ from the expected places provides the occasion to find his presence with the “eyes of our hearts,” as St. Paul puts it in the epistle for today.
Second, because there is a presence in the absence we are commissioned to continue the work which Jesus has begun. Instead of God breaking into world throwing thunderbolts and taking names, God is counting on us to keep on keeping on. Don’t stare up in the heavens, send the divine messengers, get to work. Did you notice the line in the Gospel: “They went forth … while Lord worked with them.” The Lord works with us as we strive to bring peace and love and justice into our homes and communities. The first Easter Sunday the angels were all celebrating with the Risen Jesus, giving high fives, pats on the back, congratulatory messages. The Risen Lord noticed Michael, the Archangel, off by himself deep in thought. He asked him what was bothering him. “I’m glad of the Resurrection and all that, Jesus,” said Michael, “but what happens now. The guys you left behind are a bunch of losers. Peter betrayed you, the rest abandoned you. What is your plan B if they don’t work out.” Jesus just smiled. “There is no plan B. I’m counting on them.” As unlikely as it might seem, Jesus is counting on the likes of us to help find the presence in the absence and inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth.
Finally, Jesus tells his followers (that is you and me) “you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” We’ve all seen enough Perry Masons or Law and Order to know how to be a witness. “May it please the court: there is violence, poverty, racism; we have an immigrant crisis, political turmoil, environmental disaster; not to mention sexual abuse, drug abuse, domestic abuse. The witness must admit this testifies to God’s absence?” I disagree, your honor. I bear witness that some dirt, water and sunlight are making strawberries so sweet it makes you weep. I bear witness to the wonder of a baby taking her first steps, learning to talk, even when one of her first words is “no.” I bear witness to dozens of people volunteering their time on Christmas morning to make a delightful brunch for the homeless. I bear witness to the courage of those who insist that Black Lives Matter. Yes, your honor there are many horrors in the world that need fixing but when you open “the eyes of your heart” you see not the absence but the presence of God everywhere. I join my witness to that of Alice Walker: “Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, all the evil in the world sort of shrink.”