Between Presence and Absence
a sermon based on Acts 1:1-14 (Ascension Sunday)
by Rev. Thomas Hall
I think were stuck in an
awkward place this morning. Somewhere between Easter and Pentecost. Remember the cliché,
"between a rock and a hard place"? Maybe that was written about today, Ascension
On one hand, we have Easter. Weve ushered it in with filled-up pews and extra
chairs, trumpets, lilies, and the Charles Wesley tune. Weve watched the disciples
make the discovery of a lifetime, that they serve a living savior . . . hes in the
world today. Thats Easter. A high celebration-Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
And then on the other side of the Christian story we celebrate Pentecost. We know that
part of the story too. Jesus announces his replacement: the Holy Spirit will come upon the
disciples. Thus, filled with The Replacement, they step up to the table and proclaim the
gospel with awesome boldness and power. The Spirit will lead them (or shove them!) to
carry the good news from the local precincts of Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and all the
way to the remotest part of the earth (somewhere near Cincinnati?). Easter and Pentecost.
What great, exuberant, confident, explosive days on our Christian calendar.
But in-between, what? In-between Easter and Pentecost is Ascension Sunday. Ascension
Sunday shows up on our churchly Day Runners every year. Same time. Same passages. Yet it
doesnt hold a candle to Easter and Pentecost. Even our hymnals reflect the
awkwardness of Ascension Sunday. In my denominations hymnal, for instance, we sing
over thirty-three hymns for Easter and over twenty-seven hymns for Pentecost. And
Ascension Sunday? Well, youll find it smooshed into the fourth or fifth verses in
some of our Easter hymns.
Whats the story about Ascension? Jesus leaves on a cloud, rides up to heaven like
an elevator racing to the top floor of the worlds highest building. We lose sight of
him. Were gawking up, squinting to catch the last glimpse of him when we get rebuked
for staring off up into the air. "Why do you just stand here looking up at an empty
sky?" Thats pretty much the basic plot of Ascension-Jesus departs while his
disciples are left leaderless and earthbound. Ascension Sunday.
Ascension is an interruption. A break in the action. Its the half-time break in a
football game, the intermission between the Brahms and Beethoven symphonies, the dull lull
between December 25th and January 1st, the summer interlude between 8th and 9th grade, the
Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Ascension is the time between . . .
Theologically, of course much more is going on in the passage. Luke may have wanted to
answer the unvoiced question of the early Christians: Where is Jesus? Good question. Where
is he? So Luke fills in the blank with this brief account of Jesus departure to
heaven. His reporting has become the Churchs textbook answer to anyone since the
early days who wonders about the absence and whereabouts of Jesus.
Luke is not the only one of course who has tried to fill in the blank between
Jesus departure and Pentecost. An unknown writer in ace 90 also wrote about this
awkward time. Scholars call it "The Didache," but I like the original longer
title: The Lords Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations. The idea
behind this early work was to suggest what Jesus taught the disciples during the 40 days
between Easter and just prior to Ascension Day. Inquiring minds wanted to know what in the
world Jesus could have taught his disciples during that hiatus.
Ascension Sunday is a time to think about the movement from presence and absence.
Thats a frightening shift. When someone is present to us our space is filled, we not
alone. We have conversations and sharing and communion. But whenever someone leaves us in
a final way, there is a crisis. Many of us may well be more Ascension Christians than
Easter Christians than we realize.
I never knew my dad the way I could have. At eighteen I left home to join a band and
spent the next six years away from him. And even when Id outgrown high energy sounds
and gigs, I settled away from my family. We talked over the phone, of course, and shared a
few brief moments together on visits, but it wasnt until his death a year ago that I
suddenly felt absence in the most painful way I could imagine. I have hundreds of
questions I want to ask him; hours of conversation about how he grew up, his parents, and
his own stories about growing up. I want to tell him how much I loved him . . . But he is
gone . . . away . . . and those questions and the interviews wont happen.
A colleague of mine describes what many of us feel about absence:
When someone leaves us there is crisis. Absence creates a void. What will fill it?
Absence means silence-awesome, lonely, gaping silence. No wonder we fear it, avoid it,
cling to the presence, do anything to avoid good-bye. 
Jesus called, taught, turned water into wine, and raised the dead is gone. I bet they
had a thousand questions to ask too. "Whats to become of us?" "Yes
you told us that you wont leave us orphans, but we be sure?" Presence gives way
to awful absence.
But Ascension Day isnt just about bon voyage. Not just about "Why are you
gawking up at the heavens?" Maybe the disciples wished that they too could have
ascended, glad to leave this old world behind.
But thats not the plan, Lukes gospel and Acts exhort us. We must get on
with Jesus work, and so it is our vision of the world that is to be that calls us to
serve in the world that is without Christ, a world that is impoverished in spirit, and
that always seems to devise more devious ways of making life mean and nasty. "Why
stand gazing into heaven" is another way of saying "Get on with it. Youve
got work to do."
We are not without presence in what often seems like an absent, godawful, God-minus
world. God has gifted us with two qualities that assure us of presence in absence: The
Spirit and the Community.
The Spirit is the Comforter-Replacement that Jesus has promised us during the long
absence until he returns. The Spirit is the Empowering One who will lead (or shove us!)
into the work to which God has called us. The Spirit will speak in new tongues through our
tongues of Gods love to our ethno-varied cultures. The Spirit will strengthen and
fortify our lives and work to destroy the fences that keep people separated from each
The Community shares with us the adventure of faithful living. Through the sacraments,
word, and ministry Christ continues with us. The Community is the place where we are
connected to God, find our spiritual gifts and use them to serve Christ and the world.
We are still stuck between presence and absence on this Sunday, but we are not alone.
Jesus is constantly coming and going through the earth. Through the promised Spirit and
the community of the Church, we will continue to meet Christ and to make Christ known with
power and boldness. Amen.
1) William Willimon, Good-Bye, Pulpit Digest (May / June 1991),