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Stuck Between Presence and Absence
a sermon based on Acts 1:1-14 (Ascension Sunday)
by Rev. Thomas Hall

I think we’re 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 Sunday.

On one hand, we have Easter. We’ve ushered it in with filled-up pews and extra chairs, trumpets, lilies, and the Charles Wesley tune. We’ve watched the disciples make the discovery of a lifetime, that they serve a living savior . . . he’s in the world today. That’s 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 doesn’t hold a candle to Easter and Pentecost. Even our hymnals reflect the awkwardness of Ascension Sunday. In my denomination’s hymnal, for instance, we sing over thirty-three hymns for Easter and over twenty-seven hymns for Pentecost. And Ascension Sunday? Well, you’ll find it smooshed into the fourth or fifth verses in some of our Easter hymns.

What’s the story about Ascension? Jesus leaves on a cloud, rides up to heaven like an elevator racing to the top floor of the world’s highest building. We lose sight of him. We’re 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?" That’s 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. It’s 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 . . . absence.

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 Church’s 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 Lord’s 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. That’s 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 I’d 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 wasn’t 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 won’t 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. [1]

Jesus called, taught, turned water into wine, and raised the dead is gone. I bet they had a thousand questions to ask too. "What’s to become of us?" "Yes you told us that you won’t leave us orphans, but we be sure?" Presence gives way to awful absence.

But Ascension Day isn’t 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 that’s not the plan, Luke’s 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. You’ve 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 God’s 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 other.

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), page 19.