A Blessing for Witnesses
A sermon on Luke 24:44-53
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here;
photo by James Coleman on Unsplash]
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Christ – the day, 50 days after his resurrection, when Christ left this physical world, until such time as he will come again.
I’m just gonna say it: there are a few things that make this celebration a little difficult to really get into. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine it. Did he just start floating away while he was talking to them? That sounds totally bizarre. And where did he go? Heaven isn’t literally above the sky – it’s not like you could get there with a tall enough elevator (like Mt. Olympus in the Percy Jackson novels). So, what is the point of him being “carried up” if he wasn’t going “up” to a physical location?
But the biggest issue. The thing that I most struggle to wrap my head around is… why do we celebrate him leaving? Wouldn’t it be better to have him really here? Where we could touch him, and hear his voice. Where he could lay his healing hands on us and our loved ones when we are sick. Where HE could be our true teacher, and we wouldn’t need to parse different peoples’ interpretations about what he really means.
How many of us have cried from the depths of our hearts: “come, Lord Jesus”? His departure doesn’t feel like good news. Especially, when we hear the rest of the story… his parting words for his followers that tell them – tell us – that we need to take up his work: “You are my witnesses” (Luke 24:48) he says, witnesses charged with preaching “repentance and forgiveness in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47)
Now, he does promise that God will send power to equip the witnesses for this work, and we will celebrate the indescribable gift of God’s Spirit in our worship next week, but still…. As hard as it is to picture the ascension, it’s almost as hard to picture the disciples “returning to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52).
Great Joy? Really? After losing him? After being commissioned to such a monumental, life-upending task? How did they celebrate that?
It’s an important question, because we are called to the same work to which Jesus called the first disciples… to the work of being his witnesses in the world. And he did not intend that call to be a burden, or a task that feels beyond our capacity. He intended it to be a life-transforming joy! In fact, the message we are called to carry is a message of transformation: of forgiveness and repentance; of grace and (in Richard Swanson’s phrase) “the change of heart that changes everything.”
Which still begs the question: how was the moment of their loss, changed into a moment of joy for Christ’s first followers? How did they find, in the commission to carry on his work after being separated from him, a reason for praise?
I think the answer lies in his final action before leaving them “he led they out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.”
He blessed them. He gave them the gift of his words. He poured his love, and his power into a benediction that filled them so full of joy, that they could not lament his departure. Because they carried his presence with them, in the words he spoke over them.
Now, Luke doesn’t tell us what those words were. And I’m glad. Because those were the words THEY needed, and WE might not need the exact same words. But I am confident that we do need the blessing. We need to hear Christ’s benediction – affirming us, and empowering us, and filling us with the joy that turns us into his enthusiastic witnesses – who tell the story of how his grace changes us.
So that’s what I want to offer you today with the rest of this sermon – I want to offer you Christ’s blessing. And because you are really are his witnesses, I am offering you that blessing through the words of this community. Earlier in the week I posed a question on our private church Facebook group about what words of blessing you need from Jesus. And you offered beautiful, faithful, biblical responses.
I am entirely confident that if Jesus were here in the flesh he would say these things to you. But he’s not. That’s the point of Ascension: that WE are now Christ’s body in the world. That we speak the words of Christ’s blessing. So, people of God, hear these words of blessing from your Savior:
I love you, just the way the you are.
I know your own eyes tend to get pulled toward all the things you see as imperfections, but you are who I made you to be. You are unique. You reflect the brilliance of my creativity. You can trust that I made you as you are for a purpose.
I call you into transformation not to change the beautiful person I made, but to free you from all the lies the world has told you about not being enough; or needing to fight for your rights, no matter who it hurts; or needing to prove your own worth. Give yourself the grace that I have already freely given you. Love yourself.
For I love you, just the way you are.
Let not your heart be troubled.
I know the brokenness of the world… it breaks my heart too. I see Creation crying out for the ways it is abused. I see my beloved children suffering from illness, and poverty, and injustice, and violence. I see people dividing themselves into factions, and parties, and fictional racial categories and then justifying acts of hatred for those outside their groups.
I see all the things that call you to abandon hope and succumb to anxiety. But I have not abandoned you, or the world that we both love. I am with you in the middle of the brokenness; in the way of the cross.
Let not your heart be troubled.
But when you are It’s OK. I forgive you.
I forgive you when you faith falters or falls away completely.
I forgive you for the ways that you have hurt the people I gave you to love – in your family, or your community, or halfway around the world.
I forgive you for the wrongs you are aware of and the wrongs you do not even recognize.
And I forgive you for the things you’ve failed to do. The words you didn’t speak. The action you didn’t take. The love you didn’t show.
I forgive you not because you earned it, but because I made you for grace. I made you with the freedom to choose, and that means sometimes you choose wrong. And sometimes other people do to… and the ways they hurt you make it even harder. I don’t ignore any of these mistakes. But I forgive them. I know that the path to healing, to wholeness, goes through forgiveness.
So, I forgive you.
And I bless you for your life’s work
I bless you for the ways you have cared for my other creatures. For the dedication and commitment, you have shown – in the quiet hours when no one is watching; in the thankless tasks that help others to do their work.
I bless you for the ways that you serve my mission in the world: teaching, learning, feeding, nurturing, inspiring, cleaning, empowering, building, healing, loving.
I bless the ways that you have worked to build my church, and the ways that you have worked to build a better world. Your vocation is so much more than just the way you pay the bills. It is the way that you show up in the world and witness to the hope for which I made you.
I bless you for your life’s work.
Finally, Be at peace, for I am with you. I am always with you, filling you with love and peace.
I have made you and I have called you to be my witnesses in the world. And it is a work of love and peace. It is a calling you cannot do on your own, but you don’t have to. For I AM with you.
I am with you when you heart is full of joy, and also when its full of fear and grief. I am with you when you see the path laid clearly at your feet, and I am with you when you are wandering in the fog of self-doubt and confusion.
The world can never offer you true peace. Only a facsimile of compliance, or control, or the absence of open conflict. But my peace passes all understanding. It goes with you in all circumstance. Even pandemic. Even conflict. Even loss.
Be at peace, for I am with you. I am always with you, filling you with love and peace.
Listen to these words of blessing, my Beloved people. Let them sink into your soul, and fill you with my joy. For you are my witnesses of these things.
Thanks be to God.