What do Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian Novelist and Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers, have in common? They each created their own Bible. They each fought with the church of their time, struggled with their faith and came to the conclusion that others were not getting Jesus right.
So The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 and The Gospels in Brief by Leo Tolstoy in 1884 were written. The books are essentially about his teachings and the life he lived. No miracles. No mystery. They had no interest in resurrection and certainly not Ascension. From their very rationalistic and moral understanding of what Jesus said and did, the feast of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven must have given them fits in their own day! Such a feast day did not fit into their understanding of Jesus, it just wasn’t necessary.
For us, the Ascension is a celebration of our faith, of not some obscure event or fable but one that has meaning for how we live our lives today. 40 days after Easter, is the feast day of the Ascension. The day when Jesus ascended into heaven before the eyes of his disciples as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. For Luke who wrote both the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, it finishes Jesus’ time on earth. He was resurrected on Easter, but now he ascends, he no longer is here on earth. The disciples are on their own. A most glorious and terrifying day, I imagine, of Jesus going to God and of those who remain behind to do what he has given them to do…
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “The Ascension of Christ is the parting from his disciples, from the world he loved. It was a long, difficult way that they had walked together. He had told them many things—but now the hour has come when he must leave them alone. Now they must go, without being always able to look upon him. Now the end of his time on earth has come. They walk a last bit of way together— then the last moment arrives. He puts his hands on them in blessing, and then he is taken from their sight. They are alone. The curtain has fallen. He went from the wicked world to the heavenly Father. Lord, have mercy on us.”
The Ascension becomes a turning point in the lives of the disciples, for all that they had experienced, had known as followers of Jesus, their lives change because Jesus is no longer with them and all that they had done together with Jesus is now entrusted to them. They are on their own with each other as friends in faith.
Today as we consider the Ascension, three of our youth are marking their own rite of passage (at the next service). On their journey toward adulthood, we are recognizing Hugh, Betse and Nicole as men and women who are part of the Rite-13 class. The faith of their childhood is making a transition to the faith of men and women as we celebrate with them today. In the Rite-13 liturgy, “we recognize the gift of womanhood or manhood that God bestows on each one of us. This is a free gift that we cannot earn and need not prove. This gift is the essence of who we are. As we grow and mature in the journey to adulthood, our knowledge and skills increase, but the magical core of who we are remains the same.” Becoming men and women, they each are starting to make the choices of their faith, asking questions, seeking out Christ in others, looking beyond their families to friends and others as support and as companions on their journey.
All of us, as we seek to live faithful lives, live in the resurrection of Jesus and also his ascension when his physical presence is no longer with us. But as we shall see next Sunday, the promise by Jesus that the Holy Spirit will be with us, is fulfilled and we have another advocate, comforter, guide to be with us. We do not walk alone, for God is still present, even as we walk our journeys together.
It may seem to be a strange Sunday, the ascension of Jesus to heaven, from a very rational modern sensibility. And yet, it is this day that reminds us that we all have made that journey, a journey from childhood, to manhood and womanhood and then on to adulthood, when our faith as a child surrounded by family evolved into our own faith today, when we began to walk that journey on our own. The disciples faith evolved from one dependent on the presence of Jesus to their own faith after Jesus had left them.
It was true then and as it is now, that our faith journey will be a struggle, a journey that will be full of mystery, full of the unknown with as many questions as answers. But for us who follow Jesus, it is a journey that will lead to joy and hope and peace and finally will lead to our place eternal in the heavens, when we shall see him.
As Dietrich Bonheoffer said, “Rejoice, O Christian! Jesus has returned home to the Father. He prepares the lodging for you, the home in his kingdom. He will take you home in his time. Wait calmly and rejoice! He will return.” Amen.