“Jesus lifted up His hands and blessed His disciples. While He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven.” OK. So now what? Well…it depends. It depends on whether you live by faith…or not.
Graduation fever is in the air again. Over the next couple weeks hundreds and thousands of high school and college students will march into auditoriums and gymnasiums to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” They will collect their diplomas and check out. And every graduation speaker seems to address the same question, “Now what?”
I don’t quite recall at what age…except that I was older than I should have been to be first learning this…but I recall that it dawned on me at one point that commencements were not about endings. I had simply figured that you called a graduation ceremony a commencement exercise because the word commence meant end, over, finished, done. So it always puzzled me that in war movies when the officers shouted “commence firing” the soldiers “began” to fire. Ya, vell, like Sven and Ole…some of us take a little longer to get it!
“Oh,” it dawned on me, “commencement is not about an ending…it’s about a beginning.” A new chapter in life is commencing, a chapter for which the school years had been preparing. Suddenly the whole world of education took on a new light.
Ah…but you see, I had been thoroughly trained in the secular way of thinking. In the secular way of thinking the only purpose for an education is to get a job, or to get into college to get a better job, or to get into grad school to get an even better job…and of course, more money! Why, if a person accumulated enough of the alphabet behind his name—BA, MA, MDiv, STM, PhD—wow, top rung of the ladder, and raking in beaucoup bucks!
But…that’s the secular way of thinking. For the Christian, education is not so utilitarian. We Christians know that we get an education in order to gain understanding about this world, God’s world, about ourselves and our life in this world. To acquire an education is to acquire understanding and insight. It’s not just to get a job! It is to bring that accumulation of wisdom, understanding, and insight to whatever we commence to take up after school.
And that is what is happening here in this reading for Ascension Day. It is almost as though Jesus, having gathered His graduating disciples around Him, hands them their diplomas, humming the first century equivalent of “Pomp & Circumstance,” and with a word of blessing goes one way while they go another. So…now what?
Well, as I said, it depends. It depends on whether a person lives by faith or not. What did all of those last three years mean to the disciples? From Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River to His temptation in the wilderness, His preaching and teaching in the towns and synagogues, His healings, and finally to all the events of Holy Week—triumphal entry, Last Supper, betrayal, arrest, torture, crucifixion, and resurrection; what did all of that mean now?
St. Luke notes that for some of those disciples, they still didn’t get it. “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” “Lord, now that You’ve gotten this Messiah business out of Your system, now that You’re done with all of this sin, death and evil stuff, now that all those three years are over and done, now, are You going to get to the real work?”
They didn’t get it! Like many a student who never gets it, who never gets why they are in school in the first place. They don’t get why they have been given an education. Just like many a Christian never gets it…never gets why they go to Sunday School and learn those stories in the Bible. You hear it so often as students get older…even well into adulthood…“Oh, those Bible stories…I learned all that stuff when I was a kid.” Well, duh! Of course you did. But you’re not a kid anymore, are you? And those stories of the Bible teach us different things than when we were five or six. It’s called maturity. It’s called growing in wisdom and understanding and insight. It’s not something to get over and done with and on to the next thing.
But…the majority of Jesus’ disciples on the Day of Ascension…they understood! When He had departed they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God. No…that doesn’t mean they were at the temple 24/7. Being Christian is not about spending all your time doing stuff at Church. Sure, there’s plenty to be doing here—worship, study, prayer—but it’s not 24/7. “Continually in the temple” means that the disciples got it. Education with Jesus is not something to get over and done with so as to get on to something else.
Living by faith, the disciples of Jesus, back then and now today, living by faith the disciples of Jesus recognize, understand, and seek to understand more and more that what Jesus accomplished is now given to us. By His ascension, Jesus sets His disciples free for living in this world. Living by faith—a faith that comes by our Baptism, by hearing the Gospel, by our being taught the meaning of all that Jesus said and did—by faith we are free from having to discover or create some sort of meaning for life. Jesus has done it.
So, for instance, it is no longer our job that gives us meaning; it’s our faith that gives meaning to our job. It is no longer a task to find a purpose to life, which then will give meaning to our lives. Our faith gives life meaning and purpose…a faith which is always seeking further understanding.
For by faith we understand that we are created in the image of God…for we are learning what that means. By faith we have the wisdom to know that we are being transformed by this life—the ups and the downs—into the likeness of Christ, into the likeness of God. By faith…a faith which matures by the things we learn from God’s Word—as a child, young adult, and into older age—by this faith seeking understanding we have the insight to know that in Christ all things in heaven and on earth are made to work for our eternal good. All things.
By faith, this faith seeking understanding, we know who we are, and who we are fills all that we do…whether in here and out there.
Which means we are free. Like those disciples on the Day of Ascension, we are free in the knowledge, in the acquired wisdom and the insight which come only in Christ. We are free in knowing what Christ has said and promised us…together with all the things we learn in our education at school and in life—by this faith which is always seeking understanding…we are truly free.
So…now what? Well, what does it matter? Whatever comes now, for the graduates of these days or for us, whatever comes we know: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. And we…we are His. And blessed is the one who has learned, and continues to learn what it means that we are His!