When Leaving Is Not Leaving

The Ascension of our Lord

Luke 24:44-53

Deacon Joshua Schroeder, Preacher

It is a perpetual conundrum!  If Jesus promised, “I am with you always” why did He go away?  After all, it stands to reason that if He is there at the right hand of the Father, He is not here with us!  Although to listen to some popular expressions of Christianity, you’d think that with His ascension Jesus had embraced the Buddha nature, become a bodhisattva, channeling the flow of pure being…so that everything and everyone is an extension of His being.

But…if you stick with what Christians have confessed about Jesus since the beginning—that He is God in human flesh, and that this human flesh, even after Easter, can be seen and touched and located—well, then you have the dilemma.  If He is there, how can He be here…let alone everywhere!

And the usual line about His invisibility making it possible for Him to be in all places…well that sounds a little too convenient.  “I mean, really??!!” It smacks of the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”  All of Jesus’ promises about always with us, in all places, through all time, well…it sounds like that man behind the curtain…a lot of spectacle, smoke and mirrors, hidden wires…an impressive show…for those taken in by it!

But how could His absence be His presence?  How could His leaving be His not leaving?  Unless He ceased to be a person, ceased to be God in human flesh…which would be disastrous for us!  So how?  Ah…“how?”…that’s the mystery.  But…that it, nonetheless, is…that’s the paradox.  His presence is in His absence from us.  His not leaving is in His leaving.  And we do not like paradoxes, no not at all!

One of Pastor’s favorite poets is the Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas.  Thomas grappled with this paradox in his poem called, “The Absence.”

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come….

…My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

Now, a really big part of our problem is that we are so enslaved to our mechanistic, Newtonian understanding of this universe.  And we laugh…or get rather testy…with anyone who suggests that such a view is inadequate to explain everything that is.  In this we’re just like the ancients, with their even-more-limited geocentric, flat-earth view.  They too could laugh and get really testy at anyone who suggested that their view was limited.

But we figure that if something doesn’t fit the laws…then it’s not real.  You know, the laws…like, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” “a body in motion tends to stay in motion,” “energy is neither created nor destroyed, it only changes form”; all the various laws of nature that work amazing well to explain this world’s existence…at least…until they don’t work.

It’s those laws which require a person to conclude that if Jesus is there…whatever “there” might be…He cannot be here.  And those same laws do not have any room for an absence that is really a presence, or a leaving that is not leaving.  Besides all that other paradoxical language about the mortal putting on immortality and the perishable being clothed with the imperishable.  Why, such talk just doesn’t square with the laws of thermodynamics.  So…we end up settling for a good show.  And, hey!, isn’t that what Church should really be all about…a good show?

In the Epistle Reading St. Paul writes about enlightenment, of wisdom and revelation from God, that we might know the significance of Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father.  That we might know…even if we cannot explain in Newtonian terms…that we might know the glorious inheritance of God’s saints.  That we might know, even if we cannot explain how it works, the greatness of God’s power in the resurrection of Jesus—a resurrection, not merely a resuscitation of His dead body. A resurrection, a metamorphosis so that Jesus is present in His body even though He is absent.  That in leaving His disciples, He didn’t leave them.

That we might know such things…though language and science and wisdom cannot yet or perhaps ever grasp such things.  As Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously declared to his friend Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And what’s more, to know that such wisdom and revelation and enlightenment shape our lives, because, as He said, we are His witnesses. No! Being a witness does not mean annoying your neighbors by going door to door and dumping a bucket load of Jesus’ talk all over them.  Being Jesus’ witnesses means that like those first disciples, our lives embody and reflect all these mind-boggling paradoxes which Jesus’ ascension has brought to light.

Our lives embody and reflect the fact that He who died is not dead but lives.  We embody the fact that He who departed and was lifted up to heaven is not gone but is with us always.  Our lives reflect the fact that even in the most numbing vacuum of human loneliness and isolation still we are not alone.  What seems to be His absence is in fact His presence.  That the human words we speak and sing and hear in this place are, in fact, the voice of God.  That those who have died are, in fact, not dead.  And though we too will die, we will not, in fact, die but live.  Though our body fail, yet it will be raised, and, in fact, already is.  Our lives reflect such things because such things are embodied in us by Holy Baptism, by the Holy Gospel, by the Holy Communion.

So many, many, many paradoxes that simply defy our ability to define and explain them.  But tragically…for that reason…our folly has us calling it all religion rather than science.  Our ignorance calls it belief rather than fact.  And our limitations of body and mind and spirit too often just cast it all aside, forgotten.

The Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas, wrote about this as well:

It was because there was nothing to do
that I did it : because silence was golden
I broke it….  I left no stones
un[turned], but always [the] wings
were tardy to start.  In ante-rooms
of the spirit I suffered the anesthetic
of time and came to with my hurt
unmended.  Where are you? I
shouted, growing old
in the interval between here and now.
[Pluperfect, R.S. Thomas]

Growing old in the interval between here and now.  Trapped, with no sense that there is so much more than our finite sciences can define.  Content with so little, demanding a good show, but heedless of the greater inheritance that is ours by Jesus’ Ascension!

So for the sake of those who yet walk in such darkness and folly…for our sake, who so often are tempted into that vain world…for them, for us, we celebrate our Lord’s Ascension.  To know Him present in every void of His absence.  To know that with His departure He is with us always.  And in all the incomprehensible riches of what will be ours one day, because He has ascended on high, to prepare a place for us…to know that it is all ours already today.  Because we are His witnesses, for embodied in us is the testimony of Him who fills all in all.  Hmmmm…makes you wonder!