In the gospel we have just heard there is something that is very odd. Jesus, we are told, withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven, but then we are told they went back to Jerusalem full of joy. It’s almost as if there’s a sense of “good riddance, we’re glad he’s gone.” It would have made much more sense for them to return to Jerusalem heavy hearted and shattered that he’s gone because for the last 40 days the one whom they saw executed on the dark mountain had come to meet them in all kinds of ways. They had seen him. They didn’t expect to but they did. They saw him, they heard him and they even ate with him. He could walk through locked doors but he was still unmistakeably a body, albeit of a new and mysterious kind. He was with them as the risen one, but now he withdraws from them and is carried up to heaven. In other words, he goes home. But far from being downcast, heavy-hearted or shattered they return to Jerusalem full of joy and they are in the temple praising God. Now why are they full of joy and why are they praising God?
It is because they realise that the one who withdraws from them, and in that sense is absent, is not absent at all. It’s like the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that occurs in Luke’s Gospel just before the Gospel that we have heard this morning. Jesus walks with them, we were told, and they don’t recognise him. It’s only when they sit down with him, as we do now for the breaking of the bread, the eucharist, that their eyes are opened and they suddenly recognise the risen one. Who would have thought it? Yet precisely at that moment of recognition he vanishes from their sight. He’s absent. But why does he vanish from their sight? It’s because once your eye is open you see him everywhere and that’s why you can rejoice and praise God. He’s not absent at all. He withdraws from one kind of presence only to become another kind of presence. The fact is that for the open eye Jesus is everywhere. There is nowhere that Jesus is not! Not in the darkest corner, the tawdriest corner of the human heart or the world is Jesus absent. He is everywhere and the only question therefore is have I, have we, got the eye to see him? The truly open eye? Now once you have the open eye and you can see him everywhere then of course you rejoice and of course you praise God. Jesus was with us physically as Jesus of Nazareth and he died. Then he rose from the dead. He was with us physically but as another kind of presence. Now he withdraws and returns to the Father and he is with us again in another way, a still more magnificent and unkillable way because there is nothing and no one who can take him from us. He is in every time, he is in every place and the open eye sees him and the open heart worships him as we do this morning. He’s in heaven but he’s here now and he is everywhere.
We’re told that the disciples watch him. They’re looking up as he withdraws from their sight, and why wouldn’t they do that? Not in order to cling to him, because its only if we keep our eye on him and where he’s going that we’ve got any sense at all of where we’re going. As we said in the opening prayer of the Mass , where he, the head, has gone, we the body are called to follow in hope. So we watch where he is going and where he has gone so that we can know where we are going. He’s gone home and we’re on the way home. We were told in the Gospel that he took them out as far as the outskirts of Bethany. Now what’s that all about? The fact was that Bethany was a home for Jesus whenever he came to Jerusalem. He stayed with Martha, Mary and Lazarus. We know that for certain. So Jesus, in going up to Bethany with his disciples, is simply going home. His home base, near Jerusalem. Yet the truth of this is Bethany is not his home at all. He’s going home to the Father, back to the heaven which is his true homeland.
So on this Ascension day the truth that we see with the open eye, is that this earth, however much we are creatures of earth, is not our true home. Where the head has gone; Jesus, we; the body, are called to follow. So here we name and celebrate the truth that our true homeland is in heaven, if I might echo the words of St Paul.
The disciples are told to stay in the city until they are clothed with power from on high. And that’s exactly what the Lord says to us now. For the next week we shall wait for the power, or the promise, as Jesus also calls the Holy Spirit. We are not called just to stay in the city forever, but until the power and the promise come upon us, we don’t have the force or the energy with which to go out on the mission that will take us to the very ends of the earth. We are certainly being called at this time by the Holy Spirit to become a more missionary church. Not just to stay in the city, or to keep gawking up into the heavens. Again listen to the words of the heavenly messenger – “men and women of Brisbane, why are you standing here looking up into the sky?” We’ve got to keep our eye on him for some time but we can’t just stand there gawking into heaven as if he’s vanished from our sight and is absent forever. Why are you standing here looking up into the sky? Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back to you in the same way as you’ve seen him go there. So he’s coming back but in the meantime we have to go forth. Yet we can’t go forth until the power of the Holy Spirit comes upon us. And that’s the importance and the power of what we celebrate next Sunday - which is Pentecost, because without the breath of the Holy Spirit we are basically a corpse. We’ve got no breath in us and if you’ve got no breath in you, you die. It’s true of me, you and of the church. The body of Christ. We need the breath of Christ, the breath of the living God in us. And that’s the promise that he makes.
So here we are, rejoicing and praising God, but waiting. Waiting for the power that will come upon us; the power of the Holy Spirit. Praying for a new Pentecost at the heart of this church in Brisbane, so that we, the ones who have waited, rejoicing and praising God, will have the power to go forth on the mission. Witnesses because of what we have seen and heard. We have seen and heard him! The Risen One. We’ve seen him and heard him, therefore the call now is to go forth to the ends of the earth, and certainly to the ends of this city. To leave what is familiar. To go out into unfamiliar territory so that we can speak of what we have seen and heard. So that we can speak of the one whom we have seen and heard. Jesus Christ, the first born from the dead . The first and the last; the beginning and the end. Amen.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane
May 12, 2013
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