The Rev. Jon Roberts
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
The Ascension of Christ by Garafalo, c.1520
There was a great commencement not long ago, Thursday as a matter of fact, "When Christ was lifted from the earth, his arms stretched out above through every culture, every birth, to draw an answering love."
We celebrate on this Sunday, the Ascension of Christ, and his answering love for humanity. It is the moment when Jesus led his disciples up a hill and was taken into heaven before their eyes. It appears to be the culmination of his earthly journey, and his post-resurrection chain of events lasting forty days.
All over the nation, another type of commencement is going on. Thousands of people are graduating from school. Many of our own people are going somewhere soon to sit in a packed auditorium or perhaps in a stadium armed with a camera and trying to pick their child or grandchild out of a long procession of mortar boards and tassels. Three, perhaps four, years of formal education come down to them shaking the hand of the principal or dean and receiving their degree. They go out to eat afterwards and there is a big celebration. There are plans to either go back into school or go and find a job. The future is wide open and there is great uncertainty. Many are excited on the outside, yet vulnerable within. At times such as this, when a person is hanging on to a piece of paper, it may provide the perfect opportunity for prayer.
Once there were three ministers who sat over coffee discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby. “Kneeling is definitely best,” one opined. “No,” another contended, “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven.” “You're both wrong,” the third maintained, “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.” At this moment the repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, fellas,” he interrupted, “did you ever try prayin’ when hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole?”
Sometimes our best prayin' takes place when we have been led up to a place, as far up as we can go, and then feel like were danglin' upside down. It was like that for Jesus' graduates. All of them stood there with great excitement yet wondering what their dean would say. What would his last words of wisdom be? Many around the country may get some really good advice. Finding a moral truth from something in scripture perhaps, like these examples:
"Love others" (John 13:34-35)
"Forgive others throughout your entire life" (Matt 18:21-35)
"Live in such ways that the world is brighter and better because of you" (Matt 5:13-16)
"Don't worry about how others live. Pay attention to your own (Matt 7:1-15)
As acting Dean, one who has followed the students throughout their course load and one entrusted to give the commencement address, shouldn't there be prolific words of wisdom, leaving an indelible mark upon them, charging them to go out and conquer the world?
What does Jesus say and do? "Stay in the city" The disciples interpret, as a place of protection. It's fortified. He is going to go out and conquer the world and does not want us to get hurt. That's good. He wants us to get more supplies. He continues, "Stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high." Hmmm, he's telling us to go back to school and get not only supplies but more training. That's good. He wants us to have higher learning. Without further ado, he makes the sign of the blessing and without another word is taken up into heaven. Up into the clouds or the blue sky, one. They think they know what he meant but He leaves them danglin'. Kind of an anti-commencement wouldn't you say? What posture do we find these disciples? Kneeling? Hands outstretched? Laying prostrate? Or were they scratching their heads, mouth agape, in wonder? Is this God's way of announcing to the disciples it was time for the Dean to take his summer sebbatical? No.
Luke, our evangelist also records Jesus saying, "Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you."
Well, what is it? Matthew, the evangelist, seems to give us a better recording of Jesus' commencement speech: "Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." Luke has a different approach. He decided to write a sequel. It's called the Acts of the Apostles. In the first chapter of this book, the Ascension is once more described, ...briefly. There is a question-and-answer period. Jesus is asked by his disciples, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?" This is the big question on graduation day. Will the world, now, be a better place? The response that most will hear at their graduations is this: "It all depends on you." But this is not the message Jesus sends. He says that it is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed. You have a part. You are important but don't even think for a minute that you are the center of the world or the solution in how the fate of the world will be decided. You give yourself way too much authority to believe that way.
No matter how much we've advanced in science & technology, in medicine, in law, in warfare, we may never usurp the power over death that Jesus has promised and delivered. We are simply witnesses, carrying the message of God's commencement to restore His kingdom through the mighty acts of His Son. His blessing illustrates the promise of God's Holy Spirit. The Ascension, therefore, marks the fulfillment of God's love and we are all witnesses. At every stage from His birth, His baptism, His dedication; His trial and crucifixion; His resurrection, His ascension, and soon, the decent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, remember these words as you are being prepared for what is to come:
When Christ was lifted from the earth, his arms stretched out above through every culture, every birth, to draw an answering love.
 Brian Wren, When Christ was lifted from the earth (b.1936), H82, #603.
 Luke 24:49-53