Great Joy!

It’s Ascension Sunday in the church year. The Sunday that we mark the time when the resurrected Jesus leaves his disciples once again, not by death on a cross this time, but by a mission fulfilled and rising from live on earth to life in heaven, in the presence of God. I haven’t had to preach on Ascension Sunday very often in my 25+ years of preaching. It’s often fallen on the weekend of the Annual Meeting and so I’ve actually only preached on it twice.

This week, I used a technique that the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence shared at an event I attended a few years ago… look at the verbs. And then I realized something else, the reading from Luke sets up the Pentecost story, which is one of FAVOURITE Sundays of the year! One of the things that I love about writing sermons is that even after more than 25 years, I can STILL be surprised by scripture! By familiar scripture. For instance, it was only a couple of years ago that I realized that according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ resurrection, his encounter with the couple on the Emmaus Road, his appearance to the disciples in a locked room and his ascension ALL occur on the same day! How did I not know this before?

One of the things this highlights for me is that each one of the gospels is very different. Despite some stories that overlap, they are all different, written at different times, by different people, for different communities. It also highlights for me how stories can get confused or the connections lost by breaking them up. Keep that in mind when you listen to this reading from Luke’s gospel, in the 24th chapter, and listen for the verbs:

Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I’m sending to you what God promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”

He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God.

Spoke… written… opened… understand… written… suffer… rise… change…preached… sending… stay… furnished… led… lifted… blessed… left… taken… worshipped… returned… overwhelmed… praising…

What a lot of verbs in nine short verses! Which one resonates with you the most right now? Which one irritates you? Which one makes your heart beat just a little faster? Perhaps with trepidation, perhaps with excitement. The ones that are resonating with me today are opened, led, left and overwhelmed.

The text says that Jesus opened their minds to the scripture. What does it take for us to open our minds to scripture? Sometimes it is closing them to the messages of our culture. Sometimes it means unlearning things we were taught at home, in school and in the church. Messages that put rich over poor, white over dark, straight over LGBTQ. Messages that want to put God and God’s love in a box, perhaps a pretty box, with a ribbon and bow, but a box nonetheless. We have long professed that the church is not the building, but the people gathered. The people gathered and then dispersed to be part of God’s work in the world. Did we really believe that though? One of the things the pandemic demonstrated is that we don’t need to gather in a building to worship, to pray, or to look after one another. Loving God and loving neighbour continues, albeit in very different ways. How are our eyes, ears and hearts opened during this time of Intentional Interim Ministry? Open to God’s presence among us… Open to God’s presence in the world… Open to how God might call us to reimagine and reshape congregational life. Since I wasn’t with you through the pandemic, I don’t know how you adapted, but while we can grieve what was past… can we be open to what God is inviting us into now?

My second word is led. In the scripture passage, Jesus led the disciples to Bethany. Why Bethany you might ask? Bethany was the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, a place where he was always welcomed… where he experienced deep hospitality. It was in Bethany that he raised Lazarus… experiencing sorrow and joy. It was from Bethany that Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It was in Bethany that he and the disciples enjoyed the Last Supper, love shared in bread and poured out in wine. And so he led them to the place where he was most at home… where he was known in a deep and meaningful way. Perhaps he wanted to remind them that the heart of his message was love. According to Luke, he lifted his hands and blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. That’s it, not a whole lot of fanfare. No heavenly chorus of angels, no beams of light… just a blessing and a leave taking.

He physically left the disciples. But he lived on in the hearts of those who loved him. And the love expanded and grew. It transcended lines of ethnicity… of economic status… of age… of gender… of enslaved… of religion… They lived with heart. Sometimes it may seem as if Jesus has left us too… that’s my third word. I am not immune to doubts and wondering where God is at times. Where Jesus is at times. Where the Spirit is. But when I open the eyes of my heart, I see Jesus among us once again. Perhaps in some place unexpected. God has entrusted Jesus’ ministry and mission to us! And Jesus’ ministry and mission is always about sharing love.
Love of God, love of neighbour, love of self.

And then overwhelmed… it is written that the disciples were overwhelmed with joy! It seems like a paradox doesn’t it…that just when Jesus left them, they are overwhelmed with joy. It makes no sense…and yet, because it is written down, by its very absurdity, they must have been. I have been overwhelmed… by grief… by despair… and yes… by joy too… it often catches me unaware… and I try to pay attention to it.

Here are those verbs again…

Spoke… written… opened… understand… written… suffer… rise… change…preached… sending… stay… furnished… led… lifted… blessed… left… taken… worshipped… returned… overwhelmed… praising…

Which ones resonate with you… I’d love to hear about it in the comments or via email or text message later on.


In the leaving,
in the letting go,
let there be this
to hold onto
at the last:

the enduring of love,
the persisting of hope,
the remembering of joy,
the offering of gratitude,
the receiving of grace,
the blessing of peace.
—Jan Richardson

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of being God’s people! Amen.

Luke 24: 44-53
Ephesians 1: 15-23
May 21, 2023 – SJUC
© Catherine MacDonald


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