a sermon on Luke 24:44-53
When I think of the ways that my family has shaped my life, my thoughts turn to two particular areas: belonging and blessing. Over the course of my thirty-six years, my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, colleagues, and others have shown me repeatedly what it means to belong to one another even as they have given me their blessing—perhaps at times reluctantly!—to follow where God is leading in my life.
The idea of belonging is likely quite familiar, for at some level, I suspect that we all are just looking for a place to call home, a place to fit in, a place where we can be loved, whether that be in our families, among our friends, in our church, or in some other relationship or community. And the idea of blessing, too, is common around us, for we are shown love and care—the core components of blessing—in so many different ways from so many different sources as we receive the sense of comfort and hope that we need to live in mercy and grace each and every day.
Today’s story of the ascension of Jesus from the gospel according to Luke also addresses these two big themes of belonging and blessing as his earthly ministry comes to an end. Luke tells us about how Jesus gathered the disciples for a time of teaching and fellowship some forty days after his resurrection. He recounted again to them the meaning and story of his life and ministry, using the Hebrew scriptures once again to show them who he was and why he had lived and died and rose to new life. He instructed them that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the name of the Messiah] to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem,” and he reminded them that they would receive the gift of “power from on high” to assist them in this work of bearing witness to his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. He told them that his ministry on earth would continue in them, for they had been and would continue to be his beloved friends, and that even in his reign on high they would stay connected to him.
Then, after assuring them of all the ways in which they belonged to him, Jesus led them out of the city and began to bless them. He raised his hands and shared the presence of God with them once again. Before they could see this blessing end, “he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Even though they could no longer see it, they were certain that the blessing continued, and they responded with joy and praise by returning to Jerusalem to offer their own blessing to God for all that they had seen and experienced.
The belonging and blessing shown here in the ascension of Jesus are also captured well in the majestic words of Psalm 47 that we just sang a few moments ago. Its powerful words echo the understandings of the ascension as told in Luke’s gospel and remind us of the real implications of this end to Jesus’ ministry. In our day and age where most monarchs have only ceremonial powers and we ourselves are far more familiar with a representative system of government, it is easy to miss how these great words proclaiming God as king affirm the ways in which we belong to God and find blessing in the risen and ascending Christ. Even as we “stand in awe of God” and watch as “God brings nations low,” these words remind us that God’s provision for us is beyond all our human understanding and God’s gifts for us extend beyond our wildest imagination. This divine ruler gives us not only what we need to live in fullness of life but also invites us into relationship so that we might know how deeply and completely we belong to God. This belonging goes far beyond our ownership of any of our human human belongings, for it is not ownership but relationship—the kind of relationship that makes us feel at home, that shows us how much we are loved, that gives us all that we need. Even more than those places where we best feel like we belong to another person or to a particular community, our sense of belonging to God—even this God who reigns on high—gives us energy and hope to go forth in service each and every day.
Alongside this belonging, the blessing that emerges from the ascension of Jesus shapes our lives each and every day. When Jesus was carried up into heaven as he was blessing the disciples, we see him enacting this unending blessing, arms raised, offering his affirmation of hope, calling them to live in his new way, showing them and us again and again, without end, the new life that he brings into the world.
In some ways, this blessing is very surprising. As commentator Thomas Troeger reminds us, “[Jesus] had cause to be cursing them. They had abandoned him, denied him, run off like scared rabbits, even dismissed his resurrection as an idle tale when the women first reported it.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 523) Yet Jesus left the disciples while blessing them, with his hands raised to share the depth and breadth of God’s mercy and grace with them, offering them only the beginning of this unending blessing, insisting that they were worthy of belonging to him even amidst all the struggles that they had experienced together along the way, promising them that they would be more than their missteps, greater than their uncertainties, and filled to overflowing with the blessing of God.
So what do these ideas of belonging and blessing mean to us today? Even with all of this biblical backup for the ascension, why should it matter to us that Jesus ascended to reign at the right of hand of God, as we profess so many Sundays in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds? How are we to live in the light of this good news—if indeed it is good news at all? After all, it usually is not good news when we must say farewell for good, as the disciples did with Jesus here. Even when we can offer our greatest confidence about God’s promise of new life, death is still very final for us in our world. Even in our hyperconnected world where we are linked by text and voice and video with friends and family around the world, we still have moments that are final goodbyes for us.
Yet when we see how we belong to God and are continually being blessed by Jesus in the ascension, this seeming finality disappears. In the ascension, the only thing that seemed to be final for the disciples was Jesus’ raised arms—his act of continual blessing for them, his ceaseless intercession on their behalf, his eternal reign at the right hand of God that showed them that they belonged to God, his ongoing blessing that enabled them to share that blessing with others. So for us, Jesus’ final acts of belonging and blessing are not like what we might expect when those we love depart from us but rather stand as reminders of God’s call in our lives to live as people who belong to God and who are blessed by God all along the way.
The belonging and blessing we experience in the ascension offer us comfort for our lives and hope for all that is ahead for us, but they also challenge us to do more than just wallow in these gifts that have come to us. The belonging and blessing that we see in the ascension of Jesus tell us that we are called to make space for others to belong and be blessed too, that we are charged with breaking down the barriers of the world that get in the way of others experiencing the grace and mercy of God, that we must join in the work that God is doing among us to bring a new world into being. The belonging and blessing we find on this mountaintop are not just something for us to enjoy for ourselves or to hoard up for those like us—they are to be shared far and wide, from shore to shore, to the ends of the earth and beyond, for we have been claimed by God as God’s own and invited to share the fullness of this blessing in Jesus Christ.
So as we celebrate the ascension this day, as we look up to see the departure of Jesus from the earth, may we never forget the unending blessing of God in Jesus Christ that shows us how deeply we belong to him so that we can share it far and wide with all those who need to know the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord until he comes in glory to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.