“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
- Luke 24:49-53
Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” -Acts 1:8-11
We pull into the church lot. Red mini van.
And we walk across the sidewalk to the entrance of the Church.
Redeemer Evangelical Free.
A church, a place, that to us was a Godsend.
I was invited here by a friend a few years before.
To a youth group called Sonlife.
Sonlife was special.
Kids at school were mean, generally speaking.
And they weren’t here.
At Sonlife, we fit in.
Stuff was tough at home. Upsetting.
And here it wasn’t.
Here we laughed. We prayed. We played games.
In our teenage search for sanctuary and home—
for a safe place and a place to belong,
here at Sonlife, at this weekly youth event,
we found one.
For three hours every Wednesday night, we were safe and we were at home.
The youth pastor, Rick Smith, was one of these guys who just, like, embodied joy.
I remember this one time I was gone for a few weeks.
When I returned, Rick saw me down the hall. He yelled my name, ran past all these kids, and ran up to me and gave me a big hug.
Years later he would even visit me here in Chicago on his way through town.
We went to Jackalope.
His kindness was always above and beyond.
And he always wore it in a smile.
Anyway, as we arrive at the Church door after a GREAT SUMMER,
I realize pretty quickly that, this time, no one is running and screaming.
And that the adult leaders are wearing something other than joy on their faces.
You guy’s doing alright? I say kinda jokingly, kinda concerned.
They say that we’ve gotta talk.
And so we go in a little classroom space just down the hall.
Now let me just say, I had spent years of my life here. At Sonlife. At Redeemer Church.
I played in the band.
I brought a van full of kids with me every time I came.
I talked about Sonlife all the time.
I even invited Rick to my school to do a Bible study after classes and he did it—which was amazing, and he was amazing for taking the time to do that…
All that simply to say that I love this place, a lot. And the people. And that they are really important in my life.
So we go into the classroom and we have a conversation:
You’re not in high school anymore, Tom, they explain.
[I had just graduated].
And Wednesdays, Sonlife, this youth group, this is a time for High Schoolers to explore and grow and have community.
And you’re older now.
And so this is no longer your community.
You can’t be here.
You’re too old.
I become filled with sadness. And rage. And all sorts of self-righteously angry thoughts and words that I could’ve said to them but I didn’t.
But I definitely didn’t feel very good.
How could they do this to us, right?
How could they do this to me?
How could they tell us that we
had to go away from the place where we belonged?
This coming Thursday is the Day of Ascension.
Ascension is celebrated [not 40, but] 39 Days after the Resurrection.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!
And on Ascension Day we remember,
if only for a few minutes,
that story from Luke and Acts that we read today,
Jesus’ rising up from the soil,
and ascending into the heavens above,
disciples, with jaws dropped looking up at the sky.
The one in whom they had hoped against hope.
The one in whom they created a new family.
The one who had taught them of a heavenly parent even as they were estranged from their families.
The one who fed them and taught them to feed others.
Who led them in paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake…
The one who created with them a community
where they were safe,
and where they belonged...
The one whom they had seen die,
but nonetheless ate with, laughed with,
embraced on the other side of tomb…
Their rabbi and friend was about to leave.
I know you found life here, Jesus said.
I am the Resurrection and the Life.
But now I have to go away.
I know you found life here.
I am the Resurrection and the Life.
But now I have to go away.
I’ve gotta go home.
There was a really amazing nun who lived in Mexico from 1651-1695.
Look her up if you get a minute. I don’t have time to detail all of the amazing stuff that she did.
I don’t know all of the amazing stuff that she did.
But here’s one thing.
Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was also a writer and a poet and whole bunch of other things (not just a nun), one day got into an argument with a Jesuit from Brazil.
And by argument, I mean that she decided to write a letter taking a stand against something that this Jesuit said.
His name was Antonio Vieda.
Vieda had written an article in which apparently he was concerned with Christ’s gestures. The stuff Christ did that meant something. More specifically, he was to answer the question:
What is the most gentle, loving gesture that Christ has ever shown?
He scoured the scriptures, and wrote in response this conclusion to his question:
The most gentle, the most loving gesture Christ had ever shown, he concludes, was washing his disciples’ feet. Maundy Thursday. That had to be it!
Vieda was a popular author, and his conclusion was widely circulated.
(Apparently this was important stuff at the time).
And along the way, De la Cruz read his article.
And, of course, after reading it, as she was known to do, she disagreed.
So she got out her pen and she began to write.
And what she said was incredibly interesting.
The greatest gift of love was not the washing of the disciples' feet, she said. It was not the last supper. It was not any of the miracles in which people were healed or lifted or fed or exorcised or any of that.
The greatest act of love that Christ has ever shown, she said.
His greatest act of love for us, his gentlest gesture, was that he left us alone.
Christ’s greatest act of love was to leave us alone.
Christ the Rabbi, she expounds, is like a tutor, a teacher, a mentor.
But If Christ stays our tutor, our rabbi, our mentor, we will never become independent, will never grow up into the disciples that he calls us and teaches us to be.
In fact we’ll become stunted in our development because we will become dependent on him, a perpetual follower, never learn to walk the path properly on our own—or to help others to walk, who arrive after us.*
In other words, we’ll become stuck.
“I have taught you all,” says the Rabbi,
You are on your own.
These days, when I think back to Sonlife, to that youth group up in Milwaukee,
when I think back to Rick and to those other leaders,
I’m really glad that I’m thinking back.
And that I’m not there anymore.
That I’m not still there
20 years later, playing frisbee,
and talking about teenage problems
(as fun as that was).
It was very loving of Rick and the others to say that we were graduated and that we had to move on.
In a real way, they kept us from getting stuck.
They knew it would hurt our feelings, but they new, none the less, that that conversation we had in that little classroom was good and that it was the right thing.
It had been an AWESOME four years.
We were fed. We were nourished. We were given a safe place to grow, to pray, and to belong. And then we were released to become the disciples they had taught us to be.
Wherever we went. Wherever we ended up.
We got to leave so we could put some of our learning to work.
When I look back today, I’m grateful that we had to go.
In the book of Acts,
after the ascent of Christ,
when the angels appeared to the disciples,
the one angel asked the disciples rhetorically:
Why do you stand looking up to the clouds?
He’s gone! the angel said.
He had to go!
But the One in whom you hope shall return.
And he’ll return in the same way that he came.*
Why do you look up?
He will come again.
from the earth.
In the flesh.
From the Ground….
His body is gone.
But his presence returns every moment in each of you.
St. Theresa of Avila in the mid-late 1500’s said it like this in a poem (and I'll end with this):
“Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Christ is Risen… ALLELUIA!
May it be so in us.
*For insight both about this story of de la Cruz and the "gentlest gesture," as well as the emphasis on the upward direction of Christ's Return from the speech of the angel in Acts, I am grateful to Vítor Westhelle, who included these ideas in his lectures on The Church and the Kingdom in 2015 at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.