As you all know, our church calendar sometimes competes with special secular days. Today, we observe the Ascension of our Lord – in fact, last Thursday was Ascension Day, but since we don’t come together for worship on Thursdays, we commemorate it today instead. But what does our society celebrate on this day? Mothers’ Day – a day we give thanks for mothers and motherly love.
If you were here last Sunday, you witnessed a baptism, and you heard me preach about love – and that love often is hard. It’s an effort. And you may remember that I reflected on my quite difficult relationship with my daughter when she was a teenager. Loving her – and her loving me – didn’t come easy back then. It was the kind of love that feels like work. Yet I loved her, because, as she told me, I had to as her mom.
And of course I have reflected on my role as a mom, as a parent, many times. I’ve come to understand my role as a parent as a nurturer, a teacher, a mentor. And that sometimes requires what commonly is known as tough love – to challenge my kids to do and be better and not let them get away with everything. My job is not to be liked by my kids at all times – it’s to prepare them for life. After all, kids do grow up, they cannot and mustn’t depend on their parents their entire life, and they need to be prepared for life out there. And life, as we all know, isn’t always easy.
One of the baptismal sponsors this past week read from Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’, a poem called ‘On Children’. It was a little tough to understand, so let me read again excerpts to you:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
What is captured beautifully in this poem is that children – our children – have to go out into the world to accomplish and achieve that which we can’t – or maybe shouldn’t. Each generation has its own challenges. All we can do is to raise children and love them and nurture them and prepare them as much as we can.
And I hope this is what your parents did when they raised you. I hope your mom or whoever gave you mothering love in your life mentored you, challenged you, to become the person you are today. I sure am grateful to my own mom that she let me become who I am – even if it meant for her to let me go.
But no matter where or how far we go in this world, we always carry something of those who raised us within us and with us. There’s the genetic part, for better and for worse – but then we also have been influenced by their love, their values, their ways of looking at things, and we carry all that consciously or subconsciously. Their life has been imprinted on ours. And we as those who parent the young or help raise them do the same. Our influence is greater than we might think. Our children and those entrusted to us carry more of us forward into the world than we might think. Raising children in the end is about legacy. And if you take a close look at it, Christ’s Ascension is about legacy as well.
Luke, the Evangelist, did not only write the gospel according to Luke, but also the Acts of the Apostles. Both are written as letters to a certain Theophilus, which means ‘lover of God’ – it could be a specific person, but it also could be a generic description, ‘To You, dear reader, lover of God’. Now Luke is the only one of the evangelists who describes the Ascension of Jesus Christ to the heavens, and not only once, but twice: he ends the gospel with the account of Jesus’ ascension, and he opens the Acts of the Apostles with a somewhat more detailed account of that very same event.
Luke, if you will, offers some real closure to Jesus’ time on earth. Jesus doesn’t just disappear into the unknown as in the other gospel accounts. By emphasizing this event, Luke makes clear: now one chapter is closed, and a new one is opened.
For about 3 years, Jesus Christ ministered to the people of Galilee and Judea and made disciples – and there were many more than the twelve we usually think of, the 12, the inner circle – and among them many women, too. Jesus taught his followers during this time, he loved them, he nurtured them, he mentored them, and, yes, he challenged them. Jesus’ love for his disciples at times was tough and challenging – one just has to remember how he put poor Peter in his place – but what Jesus did by all that was to prepare them – prepare them to grow in faith, and to eventually go out into the world and continue his work of healing, preaching, loving and driving out the demons we so often are possessed by as individuals and societies. Christ was preparing them to allow God’s kingdom of peace and justice to come near and grow among them.
Beyond that, the risen Christ spent 40 days with his followers after the resurrection, helping them see all that he taught them in the light of the resurrection and a new life in God. And, by the way, the number 40 is not random: In Judaism it is the sacred number that symbolizes fulfillment. It rained 40 days and nights when Noah was on the Ark, and it took another 40 days for the earth to dry up again so life could thrive on this planet once more. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness after the flight from Egypt before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness after his baptism, before he began his ministry. The number 40 symbolizes a necessary journey and preparation, before the time is fulfilled and a new thing can happen.
In the case of Jesus’ disciples, the time is fulfilled with the ascension. They become the living arrows that are sent forth into the world. However, as children of God, they also carry forth into the world the one who is imprinted in their hearts and their lives: Jesus Christ, the living God. They are marked with the cross of Christ forever. And though Christ may not be with them physically anymore, they are not alone: they become the body of Christ themselves in the communion with brothers and sisters, and soon – on Pentecost Day – they will receive the Holy Spirit, God’s presence with them and among them and through them.
In the ascension story in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, there are two angelic figures who tell the disciples, who just stare up, ‘Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’ I think this is brilliant: don’t look for Christ up there, don’t worry about calculating when Christ might be reappearing, don’t predict the end of the world. Look around you, look at the world which you are a part of. Christ’s presence through you is needed here. At the same time, look for Christ in your neighbor. For whatever you have done to one of the least of these, says Christ, you have done to me.
As the spiritual descendants of those first disciples, marked with the cross of Christ forever in our baptism, his life imprinted on ours, we are sent to be Christ’s presence in the world today.
The kingdom of God has come near. It is right among us. As children of God today, we are called to proclaim this kingdom in word and deed. And so the angelic voices echo through time and space to us: don’t just look up to the heavens. Go, children, and be a blessing – in the name of Christ, whose name we bear, from whom you come – and to whom you go.
Christ’s legacy becomes our legacy.