Years ago, when I was still in my first call as a pastor in San Jose, I had a wonderful colleague who was the head pastor at the local Methodist church. He was about to retire, and as we were sitting together in our ecumenical clergy group, someone asked that colleague, ‘What are you hoping for as you now leave the ministry and go into retirement?’ The man smiled and said, ‘On our church campus, there is a bench. It has a plaque with a dedication to a former pastor, thanking him for all his years of ministry in our church, and for the many gifts he shared. I hope that someone will remember me in that way. I would like to know that, somehow, I left my mark and made a difference in the lives of people.’
Now I knew that this pastor was very well liked in his congregation, and had led that flock with wisdom and full of grace and love for many years. There was no way this man had not left a mark in the lives of the people in his congregation. After all, for decades he had walked faithfully with them, from the cradle to the grave, and through many joys and sorrows. Of course he had made a difference in the lives of people. Of course he had left a mark. And I know he was missed after he left.
But as I was listening to this colleague, I was asking myself: isn’t that something most of us hope for? That we somehow leave a mark and make a difference? That we matter, and will be remembered by some – even though we may not remember them? I think often we have no idea what an impact we have on people and people’s lives, and we may be quite surprised if we knew how many folks remember us fondly, maybe even from just a short encounter.
And we probably all know some folks who left their mark on our lives, who made a difference for us, and who inspired us. Do you remember such people? I had a rough time during my teenage years, and I gratefully think back to several people who were mentors and role models for me – and, probably not accidentally, most of them happened to be faithful Christians, sharing their faith and their stories with me. Some of them have since died, and I know that one of those people, who was my camp counselor and with who still is a good friend today, is quite amazed that she had such an impact on me and my life. I know that, wherever I go, a carry a little bit of her and all the others who influenced me in important ways. Without them, I wouldn’t be the same.
For today’s lessons, I chose the lessons for Ascension Day, the day Jesus ascended into heaven after he spent 40 days with his disciples on earth after his resurrection. First of all, we don’t get a chance to observe the Ascension, since this holy day always falls on a Thursday. Secondly, I am quite intrigued by this holy day and the Ascension, an event that was so important to the ancient believers that they even dedicated a line in their creeds to them: he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. We confess this still to this day, every Sunday.
There are plenty of illustrations of Jesus’ ascension; it is one of the favorite motifs of artists throughout the centuries. And usually you see Jesus, an ethereal figure in white, taking off, his gaze enraptured and directed to the heavens, angels all around, whilst his disciples observe this spectacle. These images emphasize the glory of Christ, who now will be seated at the right hand of the Father until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.
But Albrecht Dürer, a German artist of the late 15th and early 16th century, took a different approach, and you can see his stab at the ascension in the picture above. That’s it, that’s the entire image, a woodcut, to be exact; it’s not just a section of a larger image. All you see of Jesus is his feet, and somehow Jesus is lifted up like on an invisible elevator. And the focus is not on heaven, but on what happens on earth. We see the disciples, male and female, by the way, reacting in various ways; some are enraptured, accepting the events. Some seem mortified, shocked, even panicked. In the background, there is a raised hand that could be praising the Lord – but could also try to pull Jesus back to earth. Some seem ready for Jesus to leave them behind – but some obviously are not.
And who could blame them? For forty days, the disciples were blessed with the presence of the risen Christ. That’s why we celebrate the Ascension 40 days after Easter. Things were kinda like they were before the crucifixion, Jesus hanging out with his followers and friends. It was easy for the disciples to follow this man in flesh and blood. And now their master is taken from them once more. Not under the same horrifying circumstances this time, but nevertheless, they are left behind again.
Now the number 40 has some significance here. It is not a random number, but in Judaism 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.
The followers of Jesus Christ had 40 days of preparation themselves, and now it’s time for them to move on and to do this new thing. And what have they been prepared for? To continue where Christ left off. To live Christ’s legacy. Jesus Christ, after all, has left a strong mark on their lives. Dürer, genially, incorporates this in his woodcut. If you pay close attention, you will see that there are footprints in the rock from which Christ takes off and which, by the way, looks very much like a globe. What a statement! I think this is very clever, but also has a great theological message. Jesus Christ left a mark, and imprint on the disciples’ lives AND on the world. And, as the footprints also testify, it was not a ghost or a spirit who walked with the disciples, but a man of flesh and blood.
Now just as we have been influenced by certain people in our lives – just as we carry a little bit of them in us and carry on with their legacy – the disciples carry Christ with them, as they continue his legacy on earth.
Christ being seated at the right hand of the Father is an important statement of our faith and stresses Christ’s glory – but just as important is what happens on earth, as we, the followers of Christ today, live as the body of Christ and continue in his legacy. Christ’s presence today is mainly be felt and experienced through what we do in the name of Christ. He left his mark on us – maybe not in the form of footsteps, although I have to say I am intrigued by the image of Christ’s footprints in our hearts – but in the sign of the cross we all bear. Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, but left us behind to do God’s work. Whatever we do, we do it as the ones who bear Christ’s name and who bear Christ’s mark. Christ may not be physically present with us today, but he is still in us and with us and through us.
Now today we will say goodbye to someone who has left a mark here, in this place, among us. It’s Erika’s last Sunday as a parish teaching student with us; and, isn’t it interesting, she’s spent roughly 40 weeks with us. Now Erika definitely is someone who has been marked by Jesus Christ. I can see his footprints all over her, and I hope you were able to see that, too. I think I am speaking for everyone here when I say: thank you! Thank you for sharing your wonderful gifts with us. Thank you for walking with us these past 40 weeks. The time now has been fulfilled, and it’s time for you to move on. And I know you are ready. We will miss you, and we will always carry a piece of you as we go into the future, God’s future. And I know you will be doing very well as you continue your journey.
At the same time, my hope is that we have left a mark on your life as well. That we were able to help shape you as a future leader of the church. That we made some sort of difference in your life and your formation. And that you will carry a bit of us with you as you leave this place.
May God bless you, Erika, as you continue to pursue your call. And may God continue to be with all of us, as we are called to be Christ’s presence in this world today – as we are called to leave God’ mark on the lives of others.
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