Have you ever had the experience of knowing you were losing someone?
Not the experience of loss, exactly. That’s related to what I mean, but different.
What I mean is the slow, am I or aren’t I, “should I be doing something differently and if so, what?” experience of seeing someone precious to you slip away.
It’s what it feels like when the illness starts to get the upper hand; or when somehow amid the daily grind, your valentine starts seeming more like an irritable roommate than a true partner in your life.
It’s what it feels like when the friend you used to process everything with starts getting too busy to talk, or the boss who hired you grows evasive about the future, and then next year, and then next fall.
And you aren’t quite sure on any given day if something’s changed…and yet, of course, something has.
Something has to have changed because it didn’t used to feel the way it’s come to.
And whether you can gain them back or not still remains to be seen, but so does the fact that, at least for right now, you’re losing someone.
Nancy Reagan once poignantly described life with former President Reagan, who suffered with Alzheimer’s during his final years, as what she said was “just this very long goodbye.”
And that, of course, is just what it is to be losing someone.
Have you ever known you were losing someone? Then you know.
I’m taking us to that twilight place this morning because I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to be standing with the other disciples on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem, watching Jesus ascend slowly into heaven.
The medieval church saw it as a triumph and some churches were built with a hole in the roof just for Ascension Day, when a statue of Christ would ascend out of the building and up into the sky.
Other churches apparently rigged it so that the statue of Jesus would go up, and a statue of the devil would go down.
You see, for them, Ascension Day marked the arrival of Christ on his heavenly throne, the King of kings and Lord of lords, sitting on the right hand of God, the Father almighty.
“From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” is what it promises the Apostles’ Creed—and for the righteous, for those claimed by Christ, how could this be anything but good news?
The Ascension meant that God was claiming eminent domain over all Creation. That has to be good news.
But then I remember what it is to know that you’re losing someone, what it’s like to watch them go over the horizon…what it’s like when the clouds take them out of your sight, or the gate agent closes the jetway door, or you drop them off at their freshman dorm, or the nurse escorts you to the ER waiting room…I remember all that, and I think about the disciples, and I am not so sure that even promises like those feel much like good news to the disciples, just then.
The Mount of Olives, where they were all gathered, was understood by tradition to be the place where the Messiah would one day return. For what it’s worth, the two men in white robes, who appear at the end, suggest that this is still the plan.
But if they’d learned anything since Good Friday, surely it had to be that with Jesus, plans had a way of changing.
Life has a way of changing our plans, too.
I once worked with a woman who had made a cross-country move with her partner to take the particular job where I knew her. The transition was not easy—her partner said goodbye to a job she’d loved and to nearby family, and New Haven is wonderful, but it is not a place to move to in February…and for a while, their new life became difficult for them both.
And at some point in those weeks, my colleague said, “Sherri seems to think that I’ve disrupted our lives so I can strengthen my retirement plan. I can’t find a way to tell her that she is my retirement plan.”
Maybe that’s some of what is going on for the disciples—that Jesus is their retirement plan. But unfortunately, the emphasis is on the “retirement” part, the “can’t it just be like this forever?” part, and not on Jesus.
Because in the twilight of our losses, we forget that the thing about Jesus is that he abides.
The thing about Jesus is that even when he’s up beyond the clouds, his love abides.
And that’s why this story, which it would be so easy to tell as a story of tremendous loss, is told to us a story of God’s ultimate triumph.
Because even if the disciples can’t quite see it yet, and even if we can’t quite see it at every moment of our own lives, that love remains.
It’s at the heart of everything—through triumph and sadness, celebration and mourning, exaltation and devastation—the love of God, and the burning compassion of Jesus are there.
And the funny thing about it is that if he had changed his mind – if Jesus had chosen at the last minute to stay instead, to walk back down the Mount of Olives and resume his work in the customary way – then I’m not sure the disciples would ever have encountered the love he was trying to tell them about.
Because wonderful as it is to sit at the feet of the Master, the point is to find him again and again.
The point is to find him, not in the places we expect, but in the places we wouldn’t.
The point about God’s love is that it is overflowing, constantly moving, bursting over its banks and running free into the lowest, darkest valleys of the life we know.
Now that Jesus has a bird’s eye view, he is poised to deploy his forces and to bring his love to bear in every valley, which shall be exalted, and in his love, every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
His love abides.
And by “forces,” he means us.
Now we all know that loving is hard work.
Simply striving for fairness is already a hard work,
and honesty can be exhausting, all by itself,
particularly because honesty is never without consequences.
Consequences are especially exhausting.
But love is never without consequences, either.
Jesus’ life and ministry are surely proof of that.
That’s just what love is like. It’s a sense of connection that runs so deep that we not only understand that our lives will be changed by it—we actually invite those changes.
And as he ascended into the clouds, he invited those who would follow him to invite those changes into our lives, too.
He invited us to love.
He invited us to find commitments so deep that we were willing to embrace the work of loving, with all its challenges, in the name of connection, with all its grace.
And to that part of us that wants to know how long we will have to put up with all the challenges love presents to us, Jesus says: “It is not for you know the times or periods the Father has set by his own authority” (v.7).
He challenges us to love, and to find the strength to keep on loving—to abide in love as he abides in love.
That’s not to say that connection, any connection, is somehow all that matters.
It’s true enough that life sometimes reveals that we have tried to love the wrong things, or that we’ve tried to love them in the wrong way.
What a universe of difference there is between Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now….
Indeed, if love does not make us wiser, if it does not enlarge our vision and our spirit, then we are not understanding what it seeks to teach us.
But when we do, when we see that sense of connection grow deeper and stronger, and more sure of itself, then something vital comes into blossom.
We know what it is to be part of the force that Jesus seeks to set loose upon the world.
We know what it is to find him again and again, still present in the world he loved so very deeply. Still alive as only love can be alive.
Ascension Day is a day when we may well consider what it is to know you’re losing someone, with all the worry, despair and confusion that the disciples must have felt as they knew they were losing Jesus.
But at an even deeper level, it is God’s invitation to understand the joyful work of finding and being found, of being part of God’s work, and of being an agent of his abiding love.
The historic church understood Ascension Day to be the day when Jesus was, at last in heaven.
May we understand it as the day when he invited us to the work of loving as he loved, and may our love always point the way to his.