Most of us have heard the expression separation anxiety. It’s a form of anxiety caused by separation from a person to whom one has a strong emotional bond. It’s a diagnosis we hear often enough. Indeed, today it’s even applied to dogs. During the summers, my sister invites me to take care of her dogs while she and her family go on vacation. To leave them at the kennel would be too distressing for them. That is, they’d suffer too much from separation anxiety. They have to be in familiar surroundings with a caretaker they know and trust so that they are not overwhelmed by separation anxiety.
We are at the end of Eastertide. After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus appeared to his disciples, giving them many convincing proofs over the course of forty days that once he was dead, but now is very much alive. But the time has come for his final departure. We refer here to the ascension. By this word we mean that event in which Jesus gathers his disciples together one last time, gives them final instructions, and then is taken up into heaven.
The ascension is an event in the life of Jesus, to be sure. Indeed, it’s an extremely important event, as we hope to make clear in due course. But it’s no less an event in the lives of the disciples, which we have here to consider first.
So how did the disciples experience the ascension? Perhaps they were asking themselves: Is this the end? Was there a brief interval in history in which the normal course of things in the world was interrupted, but now allowed to resume again? In this brief interval, the sick were healed, broken hearts mended, the captives released, and the poor evangelized. Would it now go back to the way it was before?
Remember that Jesus taught his disciples to pray. We know it as the Lord’s Prayer. In it they prayed for the kingdom of God to come, on earth, as it is in heaven, just as we do each Sunday in our worship together. Did Jesus’ departure mean that God rejected the prayer, the very prayer that Jesus taught them to pray? This must have been unconscionable to them. Probably that’s why they asked Jesus if now was the time for him to restore the kingdom to Israel.
Our lesson does not reveal to us their inmost thoughts, but we can certainly imagine them, because, if we are honest, they are often our own. We too prefer this kingdom of God to be on earth, just as it is heaven. Then presumably all that is bad, all that spoils God’s good creation—sickness, broken hearts, bondage to addictions, and poverty—would end.
Jesus interrupts their reverie. He does not intend for them to be crippled by separation anxiety. Far from it. There’s work to do, and he’s going to equip them for it. He tells them to be prepared to receive power. To this end, he orders them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. This circumlocution refers to the Holy Spirit. In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples of his intention to pray to the Father to send them another comforter, the Spirit of truth, who will be with them forever.
But if the Spirit is the promise of the Father, he is no less the promise of the Son. Jesus reminds the disciples about John’s baptism, which left a deep impression on them, not to mention on Jesus himself. He reminds them now of what he said to them at the beginning of his ministry: John baptized you with water. But you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
It happens just as Jesus says it would. They will receive power, which will enable them to be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, extending from there to the ends of the earth. But that day is not yet here. It still awaits them. About this day we will learn next Sunday, when we will celebrate the Day of Pentecost. But in the interval between now and then, they are not yet the apostles who have a worldwide task. They are mere men from a Podunk town called Galilee. They are not yet the ambassadors of the king who act with authority and firm resolve; they are leaderless followers who stare up into heaven, with mouths agape, as the one to whom they formed an emotional bond disappears from their sight.
With Jesus gone, they must have felt very small—even smaller when we consider the cloud, which is a visible manifestation of the divine glory, and when we consider the two angels in white robes, who chide the disciples for standing there looking up into heaven, as if lost and aimless. Perhaps we can find a parallel in our own experience—a parent or a mentor who served as a role model for us. But then the time came when he had to withdraw from our life. Pushed out of the nest, we had to become what we saw in him without him. And left alone in this big wide world, we too felt small, very small.
We know that in this world we are very small, infinitesimally small. We know that our own power is limited, that we exist among powers far greater than our own. When we come to this realization, usually after our reckless youth, when we believe we are invincible, we shudder. We realize that our own power is defenseless against these greater powers. Is not the Covid-19 pandemic an outstanding example here? In any case, the realization that there are powers far greater than our own dawns on us all, sooner or later.
The greatest power is cosmic power, the power that governs the universe. We human beings, whether we realize it or not, want to know its face. Does it have a good and kind face? Or does it have rather a dark and sinister face? Believe it or not, our own answer to this question will determine in large part our life’s course. If we believe the power to have a dark and sinister face, we will be fearful; we will be risk-averse. We will even be mistrustful, living more or less guarded lives. But if we believe the power to have a good and kind face, we will live very differently. We will live confidently; we will be willing to take on calculated risk. We will be trusting, because we know that this power intends good, even if it is not apparent to us now, even if it is not immediately present in our experience. We know that in the end this good will triumph over evil, because good can only intend good.
This power, which many people today call a higher power, is incomprehensible to us, to our finite minds. That is to say, this higher power is too big for us to understand. But it has made itself known to us in the humanity of Jesus, the man who, during the days of his life on earth, went about doing good, healing the sick, binding up the broken hearted, freeing the captives, and bringing good news to the poor. This was a demonstration of power, as the Gospel authors make abundantly clear.
The good news of the ascension is that this power has been installed in heaven. This is what we confess in the Apostles Creed, which we recite each Sunday. “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” The right hand of God the Father is the place of absolute power. The goodness of Jesus then is in the place of absolute power.
The author of our epistle lesson wants his readers to be confident in this power. That is one of the primary purposes for which he writes to them this epistle, which we know as Ephesians. He reminds us that this power is immeasurably great. This is the power by which God raised Jesus from the dead and elevated him above all power and dominion. And from this elevated place Jesus exercises this same power. There is nothing in this universe that can resist it. And there is none who can overthrow the one who wields it.
Should we not find comfort in this good news? Should it not set our hearts at rest whenever they are troubled by what we see around us? But when we say about this one: he is alcoholic, and I’ve never seen an alcoholic ever break completely free from alcohol, are we really confident in this power? When we say about that one, she is in an impossible situation, from which she will never extricate herself, do we really believe in that power? Or when we say that the violent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians will never cease, that the IDF and Hamas will always be shedding blood, do we really believe in that power?
We pray for those who are in impossible situations. But when we pray, are we able to leave our concerns in the hands of one who is both good and powerful enough to handle them? It is hard for us because we struggle to believe that Christ has emerged victorious. We struggle to believe that we have a God who has gone up with a shout, that we have a Lord who has gone up with the sound of a trumpet, in the words of the Psalm we chanted earlier this morning.
The author of Ephesians knows that this is a struggle for us. That is why he begins his letter with a prayer. He wants to assure his readers that he is praying for them. Parenthetically, we feel encouraged whenever someone tells us that he is praying for us, don’t we? Not too long ago we used to hear in popular culture the phrase the “power of prayer.” Someone goes to another and asks: “Do you believe in the power of prayer?” The answer should be: yes, but the power is not found in the prayer itself, but in the one to whom we pray, as we have been trying to show.
The author of the Ephesians understands this point. That is why he first prays for our sight. We need a larger vision of the one to whom we pray if we want to pray with confidence. Two generations ago a book by an author named J.B. Phillips titled Your God is Too Small appeared. We need our vision enlarged if we are going to see with the eyes of faith the immeasurably great power that is at work for us who believe.
Parenthetically, it is a model prayer. It one that all pastors ought to be saying on behalf of their people. It is a prayer we will be saying later in our service. And as God answers it, we will begin to see ending our prayer “in Jesus’ name” taking on a whole new significance. There is no greater power that we can evoke than this name. In this one is immeasurably great power. The author of Ephesians wants believers to know that this power at work for them.
Of course, in our time and place, as in all times and places, the question about Jesus as the power to which we ought to entrust ourselves is a contested one. There are people around us who dismiss the theme of our proclamation today as nonsense. But Ascension Day proclaims to us that this one ascended through the heavens and now occupies a place at God’s right hand, far above all power and dominion. To believe in the ascended and exalted Christ, to pray to God in his name, is to know a confidence and inner security that can come from nowhere else than him. Let us then rejoice in his victorious power on this day and every day. Amen.