Consider these opening pearls of wisdom:
I don't miss you and you alone - I miss you and me together.
The thought of being with you tomorrow gives me the strength to go on today.
True love doesn't mean being inseparable; it means being separated and nothing changes.
And then my hands-down favorite:
Distance is to love as wind is to fire...it extinguishes the small and kindles the great!
Now I find these sayings downright nauseating, but if you happen find your heart strangely warmed, then let me invite you to point your web browser to lovingfromadistance.com. Yes, there really is such a website and if you visit the site you will find plenty of material to sustain and inspire anyone in a long distance relationship. The Long Distance Relationship, or L.D.R. is nothing new, and it’s never been easy. But that won’t keep people from trying. Some people have gone to great lengths to try and make them work.
Thousands of years ago, long before the advent of internet dating, no less than Queen Cleopatra herself, packed up her bags, picked up her roots and moved from her home in Egypt (where she was queen of the Nile), and she traveled all the way to Rome so she could spend more time with her long distance lover, Julius Caesar. She did all this and bent over backwards for her LDR, only to find herself going back home - alone - when ol’ Caesar got himself murdered by the Senate. You’d think maybe that would make Cleopatra a bit cautious but, oh no, that wasn’t the end of LDR’s for her. Because she struck up another long distance relationship, with an equally promising Roman, a guy named Mark Antony. And this time she convinced him to stay with her in Egypt. But that didn’t go so well either. It didn’t protect her from all of the baggage that came with their long distance relationship - in particular, those pesky Roman armies. And so, when Antony’s long distance enemies arrived on Egyptian soil, poor Cleopatra had to commit suicide to preserve her honor.
Now it’s true, not every LDR is quite as tortured as Cleopatra, and her relationships were more complicated than I’ve made them seem, but her story just seems to prove the point. Long Distance Relationships are painful, they’re messy, and all too often, they just don’t work. Maybe you remember the same kinds of stories that I do from freshman year of college, when it seemed like half the dorm arrived on campus - having traveled from far-and-wide to get there - but their heart was still with a hometown honey who was waiting for them back home. And despite their protestations of love and fidelity, their oaths of commitment to their hometown sweetheart - hardly any of those relationships lasted even the first semester of college. Absence often does not make the heart grow fonder, it often just makes the heart easily distracted. I don’t want to sound cold. It’s true, some LDR’s blossom into life-long love affairs, and that may be your story. But for every Sleepless in Seattle, there are at least 2 or 3 Fatal Attractions.
So I’m a little uncomfortable as I stand here today to preach about the Ascension of Jesus. Because when I read this story at first blush it seems an awful lot like Jesus is trying to start a kind of Long Distance Relationship with his followers. I mean, it’s almost painful the way Luke’s Gospel tells the story. Because in the verses before the Ascension, right up until the very moment when Jesus “was carried up into heaven” Luke is doing everything he can in that closing chapter to rub our noses in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.
First, there’s that whole journey to Emmaus where Jesus walks 7 miles (!) with a couple of disciples - a physical, dusty journey - and he caps off the evening by sitting down at supper. And we can almost picture the scene where he takes the bread, raises it over his head and proclaims, “Alleluia, I am Risen! Therefore let us keep my feast.” But then he vanishes from their sight. So in case there’s any confusion, Luke immediately goes back to Jerusalem and the appearance of Jesus to the rest of his disciples. And here’s what happens. Here’s what Jesus says,
“Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” ... While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (24.36–43)
It’s an entertaining episode, but it’s also painful. Because it's only after Luke gets us all hot and bothered that Jesus has really (!), physically (!) risen from the dead (!) that he goes on to describe the Ascension. Jesus is really alive. He’s really back, with us. But now that we know for certain he’s really back - Jesus goes away? What are we supposed to do with that? Is Jesus trying to give us some kind of abandonment complex? Perhaps it’s just the kind of thing to send us racing back to lovingfromadistance.com looking for some advice. And here’s what we’d find:
If the only place where I could see you was in my dreams, I'd sleep forever.
We should confess that sometimes outsiders could be justified for thinking this is what we believe about the Ascension of Jesus. Sometimes, they could be justified for thinking that we Christians confine ourselves to dreaming about Jesus’ return. Closing our eyes, longing for a sense or a feeling of someone - who just isn’t there. And to our shame, sometimes that’s what parts of the Church have done. Christians so focused on the future return of Jesus, the end of their LDR, that they’ve closed their eyes to anything else and they’re completely living in a dreamworld. They keep their distance from the pain and the suffering not to mention the hard work of living in this world - because they’re just waiting for that day Jesus will come back to sweep them away.
And we’ve seen how this looks. The most recent version was just a couple of weeks ago, that evangelist (Harold Camping) and his doomsday prediction. He said the rapture was coming. It was supposed to be May 21. And his followers spent all their time and all their money anticipating, announcing, and almost bragging about the end of their LDR, the end of their Long Distance Relationship with a distant Jesus. And from the outside, it just looked like they were living in a dreamworld. According to one magazine,
unbelieving Americans [were using the] doomsday scenario to host rapture parties, fundraisers, and conventions to raise awareness of their views. In America's hotly contested religious marketplace, atheists know an opportunity when they see one. Or, as [the] president of American Atheists put it, [they know when] to "call out the stupid." (Christian Century)
For goodness sakes, you can even go online and find “post-rapture pet care services”; animal friendly atheists who are committed “to step in [and to care for your abandoned pets] when you step up to Jesus” (http://eternal-earthbound-pets.com/).
And if the Ascension of Jesus really is about an LDR, then maybe this is what we should expect. But I wonder. I wonder if there might be something else going on. And we can begin by studying these passages of Scripture; studying the imagery and symbolism of the Ascension. We can see that the cloud that takes Jesus symbolizes the Father’s presence, just like the cloud at the baptism of Jesus and the Transfiguration of Jesus. It’s also an echo of the Prophet Daniel who saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven and going to the Ancient of Days, “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away” (Dan 7.14).
Indeed, Jesus returns to the Father, exalted in glory and power. This is what we celebrate and this is what we confess with the Ascension of Jesus. But there’s something more. If I’m honest, I also think the Ascension is terrifying. I think it’s almost as terrifying as the Crucifixion because Jesus is gone. At the Ascension, He really leaves. And they didn’t know what to expect. They hadn’t received the Spirit. So I have to believe at least one of the reasons Jesus orders the disciples to wait for the “promise of the Father” and to stay walled-up in Jerusalem, is because those disciples would have been helpless if they’d tried to announce the resurrection of Jesus without the Spirit of Jesus (not to mention the damage they could’ve done). What would the Resurrection even have meant if there was just the Ascension - somehow Jesus got promoted and he forgot about the little people?
And so I think these next days between Ascension and Pentecost, the coming 10 days between his physical departure and his gift of living Spirit - well these are some of the most unsettling days of the year. Lent is easy. I may not be a big fan of long distance relationships but I enjoy long distance running, so the Lenten idea of traveling through wilderness for 40 days in sounds exciting. It’s almost like an adventure! But the thought of living in this world, living with BOTH the physical absence of Jesus and ALSO the absence of his Spirit - well that would be a living nightmare.
And so, thanks be to God that just as Jesus was not abandoned to the grave, so we are not abandoned to life without him. We aren’t abandoned to Ascension without Pentecost. And even today, even before we arrive at Pentecost, we hear from Ephesians that, God has put the immeasurable greatness of His power to work “in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand ... far above all rule and authority ... and has made him the head over all things”; this is the same message we heard from Daniel. But then Ephesians continues by saying that God has done all this “for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1.15-23). The Ascension of Jesus isn’t about his distance from the Church; it’s about his power for the church. For you and for me. That’s what makes the Ascension Good News, and that’s why the Ascension of Jesus has never been simply lovingfromadistance.com. Because it’s only by the living Spirit of Jesus that we become the living Body of Jesus for the world.
So perhaps we’ll want to go back and re-read those verses that we heard from the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel; those verses about the body of the risen Jesus - about just how physical and just how real that body was. “Look at my hands. Look at my feet. Touch me and see.” That was the invitation of the risen Jesus: touch me and see. And if we are the fullness of that Jesus, if we are his body in this world, then perhaps we’ll want to be praying about how we can make that risen Jesus just as physical and just as real in our life, in our worship and in our work - today. Amen.