Transitions (The Ascension of Our Lord)

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This time of year is always filled with graduations.  Several of our PoP members have graduated recently from high school or college.  And if your social media feeds are like mine, almost every day you see another set of graduation pictures.

This coming Wednesday is my 30th anniversary of seminary graduation.  This past week, a bunch of my classmates and I got together on Zoom to celebrate, which was a great experience!  We reflected on our time together, our lives since graduation and of course, we recollected about the day itself.

But even though my last graduation was a long time ago, I remember pretty vividly the experience of graduating.  And I think I still remember the experience of graduation because I’ve continued to have similar experiences every time I’ve faced a transition.

And actually, a graduation (or any transition) isn’t really just an experience.  It’s really about having three simultaneous experiences:

  • The first experience, of course, is a sense of excitement, anticipation and hope for the future.  Usually, when we graduate, this is the predominant feeling; you’ve accomplished a lot; you’re ready for the next challenge; and you’re excited about the future.  This is good, and it’s the way it should be!  And I confess that whenever I graduated, I mostly wanted to experience this feeling, and I tried not to think about other things; but it’s still the case that –
  • Graduation, or any other transition, comes with a sense of loss; after all, the way life was is now over; you’ll no longer be hanging out with classmates who had become close friends; the experiences you had getting to this point will never come again; and the patterns and routines of your life will now have to change; and because of this –
  • There’s also a sense of uncertainty – you may be excited for the future, but you don’t really know what’s ahead; you can’t really predict what your life will look like a year from now; and even if you feel equipped for the challenges and tasks ahead, you can’t know exactly what those challenges will be…

And in a sense, Jesus’ ascension is a kind of graduation day for his first disciples – at least it’s a significant transition for them.  And like other transitions, those first disciples of Jesus were probably also filled with a sense of:

  • Excitement and anticipation for what was ahead – after all, Jesus was alive again!  They expected new adventures and opportunities, and even hoped that this would involve some kind of “restoration” of the kingdom to Israel.  Clearly, they didn’t quite get what was ahead, but they were correct to expect that God wasn’t finished with them or the world around them; new things lay ahead, and Jesus had told them they would be a part of those things; they were right to be excited. Like at graduations, usually this is what we focus on when we read the story. But it’s surely also true that they were experiencing a sense of
  • Loss – whatever the future held, it was clear they weren’t going back to the way things were.  Jesus wasn’t going to be physically present with them the way he had been over the past several years.  They couldn’t revert to the comfortable routine of following Jesus around while they watched and learned. And Jesus even suggested that they might have to leave home and the comfort of people and places they knew in order to “be witnesses.” New life was great!  But it also meant the old ways of life were done.  And that meant that they also had to be experiencing a sense of
  • Uncertainty – what did the future hold?  What were they going to be expected to do and how would they go about doing it?  Honestly, “you will be my witnesses to all the ends of the earth” and “stay here until you receive power from on high” didn’t tell them all that much!  Even if they felt called and empowered, they still faced the daunting task of figuring out how to live faithfully into the future …

And whether you or a family member is graduating this year or not, we’re all now at a point where we can thankfully say we’re beginning to transition away from the pandemic!  And like any other transition, this one comes with a sense of:

  • Excitement and hope – as vaccinations are increasing, masks mandates are getting relaxed and life is beginning to return to something resembling “normal”; but perhaps already, and surely as we move along, there will also be a sense of
  • Loss – as it’s clear that things won’t necessarily return to exactly the way they were.  And while some of that is clearly good, the ability to work from home brings with it the loss of camaraderie in the office; returning to in-person worship is great, but some of the people we used to see have moved away; and some of the places we loved to gather and eat at are just gone; and it’s therefore also true that we enter this “new normal” with a sense of
  • Uncertainty – what “new” things are going to be temporary?  What’s going to remain?  How will the experience of this past year or so affect how we live into the future?  Nobody has all the answers to that.

Depending upon what kind of transition we face, one or more of these feelings may predominate.  Just as excitement and hope crowd out the rest during most graduations, so too, transitions like death are often so consumed by a sense of loss and uncertainty, that it’s difficult to even see any possibility of hope or new life.

But no matter what transition we face – or what emotions consume us at the moment – the transition of Jesus’ ascension promises us that:

  • Jesus is giving us new life through any transition we face – Jesus promised his first disciples that he had plans for them beyond his ascension – which is why the angels ask why they’re standing looking up into heaven; there is new life right now, not just when Jesus returns; and Jesus’ call is always to look forward to the new opportunities God is giving us, even and perhaps especially when we feel a deep sense of loss and uncertainty…
  • We’re not alone in our loss – after all, the disciples all felt that loss together; and that’s why Jesus told them not only to expect God’s help personally through the gift of the Holy Spirit, but also to stick together as a community; through those gifts, Jesus promised to be with them and give them strength through the losses; and those are Jesus’ promises to us as well…
  • We’re also not alone as we face an unknown future – Jesus didn’t give his first disciples a detailed roadmap of what lay ahead.  But he did promise them that, through the Spirit, he would continue to walk with them and help them to figure it out; they didn’t have to figure out how to navigate the future without God’s help, and we don’t either; and that also means it’s OK if we don’t have the future all figured out right now…

Today, we celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and with this celebration we transition away from the Easter season.  But it’s through this transition that Jesus reminds us to continue to look for and expect God to be giving us new life and opportunities, no matter what season of life we find ourselves in.  It’s through this transition that Jesus promises us the gift of his continual presence to deal with the losses that always come with any transition.  And it’s through this transition that Jesus assures us that our future is securely in God’s hands, even and especially when we’re not sure exactly what the future holds.