Ascension of Our Lord, May 21, 2020, Acts 1:1-11, “A Parting Gift”

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Acts 1:8 NRSV

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William Shakespeare was right.  In Act 2, Scene 2 of the famous play, “Romeo and Juliet, it is Juliet’s words which are so memorable,  “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Haven’t we all experienced the sorrow and the sweetness of parting?  I think of my grandparents saying good-bye to their sons who went off to fight in World War II.  When would my grandparents see them again? I think of parents who send their 18 year old sons and daughters off to college and wonder how they will make it on their own.

That’s the sorrow of parting.

On the other hand, parting brings a sweetness because we remember the love in the relationship we have with those leaving us.  Grandma and Grandpa loved the sons they reared and wanted them not to be in harm’s way.  Parents hug and kiss their children goodbye and wish them the best as they go to college.

That’s the sweetness of parting.

The Day of Ascension in the church year is 40 days after Christ’s resurrection and the reading from Acts describes the parting scene between Jesus and his disciples.  On the one hand, the disciples were sorrowful.  Why was Jesus leaving them especially after all they have been through together for three years?

Jesus taught them about the grace of God’s Kingdom.  They saw him heal the blind, the lame and the deaf.  He saved them when the wind and waves on the sea brought fear of losing their lives.  He sent them out with the power to heal in God’s name.  He washed their feet in a moment of humility.  He shared a Passover meal with them which they would never forget.  They knew of his ugly death on the cross and were filled with hope and joy when he appeared to them in his resurrected scared body in that locked room.

Oh, the sorrow of seeing Jesus leave them!

But before Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand, Jesus gave his disciples a parting gift.  It wasn’t a bag full of coins to refill their treasury.  It wasn’t a secret message to know how to gain wealth and fame.  And it wasn’t an army waiting to do battle against Rome and its oppressive power.

Jesus gave them what he had promised – the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It was this divine gift to empower the disciples to be witnesses to God’s love through Jesus the Messiah to the ends of the earth.  Now that was the best gift the disciples could ever have.  The Holy Spirit gave so many gifts to them, to us and to the world.

Oh, the sweetness of that parting gift!

In his “Small Catechism,” Martin Luther wrote that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to “call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep us in the one true faith?  Doesn’t that cover it all for our relationship to Christ?  From start to finish the Holy Spirit is present in our lives with good gifts.  From our baptisms into Christ until our funerals when our baptismal journeys on this earth ends, the Holy Spirit is our constant guide and spiritual companion.  Who could ask for anything more?  What a sweet parting gift from the ascended Lord!

When I left one church and received a call to another ministry, the church I left always gave me a parting gift.  It was in a celebration lunch after Sunday worship.  The members brought delicious food for a pot-luck.  Kind and thankful words were spoken about my family and my ministry with them.  One church gave my family and me an engraved silver serving platter and another congregation sang a creative song about my ministry to the tune of Camptown Races and added a photo album with scenes from my ministry.  Those parting gifts of appreciation will ever be remembered with joy and thanksgiving.

Can you remember someone giving you a parting gift?  Maybe it was a note expressing thankfulness and love.  Maybe it was a hand-made quilt or painting or another hand-make item expressing the joy of a close relationship.  Aren’t those parting gifts something you will treasure the rest of your life?

Thirteen century philosopher and theologian, Thomas Aquinas, said this about the Holy Spirit, “The Holy Spirit intends that the wisdom, power, and love that the Father begets to the Son, should be begotten in us.”  We find that message about power from the Holy Spirit in the words of Jesus to his disciples just before he ascended into heaven, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (1:8)

The power the Holy Spirit bestows on us is not baseball power to hit a home run, not political power to win an election, not the economic power to become a millionaire and not the power to abuse, steal, lie or cheat.

But the Holy Spirit gives us the power to witness in daily life.  The Holy Spirit gives us the power and confidence to have a holy conversation with someone down and out about the love of Christ.  The Holy Spirit gives us the power to invite someone to a bible study, a worship service, or to choir rehearsal so that a person can hear or sing the gospel of Christ’s mercy and abiding presence.  The parting gift that Jesus gives all believers is the sweetness of love, comfort and peace from the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus ascended into heaven on a cloud and vanished from the disciples’ sight, two men in white robes (angels) suddenly appeared and said to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?   This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

An ascending and vanishing Jesus brought sorrow to the disciples, but the angels promised them that this Jesus will come again on clouds of glory.  That promise brought the sweetness of hope that they will behold their Lord again face to face.

So William Shakespeare was right. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” Emotions of sorrow and the sweetness of love filled the hearts of the disciples on the day of Jesus’ ascension.

But until the day of Christ’s return, the promised Holy Spirit fills our hearts with the sweetness of peace and joy and the power to be Christ’s witnesses.  This sweet gift always breaks the sorrow in our lives.  This parting gift from the Lord is more precious than any earthly gift.

Thanks be to God!

The peace of God which surpasses all understand keep our hearts and mind in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

(Image of The Ascension, 1636, Rembrandt, Wikipedia Commons; quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Sending of the Holy Spirit,” by William J. Martin at anglicanway.org; quotation from Romeo and Juliet found at sparknotes.com; and the idea to use the Thomas Aquinas quotation comes from Father John Paul Mary, EWTN Daily Mass for Ascension of Our Lord)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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