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Luke 24:44-53

Luke 24:44-53 Why Jesus Had to Go: A Sermon for the Celebration of the Ascension This week is the celebration of the Ascension, which is bound to make more than a few of us a little nervous. Most of us can easily discuss the significance of the life of Jesus, his teaching, his death, and his resurrection, but his ascension? Not so much. I can never remember if it’s Istanbul or Constantinople, but whichever it is, it’s part of the ancient Byzantine Empire. The Greeks called it Anatolia—the place of the rising sun. The scriptures call it Asia Minor. Today we call it Turkey. It was once home to the city of Tarsus, the kingdom of Troy, two of the Seven Wonders of the World, perhaps the oldest Christian church on the planet (The Hagia Sophia, 537AD), and some of the most beautiful cathedrals ever built. For six hundred years Christianity flourished in the Byzantine Empire. Kings, queens, and rulers would spend a small fortune building massive Cathedrals that housed incredible works of art and literature. Today, most of them are in various stages of disintegration and collapse. (take moment to Google the images. They are stunning). Ani Cathedral is perched alone on a barren hillside near the border between Turkey and Armenia. It’s a domed cruciform church completed in 1001AD would house Christian worship for a mere seventy years before it was turned into a mosque. Oshki Monastery (973AD), was a major center of art and literature during the Middle Ages; its stonework—centuries ahead of its time—now overgrown with weeds and shrubs. Oskvank Cathedral (960AD), was constructed by the sons of a Georgian King named David. It had a church refectory and a scriptorium where ancient manuscripts were copied by hand. It remained a major center for Christian thought until the 15th Century. Ishkhani Cathedral (641AD), Otkhta Cathedral (961)… they are all incredibly beautiful even as they are abandoned as ruins. These once inspired churches with their art, frescoes, sculpture, carvings and architecture are now plundered shells of a bygone Christian era that has come and gone. Anatolia’s slow transition from a predominantly Greek-speaking Christian people to a Turkish-speaking Muslim people took place over the first century of the second millennium. The Mongols took over in the thirteenth century. Islam took root. Within a few centuries the Christians were gone. Turkey is now 99% Muslim.One could argue that wars, politics, earthquakes, acid rain, and neglect destroyed the cathedrals of Anatolia, but the truth is that they were destroyed by a powerful foe named absence. Perhaps this was the concern nagging at the heart of Jesus’ disciples in the days that followed the resurrection. Two thousand years later we know the answers, but at the time there was only one question that mattered: What would happen to this fragile gospel community once their central figure was gone? In the two hundred years either side of the cross there were a good ten or twelve Jewish Messianic movements. Each one flourished around a central figure promising signs and wonders, political deliverance, and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Each one ended with the death of its central figure, except for one. For some strange reason Christ’s followers never stopped following. In fact, they began claiming that Christ had been raised from the dead. Yet, in the days before the ascension, as Jesus popped in and out without warning, the questioned still loomed large. How would the kingdom Jesus inaugurated continue in his absence? Would they crumble like those Byzantine Cathedrals? Or, could they find a way to flourish. “In the last days,” the prophet Joel foresaw, “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; your sons & daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions… even on the male & female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” The followers of Yahweh, always on the wrong side of history, were expecting not only a new political reality, but a new spiritual reality as well. Of course they thought of the kingdom of God in nationalistic terms, but none of it could ever last if Jesus’s promise were left unfulfilled. Something—someone—would need to counter this absence with a presence. “I am going to send you what my Father has promised,” Jesus said, “but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” The promise will become more explicit with next week’s text. “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.” This kingdom advances as the spirit of God comes to life within the hearts of the people, and in the life of the very community itself. It spreads by witnesses, not by soldiers or wars, and it is preserved in the absence of Christ’s physical presence, by a new spiritual presence. Yet on that day when Jesus disappeared into heaven, they had to be standing there going, “What just happened? Did you see that? Where did he go?” Jesus’ absence created an acute theological crisis. Absence is actually kind of a fascinating thing. Absence can only be felt after some kind of presence has been interrupted. Absence is only difficult when the presence has been meaningful in some way. Our kids spent a week with their grandparents most summers. When they are gone I feel their absence all week. I’m used to their presence. Their presence is meaningful to me. The stronger the presence, the more powerful the absence; this is why there’s so much pain involved when children go off to college, or