Easter 7, Year B
This past Thursday was Ascension Day. In the Book of Acts, we see Jesus mounting up to heaven, leaving his astounded disciples behind in order to return to the Father. The Ascension is often portrayed awkwardly in paintings, where artists show Jesus rising up head first into the clouds. This week, though, I saw an Ascension photo on Facebook that has stuck with me … And not in a good way. Someone had made a huge inflatable Jesus torso, with a big fluffy balloon cloud at his waist. Holding a bunch of balloons, and fired from below like a hot air balloon, this giant Jesus was indeed floating up into the sky. The worst part, for me, was that he had a goofy smile on his cartoon-like face and a dopey look in his heavy-lidded eyes. I was not amused.
Children, you know that I usually like a good joke—and that's what this balloon Jesus might have been. But this cartoon figure reminded me of the "cartoon Christianity" that we sometimes carve out of today's lessons from John and I John. "Eternal life" becomes a heavenly prize that we win by following the rules here on earth. The "truth" belongs to Christians alone. "Believing" becomes proclaiming a bunch of statements about Jesus and the bible. When the cartoon Jesus and the cartoon Christianity fill the airwaves in such a way that everyone thinks that is what all Christians think, I want to take a stick to those claims, poking holes in the plastic and letting out all of the hot air!
For today, then, instead of standing on the ground and watching Jesus zoom up to heaven in some silly way, let's take a different look at Jesus' Ascension.
I think that Jesus must have been plagued with longing as he was pulled away from the earth. A few years ago I was flying back home after visiting two of my adult children in New York City where they were grad students. As the plane took off, and I watched the gray tangle of buildings grow smaller, my heart started to ache. I thought about my "babies" moving around in that labyrinth below, now mere invisible specks of fragile humanity, lost in a vast and complex city. How strange it was to feel the distance narrowing my ability to guide and protect them. There is something about being pulled away from a beloved place by powerful jet engines that has always tugged at my heart. Something about breaking through the gravity of attachment to the dear people who remain in that place always sets me to longing. I wonder: Perhaps those feelings of forced separation and loss, of worry and loss of ability to walk alongside us, might have tugged at Jesus' heart, too, as he returned to his Father at the Ascension.
This is certainly an image that fits with today’s Gospel lesson, which takes place at the Last Supper. Before he leaves his disciples to face death and the Cross, Jesus is praying for them, and then for us, "those who will believe … through [the disciples.]" Just as I prayed for my children as they wandered the dangerous streets of New York, Jesus asks God to protect his friends on earth and to knit them together into one body. Like any worried parent, he wishes his beloved friends both joy and wisdom. He knows that we, his followers, are remaining behind in a dangerous world, a world where temptation and suffering lurk around every corner. As he is pulled away, he asks God to keep us safely in relationship with him.
[Right now, I invite the children to think about the friends that they have made this past school year, for the classrooms and teachers that they will soon leave behind for the summer. Some of you may be changing schools in the fall, or even moving up into middle or high school. In your head, or on the paper in your worship bag, pray for your friends this morning, like Jesus prays for us. You can draw a picture of each of your friends, and as you draw, thank God for their friendship and ask Jesus to be with them this summer. Or write a prayer for them and for your favorite teachers. You can put your prayers in the offering plate later, if you'd like, and we will offer them up to God as we bring up the bread and wine and money at the Eucharist.]
I like the idea of Jesus praying for me always, holding onto me across the distance, blessing my daily comings and goings in this complex world. I like the idea of him praying constantly for the Church, too, for our communities and our unity with God and one another. Jesus' prayer for us is not just a comfort, however. It has transforming power. When my children went off to college, I gave each of them a framed family picture to take with them, hoping that they would look at it from time to time. I hoped that the picture would help them to remember who they are, where they come from, and most of all, that they will always be my beloved children, even as they began to make their own way in the world. In a similar way, in his prayer for us today, Jesus covers us lovingly with a cloak of identity. John writes in chapter 10 that Jesus is “the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world.” In our lesson, Jesus prays that we, whom he has sent into the world, may be sanctified, as he is. Jesus names us with the same names that God has given him: the names “sanctified” and “sent.”
To be "sanctified" is to be made holy. Cartoon Christianity makes holiness into a kind of phony piety. Instead, when Jesus says here that he's going to "make himself holy," he's actually talking about stepping forward into his death on the cross. Instead of his holiness setting him apart from us human beings, his holiness thrusts him down into the messiest part of being human—into a criminal's death.
For us to be holy like Jesus is holy, then, is no easy matter. It is a call for us to go where life is most difficult, where there is risk and messiness and pain. We don't just set off alone into random danger, however. We go into the winding alleyways of life in Jesus' name. We are "sent" by Jesus who is our pattern and our strength. Jesus sends us into all of the places where he went: to people who are bound in darkness, to people who long for God and don't know it, to people who are oppressed, or ill, or full of evil. In these treacherous places, we shine the gift of God's light. Have you ever met someone who says or writes something that challenges you deep inside, that helps you to see yourself in a new way? Have you ever met someone whose life casts a new light on the world, so that you can't look at life in the same way again? That's what a truly holy person does, one whose very being testifies to the light and freedom that Jesus brings into the world. In his prayer, Jesus shows us the path that we must take through the losses, perils, and pitfalls of the world. It is walking this path that brings "eternal life," a life lived in God and in God's love, a life of eternal depth and the joy of God's boundless presence.
If you go to the Chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem, you will find there a faint indentation on the large, cracked stone at the center. Tour guides will tell you that this mark is supposed to be the right footprint of Jesus. Legend has it that the mark was emblazoned on the stone by whatever divine energy propelled Jesus up into heaven. I see this footprint as a counter to the cartoon Jesus and the cartoon Christianity. With Jesus’ prayer ringing in our ears, we can see this footprint as an invitation to place our feet there where Jesus once stood. Jesus’ print becomes the starting point on our mission to walk in his way, to be one with God in Christ Jesus, to put our communal feet courageously into the huge prints that Jesus’ feet have made in the world. We have a choice: we can stand on the sidelines and stare slack-jawed into the clouds, searching for the cartoon Jesus. Or we can take the risk of living the life that Jesus prays so longingly for us to have, and we can put our footprint on the stone, in his.
 Idea found at http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-seventh-sunday-of-easter-may-17.html
 Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 2016), 50.