1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow” wrote Shakespeare, putting these well-worn words on Juliet’s lips as she bids Romeo good night. And while I will not argue with the truthfulness of this statement, let me say this: his statement would be just as true if he had omitted the “sweet” from this sentence. To be sure, “parting is such sorrow” lacks the poetic sophistication of the original and robs it of the paradox that has made so quotable down through the years, but I wonder if the sorrow that accompanies parting is a given, and we can indeed count ourselves as lucky if there is any sweetness attached to it. If you take a moment to reflect on your own lives, on times in which someone you loved had to leave you, or someone near you died, or broke your heart, sorrow is indeed the first and primary emotion. Yes, we may frenetically search out some sweetness, nostalgically conjuring up memories of togetherness, but whatever temporary relief this may afford us points us back to the deeper sorrow which patiently sits in waiting. True enough, we are able, by the mercy of God, to get to a place where the sorrow of parting subsides, but sorrow’s absence is not the same as sweetness.
And it is this motif of parting, of having to separate, that runs through our three readings for the day. In various ways, all three readings, ask the question, what does one do not just when a person has left, but when one has to grapple with what first appears to be a divine absence. Yes, what happens when it seems as though God is the one who is parting? This is not simply the experience of those first disciples who stood witness to the Ascension of Christ, but, in various ways, this is a question that we are compelled to answer, both as individuals and as the collective body of Christ. Yes, as individuals, we may very well ask has God departed when a sudden and tragic death tears asunder the very stability of our lives? Or when that prayer that we have heaved towards the heavens night after night after night still seems to go unanswered? This question of divine absence also strikes at the heart of our life together. How does one make meaning out of membership decline and the church’s continual loss of social influence? There is a seductive temptation in these questions: it is the temptation to believe that, in asking them, we are also signaling that God has departed from our midst, and how could one ever begin to find some sweetness in that experience?
Now, certainly there are an abundance of strategies to cope with this sort of question, but one of the most honest, I think, is present in the reading from Acts. As Jesus ascends to the heavens from whence he came, a few of the disciples are awestruck by this ascension and watch it all unfold. They are then gently rebuked by two men in white robes, presumably angels, who ask them why “they stand looking up towards heaven?” Now, on a literal basis, the question answers itself. I defy anyone to say that they would have done anything differently had they been present at the ascension. How could you even think about focusing on something else as Jesus leaves in such a dramatic fashion? However, when we confront this question a bit more, there is a deeper meaning yet to be engaged. In addition to the sheer spectacle of it all, I cannot help but think that the disciples stand looking at the bottom of Jesus’ feet because they believe that there is nothing left to be done. Jesus has departed and with his departure, all that is left for them is a nostalgic waiting for his return. They are quite literally paralyzed by Christ’s departure, and who could really blame them? And it is this paralysis that is we all know well. In times of transition, when we experience the departure of our health, our wealth, or even a picture that we had of ourselves as powerful and influential people, it is oh so easy to gaze into the heavens of our past, to recall with fondness a time when life was a bit easier, or we had a stronger sense of who we are. Yes, the temptation is to wait for the sweetness of our past to return to us, manifesting glory from the heavens and restoring us to our former selves.
The issue, though, and we all know this, is that waiting for the past to reassert itself is short-term coping mechanism, at best. We cannot hold that which has been lost, and we must, no matter the cost, rise and greet the new day. The astounding Word, though, is that this is not something we must do alone, and this living into the present and into the future, this can actually be an experience of great sweetness. Look, at you will, at Jesus’ prayer as the hour has come. He know that the only thing for him is the cross and then the open tomb, and he knows that the disciples will need some encouragement, but what Christ gives is so much than a helpful word or some grief-reduction strategy, not there is anything wrong with either of those, Christ simply seems to be after something deeper. Yes, what he gives the disciples, what he gives to you and me through the power of the Holy Spirit is nothing less than this: the oneness that he shares with the Father. Now this phrase can be obscure to the point where we miss its meaning entirely. But even as he is preparing to leave his disciples in the world, in the place where hostility, isolation and estrangement remain, Christ’s love is too vast to leave them alone. Instead, Christ gives them, gives you, the very fullness of the divine love that fills both creation and eternity. The love that called the cosmos into being, the love that took what was formless and void and made of it something deeply and determinedly “good,” the love that called back wayward Israel in the strong voice of the prophets, and the love that became incarnate in the Son, that love is now yours: for you, you all together and with the whole people of God, you have been given everything that the Father shares with the Son. The vast joy of eternity, that life abundant that spills over from age to age, that is now yours, and it was yours before you understand it or agree to it, for it was the Father’s good work to give you to the Son. And what is more, Christ proclaims this to you as he prepares himself for the cross. So, this is not some promised divorced from the real concerns of this world. No, this is a promise not just about the world to which Christ has ascended but a promise about the world in which we currently find ourselves: a world full of aging bodies and mourning hearts, a world full of skimpy paychecks and formidable bills, a world in which the hungry seek food and the lonely seek compassion. It is in this world that Christ gives the gift of the glory that he shares with the Father.
And because that is so, we need not stare into the heavens, or stare in the glory of our pasts, waiting for Christ to return us to some mythical version we had of ourselves. No, instead, having already been joined by the God who goes to the cross and then conquers death, we may devote ourselves to the sweetness of joining God right here in the world: indeed, we gather around the Word of God and the sacraments that make us whole and then break us open to the needs of those around us. We join our voices in prayer, and with the whole people of God in Christ Jesus, we work with humility for wider community as we do whatever part we have been given in this story of Christ’s people. Yes, there is no need to stare into heaven, nor is there any need to search out some sort of sweetness in the sorrow of parting. For Christ is still here, still present in the world. If you wish to greet me, look no further than your neighbor in need. For Christ is risen, he is risen, indeed, hallelujah.