Jesus and the Red Balloon

Ascension of Our Lord
During the years I was a stay-at-home mom, I taught my daughter Stephanie’s pre-school Sunday school class. For the lesson on the ascension of Jesus, I had a brilliant idea: I decided to act out the ascension story with them. First we read it in our picture bibles, and then I brought out a red helium filled balloon with a smiley face on it. I explained that the balloon was Jesus, and that we were going to be his disciples. We would go outside and say goodbye.
Probably any preschool teacher or any practical parent could have told me that at least one child would not like this scenario. What kid likes letting go of balloon and watching it float away? But these preschoolers were champs. They dutifully followed me outside, ready to wave goodbye.
It was my own son, Joel, didn’t like to go to Sunday school, and instead was a ‘helper’ for this class—and Joel was the one who did not like this scenario! As we were tromping up the stairs to go outside, he began to complain, “Mommy, we can’t let go of the balloon… “

As we gathered outside, Joel became louder, “No, Mommy, no!”

I tried to shush him, but I had to direct my attention to the class.

The preschoolers and I waved goodbye to Jesus and the red balloon sailed away. And there was Joel, pounding the ground and crying.
I am grateful to Joel, because I learned a lesson that day—don’t let go of a balloon in Sunday school class! But I also began to think about something that hadn’t occurred to me: Perhaps a few of the disciples were crying at Jesus’ ascension.

Luke says that after the ascension, the disciples worshiped Jesus and returned with joy to Jerusalem. And surely, it must have been an awesome sight to see someone levitating into the sky.

But think about it:
The disciples had spent three years of their lives following Jesus.
They believed he was the Messiah, the one who would bring political and religious freedom back to their people. 
They thought they had lost him when he was brutally executed.
But joy of joys, Jesus miraculously rose from the dead, and appeared to them off and on for 40 days. 
The presence of their resurrected Lord must have been such a comfort and strength to them: a sign that not all was lost, but instead, that Jesus was returning to the plan—the plan to have a peaceable and just kingdom here on earth, with Jesus at the helm, centered in Jerusalem and in keeping with all the prophets and expectations of the Messiah.
They ask, “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
But instead of finishing the plan, Jesus leaves.  Just like that.
I think I might have crying or shouting, or both.
I think this is an important story for us today. Originally when Pastor Barry and I chose this text to preach on, we were thinking of all the changes our community has experienced in the past few years. 
  • Beloved staff members retired or moved on, and two new pastors have come. There has been a lot of letting go and saying goodbye.
  • A pandemic has interrupted our way of life and our community bonds. It takes time to rebuild, and what we build will be different than the past because we are different.
  • Violence has erupted overseas, and once again in our own country, in terrible mass shootings targeting black people and children.
  • And it is, of course, Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who lost their lives in the service of our nation, a stark reminder that the freedoms we cherish come at a cost.
It is enough to make us all break down and weep, and ask the question: “Is this the time when you will restore us, Lord?”  Because we really need it. 
We can feel broken by grief, helpless, alone, and afraid.
It is as if we are the apostles, watching Jesus slip from our lives and fade into the sky.
But we know from the book of Acts that Jesus’ departure was necessary. The deal is that Jesus’ plan was much bigger than the disciples imagined. It wasn’t just about empowering Israel—Jesus was about empowering the whole world.
Jesus said, “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.
I imagine the disciples in the upper room after Jesus’ ascension, waiting as Jesus commanded, pondering these words. They had a heard him talk about the Holy Spirit, and that it would come to them. But how could they have known what this meant?
Jesus was talking about a transfer of leadership from Jesus to the people themselves, which would not become apparent until the day of Pentecost. The spirit of Jesus would move from his person to all people in the gift of the Holy Spirit, and as such, it would be an empowerment of all believers, not one leader or the chosen few. It was going to be a new way to organize, and new way to live. The church was being born, and a whole new way of being the people of God was becoming a reality.
Truth be told, this new reality meant a lot more responsibility for the disciples. They are, in fact, now called apostles, which literally means, “the sent out ones.” The apostles are no longer disciples, students sitting at the feet of their rabbi. They are sent out into the world to be witnesses to this new reality of God’s kingdom. The book of Acts recounts how they are the ones who take up the work of Jesus, bringing healing and proclaiming forgiveness. They are the ones who organize to take care of the vulnerable and share their resources so that everyone has enough. They are the ones who risk their lives to show that God operates beyond the bounds of fear and death and gives courage to speak truth to power.
Beloved of God, we are now Jesus’ apostles, the sent out ones. 
We are the ones who are empowered by Jesus’ spirit, the Holy Spirit given to each of us in our baptism.
We are the ones who carry on Jesus’ mission
      • of healing and forgiveness.
      • of caring for the poor and forgotten.
      • of speaking the truth of Jesus’ life to the institutions and ways of the world that dish out death.
We aren’t supposed to stand around, looking up, hoping for rescue.
We do not need to cling to the past, clutching our balloons.
  • We have all that is needed.
  • We have the Holy Spirit.
  • We have one another.
  • We have these stories, and Christ’s resurrection power.
We are witnesses of Jesus’ death and new life, we have seen that real change is possible.

And that is what we proclaim in our words and deeds—that Jesus’ unstoppable life and love may reach the ends of the earth.

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