By Jon Jordan
This morning I want to share one thing that is true about our day. About this age we live in.
Then I want to share one thing that is true about this day: the Feast of the Ascension.
And in sharing these two things side by side, I think we will all discover something that is true about tomorrow, no matter what tomorrow brings.
So let’s begin by thinking for a moment about our day. About this current age we live in.
We live in a virtual age.
When I say that, your mind may immediately jump to the past several months. You are attending church virtually. You have been attending school or going to work virtually. Even your celebrations of major life moments, from births and graduations to weddings and funerals have been virtual.
But when I say that we live in a virtual age, I am not talking about the past several months.
I am speaking of the past several centuries.
Western culture has become increasingly more virtual since at least the 1300s, when the first modern bank was established. Wealth was traditionally tied to land and what one could tangibly produce from that land. Now, wealth is tied to currency, a virtual representation of value.
Fast forward to the rise of the machine in the Industrial revolution roughly three centuries ago, and the dawn of the Information Age nearly a century ago.
Work that had previously been done by humans who had spent a lifetime acquiring skill and mastery through practice with other humans, is now being done by machines.
And in the middle of the 20th century, professors and soldiers across the world began to develop what we now know as the Internet.
For most of human history knowledge was transmitted in the form of wisdom. Wisdom passed down from one generation to the next through story, song, and lived experiences.
As a result of the Information Age, knowledge itself is now virtual.
Knowledge is found by turning to screens, not people.
We have slowly become virtual beings.
It did not start months ago; it started centuries ago.
It is important to note that there is not a single person watching right now who has not benefited greatly from these advances. This new virtual world has brought us countless gifts.
But this new virtual world also brings with it a curse.
In a world of virtual finances, where wealth is tied to currency housed somewhere else, our financial security is skewed at best. This has become an immediate reality for many of you over the past few months. Numbers that normally appear each month in your online bank account stopped appearing, or were severely reduced. Speculation about the future by someone thousands of miles away has nearly eliminated your retirement portfolio.
In a world of virtual work and knowledge, where information is transmitted by algorithms and screens our sense of true human connectedness has nearly disappeared.
Why ask your dad how to change the oil? You have Google.
Why ask your priest about the nature of God, the problem of evil, or the meaning of life? You have Internet forums.
Why reach out to help your next-door neighbor? There are important international news updates streaming in the next room.
And yet it is true that, in our past several months of isolation, virtual presence has helped fill the gaps. It has brought a certain level of enjoyment and convenience. I am grateful for what it has offered us.
But virtual presence is a woefully inadequate substitute for real presence.
You don’t need me to tell you that something is missing in your life right now.
Our virtual world has left us with an absence of real presence.
And this absence of real presence has revealed within many of us a deep sense of loneliness.
So if there is something I want you to have at the forefront of your mind about our Day it is this: We have slowly become virtual beings.
The isolation of the past several months has simply revealed what has been true all along: as human beings who have become virtual beings, we crave real presence. We always have.
So if that is what is true about our day, what, then, is true about this day? The Feast of the Ascension.
Right from the beginning it is worth noting how ironic, on the surface, it is to actually celebrate the Ascension.
In an already lonely world, we are here today to celebrate the time that Jesus left his disciples. I just spent a few moments trying to convince you that our increasingly virtual world has left behind a trail of isolation and loneliness, and now we are asked to turn our attention to the time that Jesus disappeared after promising his disciples he would be with them always.
What is going on here? Why did Jesus leave?
St. Luke points us in the right direction when he shows us that the disciples left the Ascension of Jesus filled with Joy.
And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
So whatever happened when Jesus returned to Heaven, it wasn’t leaving or abandoning or even truly departing. Any of those things would not have left the disciples full of joy.
So what did happen when Jesus returned to heaven?
Heaven, to ancient Hebrews and Christians throughout the ages, is not so much a location far away, but rather a different realm.
A realm without the limitations we have by necessity here on earth. A realm where time and space work differently than they do here.
Now before you brush off this ancient notion of heaven as a realm where space and time are relative, do some reading in 20th and 21st-century quantum physics. Einstein, for example, had shockingly similar things to say about even our own realm.
So heaven is a different realm, not necessarily a different location far away.
And more to the point for our celebration of the Ascension today:
Heaven is a realm in which Jesus himself is able to be present everywhere on Earth at the same time.
Let that sink in for a moment.
While Jesus was on earth, he was generally limited to the earthly realm. When he was performing miracles in Galilee he was not in Jerusalem. When he was at the wedding in Cana he was not in Emmaus.
So when Jesus left the realm of earth to ascend into the realm of heaven, he did so in order to be more present with his disciples, not less.
He did not abandon his disciples.
He did not leave them with just his teachings and warm recollections of their time together.
He left them, to enter the realm of heaven, so that he could be truly present with them wherever they went.
We are human beings, created to grow and laugh and love and cultivate through physical presence with one another.
And we have become increasingly virtual.
Longing for more connection.
Longing for real presence.
And today we gather (albeit virtually) to celebrate the reality that the answer to our longing for connection, the answer to our longing for real presence, is Jesus himself.
Some of you know exactly what I am talking about.
You have encountered the real presence of Jesus in your reading of the Scriptures, or while kneeling at the altar, or through the words of Psalm 23 at the deathbed of a loved one.
You have tasted peace in moments where peace makes no sense. Jesus has been present with you in ways that no one else ever could be.
Some of you aren’t quite sure if you know what I am talking about.
But maybe you have felt, perhaps through the unexpected kindness of a stranger, a presence that you could not explain.
Some of you are quite sure that you don’t know what I am talking about.
Here’s what I would say to all of us, regardless of where you find yourself this morning:
God’s presence can be found any time, anywhere. But Jesus tends to be found most clearly when you are actually looking for him.
The next time you are walking through the valley of sorrow; look up. Pause in the midst of the fear and worry, and watch. You may be surprised by what you see.
You might see Jesus himself in the gentle eyes of a nurse or the kindness of a neighbor.
And if you are looking for the most direct path to Jesus, look to the Church.
Christians dating back to the very first disciples of Jesus have found Him to be truly present time and time again in two places: In the reading of the Scriptures, and in the breaking of the Bread.
Read the Scriptures. And look to encounter Jesus in them.
In this time of isolation, the Sacrament of Jesus’ Body and Blood is not as physically available as it normally is.
Nevertheless, expect to experience the presence of Jesus in the prayer following Communion this morning. And be ready to receive him again with anticipation whenever it is that we find ourselves able to do so together again.
Jesus left his disciples in order to be more present with each and every one of us.
May you find him, and be found by him, no matter where you find yourself today, or tomorrow.
The Rev. Jon Jordan is campus administrator and upper school principal at Coram Deo Academy, Dallas; and a priest associate at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas. This sermon was preached at the Church of the Incarnation on Ascension Day 2020.