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Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord (and Mother’s Day) – May 12, 2024

Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Like many of you, I’m remembering and celebrating the mothers in my life today. I’m remembering my grandmother, who sang in the choir in the congregation I grew up in. After singing she would come back to the pew and pull me into her lap and wrap her arms around me, her hands resting on my torso. Being in church with her hands holding me to herself was such a blessing. In the midst of an often-chaotic childhood, it felt like the safest place in the world. I remember my mother’s hands too. When she died, I had to work through some anger and some painful memories, but at one point my counselor pushed me to start naming the good things I remember about her. And the first thing that popped out of my mouth was the feeling of her hands on my forehead when I was sick as a kid. Nothing made me feel better than her hands on my forehead. I look at my dear wife, the mother of our three sons, and I remember how her hands could calm them down when they were little. My hands would get them riled up with wrestling and roughhousing until, without fail, one of them was crying, and then her hands would almost instantly dry their tears. I notice now how when we leave them behind after visiting them in college, her hands reach up to hold the back of their necks as she lingers in a proud, loving hug. She is blessing them, and no matter how big they get, it just melts their hearts. Even as other women are now starting to enter the picture, there is still no greater blessing than a touch from their mother’s hands.

I don’t think it is a stretch at all to find a connection in the loving, comforting, blessing hands of mothers and the Ascension of our Lord. As St. Luke tells us, after the risen Jesus had spent forty days on the earth with his disciples, he gave them some final words. He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, helping them see it all through a new lens, the lens of his death and resurrection. He gave them their mission, which was to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sin in his name and to be witnesses to all that he had done. Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them.

You might think this is a minor detail, but it isn’t. Those hands mean something. This was the very same posture the priests in the temple used to put God’s blessing on the people at the end of worship. It was the posture used to put God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s blessing on them. Jesus used this very same posture. He lifted up his hands in blessing. His hands, still bearing the wounds of his great sacrifice for them, were over them, covering them, assuring them, blessing them.

These hands of blessing are what made Jesus’ departure an occasion of great joy rather than a sad goodbye. These disciples knew that these hands would remain over them, and so they could go back to their daily lives in great joy. They could go back to Jerusalem, where so much ugliness had happened, without fear. They could spend the rest of their lives worshipping Jesus and serving him. They could spend the rest of their lives blessing God for the blessing that was upon them through those eternally outstretched hands.

And where is Jesus now? Where did he go, exactly? As St. Paul says in our epistle reading, and as we confess in the creed, Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the Father.” The Ascension of our Lord doesn’t mean Jesus shot off into outer space! No, he took his place at God’s right hand in the heavenly places.

This is symbolic language. The right hand represents power. There’s nothing wrong with being left-handed, of course, but about 90% of the human population is right-hand dominant. For most of the human population, then, the right hand is their strongest hand. It is the hand you use to get things done. The right hand is the hand you use to sign your name or crank a wrench or flip a pancake. The right hand is the hand you use to accomplish things. And so, in ancient times the right-hand symbolized power and strength. This symbolism carried over to the seating arrangements in the courts of kings. The highest-ranking official would always be seated to the king’s right as a sign of his power. This communicated to everyone that this was the person the king used to accomplish things. We use the phrase “right hand man” even today.

Jesus’ ascension is his enthronement as the eternal “right hand man” to God the Father. Jesus is taking his place as the one who has the ear of the Heavenly Father, who acts with his authority, who carries out his will. Jesus, as the “right hand man” to God the Father, is the one who will continue to get things done. He will continue to be at work. He will continue to accomplish things. That’s what the right-hand man does, right?

As God’s right-hand man, Jesus continues get things done for God the Father. He continues to lift his hands over us to comfort and to heal and to strengthen and to bless. And he does this through the church, which is our spiritual mother.

There is a long history in Christianity of describing the church as our mother. St. Cyprian, a 3rd century bishop from North Africa famously wrote: “No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.” That can be jarring for American Protestants steeped in “just me and Jesus” spirituality to hear, but it is not a foreign concept for Lutheran Christians. Martin Luther himself, in no less important a writing than the Large Catechism, calls the church, “the mother that conceives and bears every Christian through God’s Word.”

The church is our mother, and it is through the church that the hands of Jesus continue to be lifted in blessing over us.  It is through our spiritual mother, the church, that Jesus continues to get things done for God, often through the literal laying on or lifting up of hands.

I remember receiving the laying on of hands when I was ordained as a pastor. I remember the blessing being put on me through those many hands laid upon me in prayer. I remember returning the favor when Lynne Ogren was ordained here, laying hands on her in prayer. Christ’s blessing is laid upon pastors through the loving, blessing hands of our mother, the church. In the scriptures we read how when Timothy was struggling in ministry, St. Paul encouraged him to remember those hands laid upon him when he was ordained, and to take courage from it, to literally be en-couraged, to be strengthened by the hands of his mother, the church. Those hands are powerful! Christ continues to get things done for God through them!

But it isn’t just for pastors. The newly baptized have hands laid upon them after they emerge from the womb of the baptismal font. Through the laying on of hands and prayer, Christ’s blessing is put upon them as mother church embraces her newborn child.

Next Sunday I will lay hands on the heads of our confirmation students as they publicly affirm their baptism. The hands of the ascended Christ will be lifted over them in blessing. They will literally feel the proud, loving blessing of Christ on their heads through the ministry of their mother, the church.

Every Christian who attends worship has Christ’s hands lifted over them when the absolution, the forgiveness of sins is Christ’s name, is spoken, and again when the benediction is proclaimed. Jesus borrows my hands to do it – but make no mistake: he is only using mine to remind you of his! His hands are lifted over you in blessing as his word is spoken. Through your mother, the church, he is putting his grace, his love, his blessing, on you. In the midst of all the chaos of the world and the chaos of your life, he is putting his hands over and around you, so that you would be held in his safe-keeping.

When we are sick, or hurting, or afraid, our mother, the church, is there with hands that bring comfort and peace. On some occasions hands are literally placed on foreheads as words of blessing are spoken.

Mothers don’t need to be perfect to be powerful conveyors of love and blessing. The same is true of Mother Church. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the church has likely had times when it has led to disappointment or pain. But even so, flawed as she is, the church is the mother through whom Christ’s hands are upon us. Through her, our ascended Lord continues to comfort and heal. He continues to encourage and assure. He continues to love and bless.

The hands of your ascended Lord continue to be lifted over you today. The ascension is not a sad goodbye, it is a reason to worship him with great joy! It doesn’t mean Jesus has left us, it means he has taken his place at God’s right hand, where he continues to bestow his blessing. Through your spiritual mother the church he holds you close, so that you would know the power of his great love for you, today and forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church