Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Farewell Blessing” Luke 24:44-53
The language of blessing is deeply ingrained in our culture. Even children who have never attended Sunday School learn from an early age that when someone sneezes, they should respond with a simple “Bless you.” In the Middle Ages, that blessing may have been shared to ward off the bubonic plague, but nowadays, those words have passed into the repertoire of polite things to say in company.
We may use the phrase “You have been blessed” as an acknowledgment of the good things in someone’s life, from good health to the birth of a grandchild. We raise a fiftieth anniversary glass to the celebration of a long and happy marriage with the words, “You have been blessed!” And in the world of professional basketball, whether the Celtics, Heat, Lakers or Nuggets win the championship, we’ll hear athletes rejoicing with the words, “We have been blessed.”
I have also noticed that we use the language of blessing when someone makes a well-intended effort that falls short. The late Dot Shene was visually impaired, but she never let that slow her down in the kitchen. One Christmas, she gave me a loaf of her famous (or should that be infamous) cheese bread. As Dot handed me the loaf, the late Norma Neese stood behind her, giving me a look that said, “Don’t eat it!” Sure enough, the well-intended loaf was a curious mix of gooey under-baking, caustic lumps of baking soda, and wads of cheese. Bless Dot’s little heart!
There was a lot of blessing going on in our reading from Luke’s gospel. First, the risen Lord revealed to his disciples how his ministry, death, and resurrection were anticipated in the Hebrew scriptures. Then, they journeyed outside Jerusalem and over the Mt. of Olives to Bethany. There Jesus took his leave, promising that, although he was returning to the Father, he would soon send a holy helper to be with them always. As Jesus ascended, he blessed his disciples. They responded by blessing God, praising and worshipping Jesus and God Almighty, right there in Bethany and in the coming days in the Jerusalem Temple.
The biblical understanding of blessing has nothing to do with sneezing, professional basketball, or good intentions. On the contrary, the Hebrew word for blessing—barak—is all about relationship. Blessing is a statement of favorable relationship between two parties. It could be two people, two nations, God and an individual (like Abraham), or God and a chosen people (like Israel). Blesing, barak, is found in the goodness and benefit that prospers when two parties come together with mutual concern and regard.
All blessing begins with God, who has chosen to be in relationship. God, who is sovereign and all-powerful, didn’t need to create the world, but God did. Genesis 1 wraps language around God’s choice for relationship. God spoke words that forged the earth and its creatures, from fish to birds to wild animals to humankind. After each act of creation, God proclaimed God’s work to be good—and then God blessed it. All creation was forged to be in relationship with the Creator.
In Genesis 12, God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their home in Haran and travel to a new land. God promised to bless them, to travel with them and be in relationship with them. God said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This is the pattern that God established in Genesis. God blesses us and sends us forth to bless others – to be in good, loving, mutual, beneficial relationship with the neighbors we meet on life’s journey.
Jesus’ parting blessing in our reading from Luke’s gospel was a reminder of the disciples’ relationship with God through him, yet it also brought to mind that charge to Abraham and Sarah—to be the blessing of others. Jesus didn’t call his followers to a Promised Land where only the children of Abraham would be welcomed and blessed. Rather, Jesus sent his followers from Jerusalem out to “all nations.” Blessing would be found in loving God and in loving neighbor. That’s the great commandment, and it is all about blessing. The Book of Acts reveals that many, who were once considered outsiders to God’s love, were blessed as the disciples went forth to “all nations.” Samaritans, Ethiopians, Romans, Syrians, Greeks, all would be welcomed, accepted, helped, healed, and fed.
This church takes seriously the calling to be a blessing to others, even as we are blessed by God’s love for us. One of the most gratifying ways that I have seen that blessing unfold in my time in Saranac Lake has been in our deepening relationship with the Food Pantry. We began with the pack basket at the side entrance and the invitation to donate canned- and dry goods. We expanded with the 2-cents-a-meal offering and the annual Souper Bowl Sunday that the kids lead. We have seen an increasing number of church members share their time and love at the Food Pantry, whether they are putting together food boxes on Saturday mornings, responding to emergency calls for food, or serving on the Board of Directors. Then, we got the bright idea to supplement the food that the pantry offers its patrons by providing fresh vegetables, and so our Jubilee Garden was born. Finally, when it was time to renovate the basement, we saw the unique opportunity to provide the Food Pantry with a new and improved permanent home in the heart of the village. Yesterday, as I visited with Anne Cooney at the pantry, she assured me that in the new location downstairs, the number of people who are coming to the pantry has doubled. Now, that is a blessing!
Jesus knew, as he sent his disciples forth to bless the world, that they themselves would be blessed. When the disciples reached out and shared God’s love, there would be goodness and joy for them, too. Strangers would become friends. Outsiders would be welcomed in. Church families would provide the nurture and support that were needed in times of rejection and persecution. There would be shared meals, helping hands, and plenty of laughter. Those blessed by their love of God would be a blessing to others and somehow find themselves feeling blessed more than they thought possible.
One of my seminary professors Claude-Marie called this phenomenon “Mission in Reverse.” As a young adult, Claude-Marie traveled from her native France to South Africa, where she served as a missionary in Lesotho and Soweto at the height of Apartheid. It was a daunting mission for the young French woman, but she found joy in meeting families, teaching children, and learning a strange new language that included clicks and pops. Her advocacy for her black parishioners led to her eventual arrest and torture by the powerful and secretive South African Bureau of State Security, yet even so decades later, Claude-Marie still rejoices in remembering the goodness of those relationships with the Sotho and Zulu people.
We have experienced this “mission in reverse,” finding blessing and delight as we reach out and bless others. Those among us who volunteer at the food pantry or grow vegetables at the garden can testify about that. In fact, I’d like to invite us to a little celebration of the blessings. I’ll share some of the ways that we have felt blessed in our ministry, and we’ll all respond with the words, “We are blessed.”
Our relationships with fellow volunteers have deepened, and we have found new appreciation for one another’s gifts. We are blessed!
We have made new friends on Saturday mornings among our neighbors in need, rejoicing together in the little victories and sorrowing together through times of hardship. We are blessed!
We have known the sweetness of working the earth. We are blessed!
We have celebrated the advent of earth worms and the texture of soil that is just right for planting—moist and cohesive, a little like good chocolate cake. We are blessed!
At the garden, we have gotten to know people of all ages, many of whom have never set foot in a church, and perhaps never will. We are blessed!
We have marveled at fiery radishes, prolific zucchini, an abundance of beans, and the treasure of Adirondack tomatoes. We are blessed!
Best of all, we have felt that we are living into God’s purpose, that the blessing we have found in God’s love for us shines through to the world around us. We are blessed!
On this Ascension Sunday, we are indeed blessed, my friends. Let us go forth to live as a blessing to others.
Kent Harold Richards. “Bless/Blessing” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1, New York: Doubleday, 1992. Pages 753-755.
Greg Carey. “Commentary on Luke 24:44-53” in Preaching This Week, May 18, 2023. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jennifer Kaalund, “Commentary on Luke 24:44-53” in Preaching This Week, May 21, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Troy Troftgruben. “Commentary on Luke 24:44-53” in Preaching This Week, May 14, 2015. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.