At one time he was here. In the next moment, he was gone. We are still in that next moment. Following the resurrection, we have the testimony of witnesses and the disciples. Paul tells us that some 500 people encountered the risen Christ. Eventually, the days of physical resurrection came to an end. Luke, the great storyteller of the early church, describes the culmination of Jesus’ post resurrection as the “ascension”. If Jesus was not physically here, where would he go? Jesus would go home. Jesus could only go somewhere far beyond our understanding and comprehension. Jesus would go away, as he said in John’s gospel.
How do you describe someone leaving? The emotions one feels at the departure of a loved one are raw and conflicted. You’ve been at those airport gates, just before the TSA check-in and watched someone blend into a crowd. Perhaps you’ve even put a loved one on a train. We’ve been dropped off at college and now we’re the ones dropping on our children off. A daughter or son leaves home to marry and begin a new family; that’s also a way of leaving. One moment someone is here, the next moment a room is empty.
The emotional mélange created by leaving, even temporary, tangles our feelings, fear, and hope in unexpected ways. Departures, whether for a week, month, or two thousand years, mimic death’s finality. For this brief time, we need to figure out how we’ll untangle these knots in our stomach and go on. Imagine, trying to write these struggle in a way others could see, experience, and feel for years to come. This was Luke’s challenge and he did it the best way he knew how.
The beginning of the story was much easier. Who can’t describe the joy and happiness present at the arrival of a new baby? The story of Jesus’ birth almost wrote itself. Jesus’ leaving, only a lonely hillside, was another matter altogether. For a group of people still coming to terms with the resurrection, Jesus’ voluntary departure brought their hopes back to Good Friday levels. They asked, “How will we live in a world where Jesus isn’t physically present?”
Isn’t that what we’re asking too? How do we live out the Ascension today? How can our lives speak to Jesus’ life even though he’s not physically present? That’s what this passage is really about. It’s not about Jesus throwing on jetpack and flying off into the clouds. How do we embody Jesus’ presence even though, we’re told, he’s physically absent? It’s one of the great contradictions of the Christian faith: absence can be presence.
The Ascension should be reenacted in our daily lives. Ascension living, like a riding a bicycle, shouldn’t be something we have to think about. The Ascension isn’t a ritual; it’s a way of life.
Take a look at the first thing that happens in Luke’s ascension stories. The disciples gather around Jesus. The Ascension creates clusters, gatherings, and groups of disciples. You might even call them communities of believers. Today, what might we call a cluster, gathering, group, or community of believers? I’d call it a church. The Ascension helps form Christian community where there is none. Most importantly, what is that community formed around? At the center of the group is the risen Christ. The Ascension forms intentional faith communities centered on the risen Christ. That’s the beginning of an early church mission statement!
From disparate places, we have been brought into this community. We don’t know how to talk about it. Our lives have been a blur. Somehow, we ended up in this place. Saved by an amazing idea that grace was the rescue we needed. A seat was made at a table, bread was broken, the cup was shared, and we ate together. Now we are here.
Once the disciples are gathered, Jesus empowers the disciples to be his witnesses in his absence. This isn’t Matthew’s gospel. Jesus doesn’t commission the disciples to go out into the world to proclaim anything. The language isn’t near that formal. While it lacks the official sounding prose of Matthew, it’s no less powerful or important. This group, this cluster, this gathering is to go and tell Jesus’ story while he is away. In very simple language, Jesus is saying, “In my absence, I want you to tell my stories, tell what we did and why we did it.” That mission statement for the early church continues to take shape doesn’t it? The Ascension forms intentional faith communities centered on telling the stories of the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ. In two steps, Jesus has gathered a community around him and given them a purpose to work towards. The Holy Spirit will aid them in their quest to be witnesses in an ever expanding area of concentric geographic circles; beginning with Jerusalem, next to Judea, then to Samaria, and across the known world. Even before Pentecost, they are being transformed and empowered to work in Jesus’ absence. His physical presence is not a barrier to his presence. He is present in his witnesses, their stories, and His spirit. Absence is presence.
There are always things left undone when people leave. Some of the disciples (perhaps even a majority) were still holding up that Holy Week hope that Jesus will redeem Israel, one way or another, while he’s still present. Acts 1:6 says, “As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, ‘Lord, are you going to restore the Kingdom of Israel now?’” This was probably one of those moments Jesus thought, “How many more times am I going to have to answer this question before I get back to heaven?” Jesus wants to put an end to their constant speculation and worry. Again, this wasn’t a new question for him. Here’s his reply:
“It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7)
Jesus says, “Oh and before I go, don’t go worrying you’re pretty little heads about the end of the world. We’ve got that covered. That’s for God to know and you not to find out.” If we only took Jesus at his word when it comes to this one? How many people have gotten wealthy they’ve convinced people they knew when the world was ending? Countless others have died because someone convinced them that they too knew the end was near. What does Jesus say, “It isn’t for us to know.” Yes, it’s easy to get depressed by watching too much news and reading trashy theology books. This is why Jesus warns us against it. There’s a little known Dr. Seuss book called the Strange Shirt Spot. In it, the Doctor says:
This spot! It was driving me out of my mind!
What a spot-what a spot for a fellow to find!
My troubles were growing. The way it kept going.
Where would it go next?
There was no way of knowing.
There is no way of knowing, Jesus says. Be at peace with the ministry we are called to do today.
The last way the Ascension should be lived out and practiced in our lives comes back to a question of perspective. Where are we looking? What is our community focusing upon? Do we have the right individual and church wide priorities? Why do I ask those questions? Look at the end of the reading.
“While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here looking toward heaven?’”
You know that look, right? You are staring blankly up at the sky after you’ve seen something that appears wonderful, out of place, or vaguely amazing. Someone you didn’t notice is standing beside you. They ask, “What you staring at?” Mouth agape, pointing skyward, no words just grunts, and you hope no one sees the drool coming off the side of your face as you finally say in manly voice, “Yeah, that’s one of those new Marine Corps Ospreys.”
This is what’s going on here. Luke says the disciples have just watched Jesus do his thing and two angelic type guys appear from nowhere. “Why you staring up there?” they ask. There’s no good reason to be staring at the sky. The Ascension redirects our perspective and priorities. Now that Jesus is no longer physically present, the Ascension helps us to look outward and around, and moves us off the mountaintop and back into our communities. It would be a miserable existence to sit on a mountain, staring up at the sky, waiting for Jesus to return. Jesus doesn’t call us to wait. We’re called to be gathered clusters of believers who tell Jesus’ stories to the world who work actively instead of wait idly. The Ascension is a story about the early church’s first steps after the resurrection. It’s also a two thousand year old mission statement we are able to reenact in our lives and congregations.