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.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 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, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. 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.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
There’s been a little cartoon doing the rounds on Facebook this week: it shows the risen Jesus high in the clouds with a group of his followers on the ground pointing up excitedly – except one, who’s asking, “Where? Where?” I can’t see him!
The caption is Ascension Deficit Disorder.
In many respects Ascension is a very straightforward celebration: Jesus’ words reminded his followers again of the significance of what they had seen and heard in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of the man who was speaking to them. He was ensuring that they understood all that they had witnessed: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” and as the theological conclusion to this, he ascended, in front of them: teaching fulfilled in their sight.
There is a problem here though, one I used to encounter as a teacher and one I encounter as a prison chaplain: gone are the days when we can assume with reasonable confidence that people do actually know what was told about Jesus in the Gospels, let alone the Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. No wonder so many new disciples and enquirers, together with those of no faith, have difficulty understanding many of our festivals and today’s texts from the end of Luke’s Gospel and from the start of the book of Acts leave us with many more questions than answers. Why does Jesus need to go? Where does he go? How does he go? Is he coming back? How will he come back? Why are the two accounts so different?
Perhaps we’re all suffering from a touch of Ascension Deficit Disorder.
Yes, it seems that there are more questions than answers in these two texts, especially when you put them side by side and we aren’t going to get to the bottom of most of them – certainly not this morning. What we have here, as with much of the Christian experience, is a matter of mystery that in some sense remains shrouded. Some who seek certainty are discomforted that there isn’t more clarity; others are more content to accept that not all can be known or has been revealed.
Neither view should prevent us from asking questions.
So, let’s start with this one: When is leaving not leaving at all?
The days after Ascension Day are poignant because, for almost the entire year, Christians celebrate God’s being with us, but for these next ten days, until Pentecost, we’re symbolically aware of what it feels like for God not to be with us. When you’ve felt such a profound sense of presence, the ache of loss can create a bewildering vacuum. And into that vacuum may cluster doubt, regret, anxiety and fear.
Jesus does, on the surface appear to be disappearing. It’s interesting to note, then, that the disciples don’t act as though this were actually true. There is no doubt, regret, anxiety and fear. They don’t go away sorrowful, or mourning the loss of Jesus. In fact, the text reports that they are worshiping as they return with great joy, praising God in the temple day after day. They don’t behave as if Jesus is absent at all.
We don’t have to look too far back in Luke’s resurrection account to find others who experienced this same phenomenon. The disciples on the Emmaus road didn’t, in fact, recognize or experience Jesus as present when he walked and talked with them: they were caught up in their loss and grief. It’s only later when Jesus breaks the bread with them that he’s made known to them. And in that moment, when they experience his presence most fully, he’s no longer visibly with them. But rather than thinking that they missed something, they run back to the rest of the disciples overjoyed that Jesus is risen and still present.
It’s also clear that the disciples take up the ministry of Jesus in the Book of Acts and do some extraordinary things: they heal the sick; they raise the dead; they die forgiving those who kill them (as Stephen did) and they endure much of the same treatment as Jesus and they don’t take credit for any of this. Instead they proclaim the living presence of Jesus. In fact Luke’s inclusion of these stories is meant to lead us to conclude that Jesus is very much still around and active, through the disciples.
Jesus ascension isn’t experienced by the early disciples as his leaving or disappearing at all, according to Luke. While he is taken from their sight, he’s not absent at all. In fact, as the newly baptized disciples gathered around the apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread and prayer, they experienced the presence of Jesus. Jesus didn’t go to be somewhere else and to show up now and again randomly, he’s experienced as real and present in scripture, read and explained, in the Eucharist and the prayers on behalf of the world, much in the same way that Christians today experience Jesus’ presence in these same actions that together mark our common life as disciples.
I think the problem that many of us struggle with is the idea of heaven as another place, as there are other places in the world that we know little of. If Jesus ascends to heaven, then he must go to that other place, seems to be the logic, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In Luke’s Gospel, the Kingdom of God, what many people assume to be heaven, is portrayed not so much as a reality in a different place (located up in the sky somewhere) but rather is God’s future that in Christ’s death and resurrection has broken into the present. In the passage from Acts, two men in white robes turned to the disciples - and to us now - with their question. "Why do you stand looking up? This Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." The men in white robes didn’t comment beyond that but Jesus had: “ … but 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," which surely includes where we are right now. The promise of the Spirit, fulfilled and celebrated at Pentecost, is a promise for this earth, this place, this time. Jesus will be forever involved with this earthly life in the power of the Spirit. Understood this way, we have a new possibility, so let’s ask another question: What does it mean that Jesus has gone ahead of us?
If the risen Jesus belongs to the future, then we should understand that he has also ascended to that same future. The language of our liturgy and hymns, the language of the book of Revelation, the language of our creeds, and our experience all now begin to come together. We experience in worship a “foretaste of the feast to come” because we understand how God’s future banquet has broken in upon our present world of comparative famine. Though we suffer, we understand that in God’s future the victory is certain. When we proclaim our faith in the ascended Jesus, we’re proclaiming that despite events that seem to contradict it, as seen for example this week in Manchester, we can see and participate in the future Reign of God with Jesus in the here and now. We experience, not the absence of Jesus, but his real and life transforming presence. The marvel of this is that if Jesus goes to the future ahead of us, then there’s no place in our journey where Jesus isn’t there to greet us and to accompany us.
I know that in my family life, in particular, I need this understanding more than ever. We’re facing a very difficult journey right now, with the recent death of my mother-in-law and the declining health of my father-in-law. My wife and her sister have been up and down the motorways from opposite directions, visiting and helping their dad, in the fading times of a relationship that they, the sons-in-law and the grandchildren have always counted on as being there. We’re participating in what is, to all intents and purposes, an extended “leave taking” event. It’s a difficult journey for the family, and one that I know many here have already experienced.
What’s surprising to me, though, is that this journey, no matter how difficult it is in different ways for various members of the family, and how bleak the destination may seem, hasn’t at any point along the way, seemed without hope. It may sound trite to put it this way, but the Jesus of the future has been at every turn of this journey so far, even when we’ve not always looked for him and I am inclined to trust that he will be there ahead of my wife and sister-in-law, ahead of my father-in-law, a man of strong faith, each step of the way. I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, but still, we don’t often see what we don’t expect to see. But step by step, I am coming to understand that when I confess that Jesus ascended to heaven, I am confessing that Jesus awaits me in very ordinary places and ordinary ways with extraordinary grace and love. It is comforting, and challenging, all at the same time.
As a family we need, perhaps, to get used to saying that there will be no bad outcomes of my father-in-law’s illness. There will be sad ones, of course, as all who love must come to terms with loss. But that is as God intended. Genuine love is always given in the face of certain loss, but we remain hopeful because our Lord’s future is stronger even than death, and more powerful by far than our grief. In all of this lies the challenge and the comfort.
Another question: What of hope for tomorrow?
Hope for tomorrow means courage for today – and I borrow, here, some of the thoughts of the Revd Dr. Sam Wells from Thursday’s Though ForThe Day from BBC Radio 4.
Here’s the payoff: because the future is now safely in Jesus’ hands, I have more courage to face the challenges of today with hope and dignity. We all do, really, I suppose. The Ascension is the assurance that the battle has already been won, even if it doesn’t seem to be over. We live in the in-between time: between the final victory and the consummation of the reality that is already present in Jesus Christ.
But this is the remarkable fact. The greatest historical argument for Christianity is the otherwise inexplicable transformation of the eleven terrified and dispirited disciples into hopeful, dynamic and invigorated apostles. Somehow the echo chamber of fear became for them not the dismantling of all certainty but the clarification of all faith.
Out of our place of deepest fear comes our encounter with truth. In the last few days many of us must have wondered whether we should now go to that event, get on that bus, go into that crowded place. We’ve heard words of defiance from Manchester and beyond, which has said, “Don’t give in to fear, that would be allowing the terrorists to win.” We know the laws of probability mean our chances of getting caught up in such a ghastly incident are actually very small. But there’s something deeper than that.
The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas tells us the object of fear is a future evil that is imminent, of great magnitude, and threatening the loss of something we rightly love. Think about the last part of that definition for a moment. Fear puts us in touch with what we rightly love. Terrorism is about terror. We want lives free from anxiety and we resent and abhor terrorism because it embodies evil and cruelty and creates anxiety.
But we don’t have to be passive victims of fear. We can turn fear to good use if it puts us in touch with what we truly, deeply and rightly love. That’s what’s happened in Manchester in the last few days. Think about the generosity, humanity and compassion that have sprung up from that most dreadful atrocity as people refused to give in to fear.
What happened to the disciples after Ascension Day is that they reflected on and identified what in Jesus they truly deeply and rightly loved; and soon after they were overwhelmed with the power and energy to embody it. Because of the ascension of Jesus, we too now see a future in which we are no longer slaves to fear. We are free to live in a new reality, where death and the threat of death no longer have the power to control us. We are free to live for others in a world that has yet to hear this news. We can live courageously, even in a world where the fighting is still going on around us, perpetuated by those who have not yet heard that the battle has been decided. We are free to experience the Jesus of the future, who still breaks into our present world giving himself to us anew in the teaching, the Eucharist and the praying. We are called to live this future into the present as well. We don’t know where Jesus IS, so much as we know that Jesus is WITH US. We don’t know what the future will bring, so much as we know that the future is safe in Jesus’ hands. And finally, we too can return to the world after our encounter with the Risen Jesus, hearts rejoicing and heads held high as we worship and serve God.