While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.
Many of you may have seen depictions of the Ascension – on a trip to the art museum, or in a stained glass window in a church. Most of them show Jesus floating upward in flowing robes, clouds around his feet, while the disciples look up, their faces expressing the whole range of emotions from wide-eyed wonder to the primal fear of abandonment. In one painting dating to the beginning of the 16th century, the body of Jesus has all but disappeared, and we only see his feet, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion, and the hem of his robe. It looks like his toes would disappear any moment now, and then the disciples would be on their own again.
All the stories in the gospel that tell about encounters between the disciples and the Risen One reflect experiences of absence and sudden presence, of Jesus appearing and disappearing, of almost familiar physicality and a kind of bodily presence that you can’t quite put your finger on. Luke is very clear that coming to know Jesus as risen is not a simple matter of seeing, but of learning to see and struggling to understand. You could say that the fact that we celebrate seven Sundays of Easter, reflects this process: the resurrection of Christ is the truth that challenges our ways of seeing and thinking and knowing; it is a reality we cannot grasp, but are nevertheless invited to enter. And as the new reality takes time to sink in, we take time to enter it – not all at once, but Sunday by Sunday.
In the final lines of Luke’s narrative, the disciples are together, talking about their first encounters with the risen Jesus, when suddenly he stands among them. They are startled and terrified, some are convinced they are seeing a ghost – but a ghost doesn’t eat, and Jesus asks for something to eat and they give him a piece of broiled fish and watch him chew and swallow it.
Coming to know Jesus as risen is an emotional and intellectual roller coaster – fear and trembling one moment, joy and wonder the next; the finality of death one moment, the power of God to raise the dead the next. Too much to take in all at once. Who knows what all this means? Who knows how we can know?
In Luke’s story, Jesus himself told the disciples, “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.” While I was still with you, he said, acknowledging that this new way of being with them was very different, not at all like it used to be.
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. Their minds needed opening, it wasn’t a simple matter of reading the right texts. And it wasn’t some teacher who helped them connect the dots or discover new meaning in ancient prophecies, it was Jesus himself, moving between absence and presence like there was no boundary between the two. And when the disciples had learned to see and read and understand in new ways, they received his commission to live as witnesses, and to proclaim the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all, beginning from Jerusalem.
Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from high.
What we call the ascension is the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the bridge to a new way for disciples, including you and me, to follow and know Jesus. I love that there are so many stories that reflect the disciples’ confusion and struggle, because that makes room for our own sense of ambiguity and for hope during times when our own certainties are in question. In recent years, I’ve started comparing this with wearing glasses.
I used to be able to pick up any book and read it – in bed, on the couch, at my desk, it didn’t matter – and then, about three years ago, things began to become blurry. I had to put a bit more distance between my eyes and the text to see more than just fuzzy lines of grey. Now I can still read road signs two blocks away, but I can’t see what’s on the menu without glasses. “Nothing that being under 45 wouldn’t fix,” the optometrist said when I asked him what was wrong with my eyes. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was the end of how I used to live in the world.
When Jesus, in a complete collapse of justice, died on the cross, the whole world became blurry for those who followed him. Nothing made sense anymore, nothing fit together, unless they were willing to surrender to the notion that injustice, betrayal and violence, rather than love and forgiveness defined human existence. And then things became even blurrier when they heard talk of resurrection, and the fuzzy reality didn’t come into focus until the risen Christ put a new set of lenses in front of their eyes. The resurrection of Jesus changed everything, and they needed new ways of looking at the world in order to see clearly. Once they saw, they knew what to do: they would continue to follow Christ, proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name, clothed with power from on high.
Ascension is the hinge moment between Jesus’ resurrection and the mission of the church. Jesus withdraws and is carried up into heaven, but now it’s no longer a moment of loss and anguish, but of joy: Christ’s relationship with those who follow him is no longer restricted by the boundaries of time and space. Christ is now available to all people, all of the time through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy!
These are the opening words of Psalm 47, the psalm assigned for the celebration of the Ascension.
God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises!
You watch Jesus’ feet slipping out of sight, and you may want to say, “Wait a minute – we are shoveling mud out of our homes, and God has gone up?”
We are anxiously watching the beaches and marshes of the gulf coast, worried about the destruction the oil spill will cause, and God has gone up? With a shout? We can’t carry a bottle of shampoo on an airplane for fear of bombs, and God has gone up, with the sound of a trumpet? We are up to our knees in the messiness of the world, and God has gone up? Up and away? Away from the refugee camps in Sudan and the villages of Eastern Congo? Away from the the tent cities in Haiti and Nashville? Away from the gutted homes in over forty counties in Tennessee, and away from the path of death and destruction left by tornadoes in Oklahoma? Away from the violent clashes between religious and ethnic groups, away from the dead ends of our politics? Away from us? Christ is risen and gone to heaven and we have been abandoned at last, left to our own devices, up to our knees in this earthly mess.
Everything’s blurry, fuzzy, foggy – until we look at it through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has gone up, not away. Jesus has gone up to a place of powerful presence, not away. Our true hope in the messiness of life is that Jesus has gone up, not away. Jesus has gone up, bearing in his body the marks of human sin and human suffering. Jesus has gone up, bearing our deepest brokenness and taking it into the very heart of God.
The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy because Jesus has gone up, not away. He is present with us and with all, and the work of redemption continues: The proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins continues in the power of the Spirit. The work of compassion and service continues in the power of the Spirit. The work of peacemaking and imagining life in fullness for all continues in the power of the Spirit.
We live up to our knees in the messiness of the world, and we all seek a way through. When we feel helpless and threatened, we are tempted to try and do anything, just to do something. But the word of the risen Christ is clear:
Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.
Stay until you have been clothed with the power that inspired and empowered my work. Stay until my going up has been made complete in the powerful coming down of the Spirit. Don’t rush, but learn to rest in the movement of God in the world – for even now, in this time of deep anxiety, God is moving the whole creation toward redemption and fulfillment.
The movement of God is not away from the world, but ever closer to the world and deeper into its brokenness and pain in order to transform and heal it. Christ carries in his body the marks of our sin and the pain of creation, and he carries them into the heart of God, where brokenness is healed and forgiven, and life is renewed.
And out of the heart of God flows the Spirit like a healing river to inspire and empower us to participate in the movement of God in the world, healing, forgiving, reconciling, and serving in Christ’s name.