What’s Up with Ascension Sunday? (2 Kings 2:1-3,9-12; Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53)
Sometimes, after visits of family or friends, when they go, one of the things that is hard to deal with is the silence. After we work hard to get the house and our work back to normal after taking time off visiting, etc., the quiet can become almost deafening. And it can be a little sad and lonely. And solitary. Ordinary life has its moments of silence and solitude and even loneliness.
I’ve always felt a little bit of a “let-down” like that on Ascension Sunday. We’ve just been through the Easter Season, with all its proclaimed new life and glory. We thought we were alone after Good Friday, but we’re not. Jesus was dead and now he’s not. We have him again! We have new life in the world. Next week, we’ll celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit to enliven us yet again. But on Ascension Day, we’re “in between,” when we have to get used to silence where once life was full of company and glad sounds. We’re alone.
We have three biblical stories this morning that are different in their ways, but in part, they are about people who are left alone and have to learn to live with the silence and the solitude.
The Old Testament presents us with a story that my Sunday School teachers used to tell with a flannel graph, about Elijah and his student, disciple, and successor Elisha. We only read parts of the story, but the bottom line is that Elijah went out with a bang and Elisha was left alone – true, with a double portion of Elijah’s spirit upon him (whatever that meant precisely), and, in a little bit, Elisha’s going to make his own “bang,” but, right now, after Elijah’s noisy chariot ride into the clouds, Elisha was left all by himself and he tore his garments in grief at the silence and the solitude. Silence can be difficult whether short or long.
In the Acts lesson, after Luke summarized what he already told us in his gospel, he tells us that the disciples and Jesus went to a place where Jesus gave them Luke’s version of Matthew’s great commission, which is, if anything, more stunning than Matthew’s because, where Matthew at least has one command (“make disciples”), Luke simply says, that when God’s spirit indwells you, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s going to be a simple reality of the future. But that’s then. For now, Jesus is simply gone. It’s true, the angels say, that he’ll come back “sometime,” but that’s sometime. And it’s still “sometime” today. For now, a cloud took Jesus out of their sight. The candle was extinguished and they just watched the wisp of smoke ascend heavenward. They were alone. And verse 12 says, “They returned to Jerusalem.” They went home to normal life. They had to learn to live with the silence for now, and the solitude, and the memory of what it had been like to be with Jesus.
As I said, Luke had already told this story in his Gospel. Really, the Gospel of John shouldn’t intrude between Luke and Acts. If we took it out for a moment, we’d see that Acts 1:1-11 is only a repetition of Luke 24 to remind us of where we left off at the end of the first volume. In this version of the story, there are a few more promises about Jesus fulfilling what had been written in the Old Testament, and about his helping disciples to understand those old words. And, there’s the promise of God’s power – someday, maybe soon. But then, in this one too, Jesus is gone. It’s interesting that he went “while he was blessing them,” which tells us something important about how Jesus and God operate in the world. Even when he goes, it’s with a blessing. It’s one of the reasons that as we prepare to go from one another each week, we do it with a benediction, with words invoking blessing.
Because of this, perhaps, the story says that the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” But, really, they walked home without Jesus, however joyfully. The historical Jesus was gone from the experience of the disciples and the church would never so experience him again from that day until this. I sometimes wonder why some of my friends and colleagues who teach and write on New Testament subjects spend so much time on the historical Jesus. No one in the past 20 centuries or so has experienced anything but the Risen Christ. We have memory, sanctified memory, inspired memory, but memory, not presence of a historical Jesus. That’s only about what was not about what is.
So Ascension Sunday teaches us a lesson about life within the reality of memory rather than direct presence. It can tell us of how important it is to band together with others in community and speak of our memory and our tradition together. I think of the people of Manchester, England, in days of horror, and how someone scrawled on the sidewalk the words of the mayor of greater Manchester: “We are grieving, but we are strong.” That word “we” is crucial there. In times of silence and solitude of all kinds we need the strength of community.
I would also suggest that Ascension Sunday points forward to the Church Season of what we call Ordinary Time in a real way. Ordinary Time isn’t only “normal time, but time that we experience simply life “in order,” “by the numbers,” “one day after another.” This is a day to realize that much of life is not lived in “festival-mode,” with all the company here in the house, but in solitary places where we have to get used to the silence. Jesus has gone, to use words from the Gospel of John, “to prepare a place for us,” and between the Jesus’ going to do that and his coming, we are left with times when all we can do is look back or look forward. The Church Year accommodates all that by dedicating about one-half of the year to the times when we must simply live our lives one day at a time. The readings for Ordinary Time in the Lectionary centre in the teachings of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels. What a good thing to do in the solitary places when we have the time to listen and think.
This, in itself gives us a reason why we shouldn’t just skip Ascension Sunday and get to the next big event at Pentecost, it leads us to Ordinary Time. But there is more. We celebrate the coming of God in Jesus at Advent and Christmas. We read wonderful spectacular texts, like John 1:14:
The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
But, it seems at least, we are supposed to celebrate the reversal of the Christmas miracle at the Ascension: God takes Jesus back. This takes a little work to explain. First of all, neither Luke nor Acts centred their message on the ascension itself, but on how Jesus both fulfilled and interpreted the scriptures (which, in those days, were the Old Testament) in a bold new way for the benefit of disciples in the present.
Second, as profound as that text from John 1:14 is, it would be a mistake to read it as a new plan on the part of God. Rather, Jesus’ coming to earth was the clearest example of what God had already been doing throughout the ages. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews put it this way:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days has spoken to us by a Son… (Hebrews 1:1-2a)
This time God has spoken by a Son, but it is the same God who spoke, time and again, long ago, and with the same message. The story is not that God sat back in heavenly glory and waited, to be discovered by humans, but that God decided to take the initiative, or, if you’ll allow a figure of speech, to become involved in mission. Christians confess that Jesus’ coming was all about the culmination of God’s own mission-endeavour.
Actually, Christmas and Ascension point to the same mission- reality. The Ascension is a further step in God’s mission initiative. It is the very nature of God to go out to seek us in love, rather than requiring that somehow we find God. At Christmas God took a breathtaking step in this mission enterprise by becoming enfleshed in the son of a Jewish mother of tender years and a carpenter-father. At the Ascension God went the next step by taking the earthly Jesus away so that the Church might be born to continue God’s mission work, begun in Jesus, to find people – some who don’t even know they need finding.
But Ascension Day is about yet more than God’s promise to give the renewed and reinterpreted scriptures and continue God’s plan of many centuries. Soon and very soon, said Jesus, God’s own Spirit would come upon these disciples if they’d just wait in Jerusalem to be clothed with power from on high. Jesus has already said that the disciples have been witnesses of what he has said and done on earth, but that is not the end, but rather only the beginning, because God continues in mission. When Jesus is no longer physically with them, God’s Spirit comes on the mission to find them, and they will be transformed into a community that mirrors the very mission-nature of God: they will become missionaries, too. The solitary silence of the Ascension, also gives them time to prepare for the new task soon to unfold at Pentecost.
It is interesting that, even after being with Jesus all through his ministry, after being witnesses of so much already, the Apostles still wanted to think of God’s work as doing the same old stuff they’d learned to expect. “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel”? “Is this the time that you’ll give the chosen the goodies they’ve (meaning, “we’ve”) been promised? “Will you now show the world that we’ve been right all along”? Jesus turned that question about their power into an answer about real power: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” “Ah, yes, we see Jesus.” ”The Holy Spirit will come upon us and we’ll get power, and then, at last, we’ll have things our way and we’ll get to run things the way we want.” But Jesus, as the last words he uttered to his disciples in the flesh, dispels even this. “Your way, forget it.” Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Power is for being witnesses to Jesus’ word, work, and way; to reveal God to people in every imaginable context: right at home (Jerusalem), pretty far away from home (all Judea), among those who are different than we are, whom we don’t understand and don’t even like very much (Samaria), and, O yes, everybody else (the ends of the earth). The people of God in both Old and New Testaments were never intended to exist solely for the welfare of the church’s members. God’s intent, in sending Jesus and the Spirit is to empower folks to copy God in mission wherever we are. Somehow, back when it became safe to be a Christian, it became easier and easier to think of mission as what was for other, specialized people that we paid to do it. That can be a part, but only a part, of imitating the God who came in mission. The most important part is in being ourselves an out-going people, involved in our world as missionaries of God in Christ. To do this, sometimes we have to live with solitary silence, and use it to listen and learn, and wait for what God is up to next. Let’s listen, let’s learn, let’s wait. Then let’s follow by being the hands and feet of Jesus in our community.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.