May 8, 2016
Ascension of the Lord
Donna G. Joy
Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
Some of you may know that I was born and raised in Vancouver, B.C. While I was growing up, each and every summer from the time I was six, my parents would take me and my sisters on a long, seemingly endless, road trip from Vancouver, down through the west coast to Anaheim, California where two of my dad’s brothers and their families lived. Although it does seem like an ideal annual summertime experience, from a child’s perspective, stuck in the back seat of our dad’s car, in the middle of two older sisters (because they had the authority to determine who got the window seats) it seemed like an endless, long, hot (at times very hot) drive (exacerbated by the fact that there was no air conditioning). This is how it felt to me, each year, both on the way there, and again on the way home. Each and every year, on the way there, at about Bellingham (which for those who know your west coast American geography, will know this as only about an hour outside of Vancouver), I would start to ask the question that I now realize the whole family dreaded, “Are we almost there yet?” Fortunately, though, I think both my sisters would confirm that the asking of this question became less and less frequent as I was encouraged to observe all the interesting things along the way with the help of such games/activities as, “I spy with my little eye...”
With this in mind, I suspect it is precisely this kind of anticipation (perhaps bordering on impatience) that Jesus is dealing with in our reading from the Book of Acts, where we are told that the ‘apostles’ (that is, the 12 – or now 11 remaining – who Jesus had chosen as his special witnesses)... these apostles are asking the question, “Master (Jesus), is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, “Are we almost there?” "Are we at least getting close?"
For those apostles, this moment had been a long time coming, and it seems they are looking for some reassurance that they are - at long last - almost at the place where the kingdom will be restored. First of all, the fact that Jesus had initially chosen 12 to follow him, is an immediate reminder of how long back this journey extends. There had been twelve tribes of Israel, and Jesus was signaling, in his choice of 12 close followers, that God had called him to renew and restore the whole people of Israel. This journey extends back for generations upon generations upon generations, so it isn’t surprising that these apostles are keen to ask the question, “At long last, are we almost there?”
And in addition to this, their own personal journeys to this point have – no doubt – felt endless.
It is important at this point to acknowledge that the author of Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts is the same individual. Recognizing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the long awaited Messiah, the Gospel tells the story of his birth, life/ministry, death by crucifixion, resurrection, and (as we discovered in this morning’s Gospel reading) actually ends with a brief ‘initial’ account of the Ascension. In light of that, the Gospel also tells the story of those same apostles who were called by him, invited to travel this journey with him for three long years; who travelled the terrifying and painful journey that led to Jesus’ death on the cross; who grieved his death... only to experience him through his resurrection...
So, Luke's Gospel tells the story of Jesus' birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ends with a glimpse of the Ascension; Luke's second book (The Book of Acts) - beginning with the Ascension tells the story of the formation of the church.
So, it is infinitely understandable why these potentially exhausted apostles are asking the question, “Come on... Are we almost there?” In their case, it seems that the destination keeps shifting on them. As a child, at least I knew absolutely that the destination was Anaheim, California, and that this was a 24-hour drive there, and an equally long drive back home.
But for these apostles, when Jesus initially invited them to follow him on this journey they thought their destination was a kind of political take over in which Jesus would enlist their help in overturning the Roman rule and restore Israel. Well, clearly, they were misguided in thinking that this was the expected destination; after three monumental years of sharing something/building something with Jesus that they believed to be important, he died on a cross (defeated) & Rome remained in power. Now, as they are adjusting to another shift that comes with the experience of his resurrection, as we begin Luke’s second book, Jesus is indicating that their work must continue, and of course they ask if they’re almost there. But Jesus makes it very clear that it is not their business to know about times and dates... what they can know is that as tired and exhausted as they may be now or in the future, there is a power that will be filling them, empowering them, to carry on this important work. (There will be lots more about this next week as we celebrate Pentecost.)
That’s kind of a superficial glance at what’s going on here in the story of the Ascension found in the Book of Acts. That is, Jesus is now ascending into heaven (whatever that means - more about that in a minute) but even though his physical presence will no longer be visible to his followers, he will be with them through the power of the Holy Spirit as they carry on his work.
And yet, at a deeper level, there is so much more going on here. Jesus, in a sense, is saying, “You’re asking about when the Kingdom will be restored.” Well, in one sense, it has already happened, Jesus is saying, because in my own death and resurrection I have already been exalted as Israel’s representative. And yet, in another sense, it has not yet happened because we still wait for a time when the whole world is visibly and clearly living under God’s rule where justice, kindness, and walking humbly with God prevails. So, we (along with those first apostles) are living in this in between time where we are called to be channels through which Jesus’ work may continue and contribute toward God’s rule where justice, kindness, and walking humbly with God may come to prevail.
And then, Jesus ascends. We are told, “... he was lifted up while they were watching, and a cloud took him out of their sight. They were gazing into heaven as he disappeared.” The apostles watch this vision of him miraculously taking his leave... and seemingly, immediately, two angelic figures shake them out of this sense of momentary immobilized astonishment and urge them to get to work; urge them to carry on with the work that Jesus has commissioned them to do.
Before we can get to the heart of the depth of what’s going on here, we need first to discern what we mean when we imagine this vision of Jesus ascending heavenward. What do we mean when we think about, talk about heaven? Contrary to popular interpretation, nowhere in the Bible is heaven described as a location within our own cosmos of space, time, and matter... situated somewhere up in the sky. Once we are clear about this, then (and only then) are we able to begin to understand the ascension that is described here quite simply and briefly by Luke. Neither Luke nor the other early Christians thought Jesus had suddenly become a primitive spaceman, heading off into orbit or beyond, so that if you searched throughout the far reaches of what we call ‘space’ you would eventually find him.
No. They believed that ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ are the two interlocking spheres of God’s reality, and that the risen body of Jesus is the first (and so far the only) object which is fully at home in both, anticipating a time when everything will be renewed and joined together. This belief lies at the very heart of Christianity, so let me say that again... That is the point of the ascension event, and its explanation in verses 9-11. Jesus is ‘lifted up,’ indicating to the disciples not that he was heading out somewhere beyond the moon, beyond Mars, or wherever, but that he was going into ‘God’s space,’ God’s dimension. Through the ascension, Jesus’ presence is no longer restricted exclusively to that tiny place on earth; Jesus’ presence is now everywhere throughout heaven and earth; everywhere throughout these two interlocking spheres of God’s reality.
The cloud, as so often in the Bible, is the sign of God’s presence (think of the pillar of cloud and fire as the children of Israel wandered through the desert, or the cloud and smoke that filled the Temple when God became suddenly present in a new way). Jesus has gone into God’s dimension of reality; but he’ll be back on the day when that dimension and our present one are brought together once and for all. That promise hangs in the air over the whole of Christian history from that day to this. That is what we mean by the ‘second coming.’
Just quickly... two other things are going on in the passage, and first-century readers would have likely recognized these two things in ways that would have helped them make sense of this extraordinary ascension event. First: Many would have known immediately to associate the telling of this event with Daniel 7, where, “one like a son of man is brought up on the clouds of heaven...” For someone who was familiar with that passage from Daniel, the story of Jesus’ ascension would indicate that it had been fulfilled in a dramatic and unexpected way, with the human figure who had suffered at the hands of the evil powers of the world now being exalted into the very presence of God himself... overturning the power of this world with justice, kindness, and humility... and grounded in love.
Secondly, many of Luke’s readers would know that when a Roman emperor died, it had become customary to declare that someone had seen his soul escaping from his body and going up to heaven. I have read that if you go to the top end of the Forum in Rome, and stand under the Arch of Titus, and look up, you will see a carving of the soul of Titus, who was emperor in the 80’s of the first century, ascending to heaven. This was perceived as an indication that the emperor was becoming a god. So, viewing Jesus’ ascension within the context of this backdrop, we recognize that something radically different is happening here. It was NOT Jesus’ soul that was ascending, leaving his body somewhere behind...No. It was his whole, renewed, bodily, complete self. Again, his whole, renewed, bodily, complete self... fully at home here on earth and heaven... those two interlocking spheres of God’s reality. Once again, as with his resurrection, Jesus' full and complete bodily Ascension trumps what is perceived as a Roman custom. Jesus is now triumphant both here on earth and beyond...
The reason it is important to spend time reflecting on Jesus’ full and complete bodily resurrection and ascension, is because this embodies the new creation that begins with him, and carries on through each of us. Because he is fully at home on earth and in heaven, through him we are reunited (reconciled) with God in a brand new way, and empowered to continue the building of God’s kingdom on Jesus’ behalf. Through Baptism, we are now extensions of his risen body. It makes no sense to ask if we’re almost there, because the journey that leads to the building of God’s kingdom is ongoing, and it is up to us. Carrying on with the building of God’s kingdom, happens through the way in which we love as Jesus loves; forgive as Jesus forgives; care for others as Jesus cares; share generously as Jesus shares; seek justice as Jesus seeks justice; love kindness as Jesus loves kindness; walk humbly with God as Jesus walks humbly with God. This building of the kingdom is the journey we’re on. And, like the child who stops asking the question because suddenly the journey itself has become so interesting, we find there’s so much to see, and taste, and experience that we won’t worry so much about ‘when...’ We concentrate, instead, on the job we are called to do.