This is the time when we focus on the Ascension of Jesus, both on the feast day (Thursday) and on the Sunday afterwards. So, big surprise, we get a reading about Jesus being taken up into heaven on both days. “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Now that sounds pretty spectacular!
On the other hand, it sort of makes us feel left out.
I mean, we don’t ever get to see things like that, do we? Sure, we still hear stories today about people doing fantastic things—people floating a few inches above their mats as they meditate, or getting abducted by aliens. But since none of that has ever happened right before my very eyes, I tend to wonder what these people have been smoking.
So when I hear a story like this, even if it is about Jesus, I can hardly help wondering what I would have seen if I had been around during those crucial days after his execution—and if I hadn’t been smoking anything. As I’ve said before, in our Church it’s not considered heresy to conclude that the writers of the Bible could get creative and sometimes fanciful when they passed along a story. So that’s even more reason to wonder: if I were there, would I describe what I experienced in terms you could literally picture? Or would I try some other way to convey what happened to me?
Now I’m utterly convinced that we are in the presence of the risen Jesus, that is, in the presence of God-with-us, right here and right now. But I can’t exactly describe in tangible terms just where we should look to see if he’s really here. In the Eucharist I can lift up the bread and the chalice, but those don’t look a whole lot like an ancient Jewish carpenter, do they? I know that the real presence I sometimes sense is finally a mystery that challenges me to wonder what even the word “real” means any more.
(By the way, in religious terms, a mystery is not a whodunit; it’s something that seems undeniably present, but not in a way that fits our established ways of thinking.)
So I don’t know what I would report if I could travel back in time to hang out with Jesus’ first followers. I’m convinced, though, that I would have experienced something that would upset my assumptions about what the real world must be like. I’m convinced that what those first followers experienced was a mystery like the mystery we can experience today, except that for a time it was way more intense, and way more likely to upset their view of what the real world has to be like. Eventually it settled into something like being members of Christ’s risen body—which is still quite a mystery—but for a brief time their whole view of reality was being overwhelmed by the presence of the risen Jesus.
And then he was no longer with them the way he had been. And Luke, who wrote the Book of Acts, is trying to tell his readers about this transition in terms they can picture. But maybe it can’t be pictured. The transition happened. How you or I might have described it is another matter. If we had all taken smart phones back with us to that time and each of us tried to record a video, it might not show anything except maybe a bunch of people looking up.
Luke actually drops a very broad hint that even he can’t literally picture the ascension. After all, he gives us two very different accounts. Maybe you’ve never noticed, but at the end of his own Gospel the ascension happens on the first Easter Sunday. First Luke tells a couple of stories about meeting the risen Jesus that day, one on the road to Emmaus, the other in Jerusalem. And when Jesus shows up that second time—still on the same day, mind you—Luke says, “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” (Luke 24:50-51). That’s one account, and it very obviously tells us that the ascension happened on Easter Sunday.
Today’s version, from Acts, is similar—only this time Luke says that it happened forty days after that first Easter Sunday! That’s why we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension shortly before Pentecost. We’re going with Acts and just ignoring the Gospel version. But it looks as though Luke isn’t even trying to give us an exact time frame. He doesn’t really care about exactly when Jesus’ earliest followers began to experience a shift in the way he was present. He’s trying to describe this transition in a way that makes for good storytelling. Apparently he wasn’t a biblical literalist about that, and I, at least, find that rather encouraging, since I’m not a biblical literalist either.
Of course we’ve also been taught to think that, whatever people saw or thought they saw back then, the risen Jesus didn’t really leave completely. The Word who became flesh in Jesus is never absent from anything. The light who enlightens everyone never gets shut off, period. So if you were to picture all of Jesus rising up into the sky, it would not be a true picture.
The light can’t be extinguished, but we can still find ourselves in a darkness of our own making. And with that sort of darkness in mind, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are like what happens when somebody wakes you up by suddenly flipping on the light switch. At first, “you’re liable to go around bumping into things.” You’re “so conscious of the light that you can’t … use it to see with.” That’s what Jesus’ resurrection was like—everybody focused on the light. “After a bit, though,” says Williams, “your attention isn’t focused on the light itself any more but on the world that the light shows you.”* That’s where the ascension comes into the picture.
At first, for Jesus’ followers, it’s all about Jesus, because he’s so glaringly there, as if somebody just woke them up. Then they start to notice that Jesus himself is not all about Jesus—he’s focused on a world waiting to be transformed by the news of his risen life. He starts to recede into the background—not really absent, just not the center of attention any more. Then they hear, “Why are do you stand there looking up toward heaven?” Instead it’s time for them to look out at the world through Jesus’ eyes. It’s time for them to be the real presence of Jesus in the world, to launch the reign of God by sharing in the Spirit of God’s common life with all of us in Jesus Christ.
It’s especially time for them to let their own vision of God’s reign be transformed in light of how God came to us in Jesus. You know, it’s really a bit clueless of them, after all they’ve seen, to keep expecting Jesus to lead some sort of army to kick the Romans out and start a new empire with Jerusalem at the center. For some reason they think it’s payback time, now that Jesus is risen. But as he’s moving into the background Jesus tells them it’s not going to be that kind of empire. The power of the risen Christ, the power of God, is not the power to control things. It’s the power to keep loving the world even through crucifixion, the power to keep coming back, no matter how often we drive God away, with a fresh offer of new life. That’s not the kind of power that makes trains run on time.
“You will receive power,” says Jesus, “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” But notice what that power involves: the power to be Christ’s witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. God’s power is the power of a witness, the power of a message. Did you know that the word for “witnesses” here is the same as the word for “martyrs”? Nowadays we associate martyrs with people who died for a cause, but only because that’s what tended to happen to Jesus’ first followers when they started spreading the news. They didn’t receive the power to send the Romans packing. They received the power to keep offering new life in the face of constant rejection. That’s the power of God.
Now today, just as much as back then, that sort of power often seems way too inefficient to most of us. It’s easy to lose patience. That’s why, over the centuries, some Christians have been all too willing to impose their jaundiced versions of the reign of God on everybody else by force. Others just gave up on making any difference here and now and longed for a heavenly reward. But God is not letting us off the hook that easily. Jesus’ resurrection is all about living a transformed life in this world. It’s bodily, not otherworldly. We’re the body of Christ. We mustn’t try to control the world, but we mustn’t forget it. We’re supposed to engage it the way Christ engages us.
And I suppose that means we need to get used to frustration, because things are never going to go the way we plan. The differences we make, when we’re faithful, are often not easy to measure. Churches that manipulate and preach fear and hatred are far more likely to grab the headlines away from a community that just wants to be the body of Christ in good faith. But that’s how we are called to live.
We’re not promised headlines or recognition, but God does promise to meet us here, when we stop looking up at where we imagine heaven to be and start looking around at one another and our neighbors. Watching somebody float up into the sky may sound spectacular, and it would certainly make headlines, but it doesn’t hold a candle to finding Christ, God-with-us, in the person next to you. It doesn’t hold a candle to seeing the world through Jesus’ eyes, through the eyes of God, and learning to embrace it in all its rebelliousness. These are mysteries that happen to us and around us every day, and next to these, a person floating into the sky looks like a Hollywood gimmick.
Jesus ascends so that we can look for him here. And here is where we still find him—in the meal we gather to share and in the world we go forth to engage.
*Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 68.