Scripture: Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11and Luke 24:44-53
Last Thursday was Ascension Day. I don’t suppose you even thought about it. It’s one of the most overlooked holidays of the Christian calendar. It doesn’t fall on a Sunday; there are no special preparations or ways to celebrate for this day. Most churches don’t have Thursday services anymore. So, we don’t think about Ascension Day.
A busy time for the disciples …
Let’s look what’s been going on. The disciples had been through an amazing few weeks. A few days after they arrived in Jerusalem, less than 2 months ago, their leader, Jesus, was arrested and executed. They thought his mission had failed and were devastated. Then, a couple of days later Jesus, who had been dead, appeared to them alive and talked to them and taught them.
This was wonderful; they had him back – their friend, their teacher, their leader, the one they loved and revered. In fact, according to the story we just read, he stayed with them for 40 days. They probably expected him to remain with them like that indefinitely. But it was not to be.
… Until it ended
He took them out to Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem, and while he was blessing them, he was carried up into heaven.
Rocket ship Jesus
Think about this picture. I picture “rocket ship Jesus” heading upward, but of course that can’t really be the message because God is not up there. We know enough about the universe now to know that we can’t think of God as up there or out there. But if Jesus is going to return to his Father who is in heaven that’s the only way to picture it. After all, heaven, the heavens, for all of us symbolize Infinity and eternity.
So, let’s try to get to the deeper meaning.
Why are we standing here staring up into heaven?
In the passage we read from Acts, angels appear next to the disciples as they gaze after the rising figure. The angels ask, ‘Why are you standing here staring up into heaven?’ Most of Christianity has been doing just that, straining to find the historical Jesus ‘up there.’ Where did he go? We’ve been obsessed with the question because we think the universe is divided into two separate parts—heaven and earth – spiritually even if not physically or geographically. But it is one universe and God is present in the secular earth as in the divine heaven. That’s the point of the Incarnation – that God became human to show us that the physical and spiritual are one.
The Risen Christ didn’t go anywhere. By leaving his friends without a visible, bodily presence, God would be present to all people in the Holy Spirit. So, although no longer visible in the flesh, God is always with us.
We have focused on ‘going’ to heaven, as if it was a separate place, instead of living on earth as Jesus did. But heaven is where God is, and God is here with us. It is heaven all the way to heaven. What you choose now is exactly what you choose to be forever. God will not disappoint you.”
Talking about Mission
The dialogue in the first chapter of Acts is a conversation very much focused on mission in the here and now. Just before the moment of his ascending, Jesus says to his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Those disciples, and every one of us following in their steps, is charged with living lives that bear witness to Christ’s radically-inclusive love, to speak the truth of love in the halls of power in places like Jerusalem, and in the excluded, marginalized places like Samaria that most folks would rather steer clear of.
And rather than just giving his disciples this task, then exiting the scene, stage upward, Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide and motivate and unify them in their loving actions.
Embracing Christ’s mission
So, just before the Ascension, Jesus said, “you gotta be witnesses”. Then immediately after the Ascension, a couple of mystery men show up – as they often do in these Bible stories – and ask the loaded question: “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Yes, the disciples just experienced something extraordinary but the task isn’t to stand there flat footed and say WOW. The task, for us as for them, is to embrace Christ’s mission and get on with it. Amen