This morning we are looking at the Ascension story as told by the author of the gospel of Luke. Only the Lukan author tells the story of Jesus’ bodily Ascension into heaven and he tells it both at the end of his gospel, and here at the beginning of his book of Acts.
Church tradition holds that after his resurrection Jesus walked among the disciples for 40 days on the Earth. He continued to teach them about the Kingdom of God and to try to prepare them for the days of the church without his presence. After his 40 days were up, tradition holds that he was bodily lifted up into heaven. This is where we get that line from the Apostles’ Creed. “He descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sittith on the right hand of God the Father Almighty . . .” This is the telling of that story.
In the story that the author of Luke tells, the disciples are simply hanging out with Jesus in Jerusalem. In fact, he has told them to specifically stay there. It as if he is encouraging them to have this concentrated, focused time together with him and with each other. He also has a practical reason as he wants them to remain together after he leaves so they are all in one place when the day arrives to receive the Holy Spirit.
Even though they have followed what I will call the regular Jesus, and now they follow the resurrected Jesus, the disciples are still full of questions. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” They are still waiting for him to be the Messiah that they expected. They are still hoping his kingdom will be the one they longed for in their hearts. A kingdom of power and glory, a restoration of the Israeli nation state, a time when they are wealthy and safe and seated in positions of power. “Lord,” they ask, “will you answer those prayers now? Will you bring about the Empire now?”
Jesus once again reminds them that they are asking after the wrong things. God is in charge of whether or not they rise to Empire power. In the meantime, Jesus promises a different kind of power and authority. The power of the Holy Spirit will come upon the group, and they will be given the authority to be witnesses to the message of the gospel.
When he has finished explaining these things to the disciples, the author tells us that Jesus was lifted up into heaven. While they were watching a cloud took him out of their sight. Jesus is leaving and they are left standing there, gazing up toward the sky.
I like the way the Lukan author writes this because I can clearly imagine the scene. The disciples are standing there suddenly surprised as Jesus begins to float away. Like watching a helium balloon float into the clouds they strain their eyes and crane their necks, trying to catch the very last sight of him. Even when he is no longer even a speck in the sky, they still are staring and trying to see him. Their hearts aren’t ready to let him go again. They long to hold on to him, to capture the time with him, to remain in that place of spiritual ecstasy.
But he is gone, and God sends a reminder that there is still work to do. Two unknown men appear among them and ask “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Enough of your longing and looking, the time has come to be the church without the physical presence of Jesus. “He will come back some day,” they seem to say, “but there is work to be done right now.”
So, they all go back to Jerusalem. They are all there, the 11 remaining disciples, plus the women who are part of the community. Even his mother Mary is there. They gather again in the familiar upper room and begin being the church by devoting themselves to community and to prayer.
Thousands of years have passed, yet it is easy to find ourselves today in a place that is similar to the disciples’ place in this story. For one, we are still looking for Jesus to be the Messiah we want. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” I think we are still looking for God to restore the Empire, and for us to have places of power within that Empire structure. How often are our prayers asking for power, authority, recognition, and wealth? Our ideas about the kingdom may have changed but we are certainly after the same things. We don’t want to worship a Messiah who offers humility, meekness, and death. We want to worship a Messiah who brings power, security, and endless life. “Lord, when will you be the Messiah we are looking for?”
Of course, God is never going to give us a kingdom that looks like Empire. Like the disciples, the power we are offered is the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the disciples the authority we are offered is the authority to preach the gospel. These gifts are given specifically to be used against the Empire of our day. Rather than giving us the power to rule, Jesus offers the community the power to speak against those who are in authority. And it is something that we can only do together. Jesus encourages the disciples to remain together to share the gifts of the Holy Spirit. So too, we are called to remain together as a community that uses the Spirit’s power to speak truth to Empire.
Of course, we have as difficult a time doing this as the original disciples did. How often do we find ourselves squinting up at the sky, staring into heaven, looking for something more from God? We engage in this behavior in countless different ways. Some of us are busy literally staring at the sky, looking for the signs of Jesus’ eminent return as promised. We are counting the days of the “end times” and busily preparing to meet our maker and to take our place in the Empire we imagine he will bring.
Some of us do this when we spend all of our time parsing theological minutia. Is Jesus 50% human and 50% divine we wonder, or is it more of a 60/40 split? Or can he somehow be 100% of both? We parse the language of the gospels and search the early church record in a constant quest to find concrete answers to spiritual mysteries. We have no time to do the work of the church because we are so busy trying to define every last part of the faith. Like staring into heaven we are squinting at the Scriptures and pulling them apart with tweezers.
Some of us do this when we argue amongst ourselves as a church. Did God call women and men to ministry or are men the only ones with authority? What about gay people, do they have a place in the church? Just how big should a Session be and what are their exact responsibilities? How many make a quorum of Presbytery and what are the rules surrounding property disputes? Like staring into heaven we are staring at the church, seeking after that same quest for Empire power as we strive to build the perfect mini-empire in the perfect ecclesiology.
All of us are called to ask ourselves this morning just what it is we are so busy looking at that we struggle to be the church Jesus calls us to be. What aspect of our faith has consumed our attention in such a way that we are distracted by other things? Where is our focus, where is our hunger, and where is our energy? Are we still craving the Empire? Are we trying to build our own empires? Like the disciples, are we looking in all the wrong places? Is our head in the clouds?
As they watch Jesus retreat to a pin prick in the sky, the community is called back to its senses. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Jesus will come back.” And in that confidence of Jesus’ return, they return to themselves. They come to their senses, and come once again to the place of community, the upper room.
I imagine that in this short period of time, between the Ascension and the Pentecost, the Jesus community begins to realize that Jesus has come among them once again. He has come among them, in the presence of each other. Jesus is there, when they are all there together. Jesus is there, when they recognize him in the face of each other. Jesus is there, when they are in community. Even before they receive the Holy Spirit, they have each other, constantly devoting themselves to prayer.
So too, if we want to see Jesus, we must pull our heads out of the clouds. Jesus is right here, if we are willing to find him in each other, if we are willing to find him in community. We need to stop craving Empire as people have done for generations, and start using the gifts we have been given to speak truth to the powers in our lives. We need to devote ourselves to prayer and to work to live in the community together.
In the story that the Lukan author tells, Jesus spends 40 extra days teaching the disciples who he was, and who he was calling them to be. They continued to long for earthly power and prestige, and he continued to offer them something else, the power of the community of faith. As he was bodily carried away from the earth, they were reminded to get their own heads out of the clouds. The lessons they received ring true for us today: Look around and do the work of the church now. Devote yourselves to prayer and building a life together. Jesus will return among you, but only when you are willing to find him in each other. Let go of Empire dreams and embrace the power of faith instead. May God help us to continue to learn these lessons today and every day. Amen.