We’re coming to the end of the season of Easter this week. So, “what’s next?” you might ask. Well, we have a calendar that says some of the most important days in the church year are ahead: Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity. (“What’s that?” might be your next question.) There’s a few other things the church added to be more relevant and contemporary. You probably have a few plans of your own and, if we consider what’s going on in the world as well, then that “what’s next?” could be starting to sound a little bit frustrated or fearful.
I imagine that’s where Jesus’ closest followers found themselves as he leaves them for the last time. The very last time.
There’s a story in the Bible that, after the resurrection, the now very much alive Jesus didn’t die again, but was simply carried up into heaven on a cloud, returning to God. He ascended into heaven (hence, The Ascension). The language of “ascension” is used in a few places, but the story itself appears only at the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. These are thought to be by the same author and seen as the story of Jesus (the gospel) and the story of what his followers did after he left (Acts), spreading the word and beginning to build the church. The ascension story is the bridge.
You might imagine the ascension as something suitably epic: a great cloud (remember the cloud was Bible-speak for the presence of God) lifts him up (remember in those days there was a very hierarchical understanding of the cosmos and heaven was definitely up), there may have been thunder or trumpets or something spectacular and showy. But I don’t think that’s the point.
As that final scene unfolds, I imagine Jesus telling them, once again, that it’s up to them now. He’s shown them everything they need to know, he’s promised them the power of the Spirit to help them and he tells them it’s time for them to go and be witnesses to their own communities and to the world. He’s passing them the baton - the spirit baton, if you like - and it’s up to them now. And then he heads off.
Or he tries to. It seems like the disciples still don’t get it. So, you’re the messiah, they say, right? When will you be restoring the kingdom of Israel then, like we think the messiah’s supposed to?
I don’t think Jesus is frustrated that they still need direction. I think he knows that we’ll always need reminding. We’ll always need reminding that the spirit is in us and that we can be all that Jesus showed us we can be if we’d just stop looking outside ourselves and instead look in our hearts and live good into the world.
Still not done, the story gives us one more reminder. Two figures like angels appear as the disciples stare up at the sky after Jesus departure, lost in wonder or worship. “Why are you standing around staring,” they say, “get on with it.” And they do and the spirit is with them and it’s not organized, structured and ritualized, but chaotic, personal and real. Isn’t that just like the spirit?
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