We’re coming to the end of the Easter Season. Next Sunday is Pentecost. In the assigned texts that we’ve worked our way through during the Sundays of this season we’ve seen the resurrected Jesus preparing his original group of disciples, getting them ready to live the good news out in the world, in new places with new people, beyond the comfort and security of their small community—and up against all the reasons the world is resistant to this news. And as always Jesus’ promises to continue empowering, guiding, and being with his disciples—then and now through the Holy Spirit, in the journey to grow into the full life in Christ for which we were created.
Jumping ahead for a minute, we remember that Pentecost empowers the first disciples to testify boldly to people of different languages and cultures about the transforming message of Jesus. We know what happened then and continues to happen now. Scores of people who never knew Jesus in his earthly ministry, like St. Paul and like us, come to know him through the power of the Spirit.
But before we can fully comprehend the grand sweeping movements of the Spirit that cross every human boundary, with the power of God’s love, we must reflect on the event we commemorate this week, the Ascension of Jesus.
You remember the Sunday school depictions of Jesus in flowing robes with hands held high floating up, up, and away through the clouds! Let’s be honest, this seems pretty unbelievable, right? Yet, in a few minutes, just as we do every Sunday, we will be invited to stand and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. We’ll say, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Is that one of the lines you cross your fingers behind your back while reciting! We can see what you’re doing from up here.
Clearly, we no longer believe in a triple-decker universe with heaven just a few feet above the friendly skies of the air traffic controllers’ flight patterns. Maybe this is why this particular feast hasn’t caught on in the popular imagination like Christmas. Macy’s does not have an annual Ascension Day sale!
No, like Easter itself, Ascension is a story that only makes sense to people of faith. If there had been cameras at the time, it’s doubtful anything would have been captured on film. It only makes sense to those whose lives have been transformed by the risen Christ.
Ascension is a story about Jesus preparing his first disciples to move out beyond the security of their immediate community. It’s the prelude to Pentecost when the Holy Spirit pushes the disciples into the next chapter of Christ’s work in the world.
It’s graduation season. Our high school seniors on the Cathedral Close from St. Albans School for Boys and National Cathedral School for Girls are ready to break loose and spread their wings. Many of their parents are feeling a bit more ambivalent about the joy of the season. We might think of the Ascension like the day when mom and dad say good bye to their son or daughter on the front steps of the freshman dorm, or when the youngest child leaves home, moves to a new city and her own apartment. Such transitions are emotion filled. Yet every parent knows that they have been preparing for these moments since the day they took the training wheels off the bicycle.
The Gospel says, “He withdrew from them and the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” When the new college freshman has finally sent his tearful parents on the road back home, mom and dad wish he was not quite so joyful as he runs back to check out the first party of his college career. But mom and dad promise to always be there—this, of course, is made abundantly clear when he moves back home at 27! Mom and dad will always be there, but in a new, fresh, and different way than before. The chapter of an adult-to-adult relationship is beginning to unfold. And the child is moving beyond the safety of the immediate family; out into the world, to new places with new people they would have never encountered if they had not ventured forth. Eventually most of them will also become parents and the family will grow and continue on into the next generation.
Well that’s the way it has been with the church since that Ascension Day so long ago. Our worshiping together today is witness to the truth of this grace extravagantly unleashed through the generations. Now we know that leave taking is always a mixed bag. In the scene just described everyone is expected to play their assigned roles. Mom is supposed to have tears and junior is supposed to act excited about moving on. But often it’s not that way at all. It can be terrifying to leave home. In the Ascension account in Acts, the apostles seem pensive about what the future will hold. Yet Jesus promises them, just before he leaves, that in time they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit. He tells them they are to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Friends, the world—to the ends of the earth—is desperate for the transforming love that is at the heart of Jesus’ life and message. And the Ascension is about Jesus sending his disciples—then and now, you and me—out into the world. He promises to be with us always, but in a new, fresh, and different way. Just as the parents driving off into the sunset is a metaphor for the child being pushed and set free in the world, the Ascension is just such a metaphor about the Spirit pushing us out beyond our comfort zones to be bold witnesses of God’s transforming love. At times this calling may feel terrifying, but the Spirit gives us the courage to live into its truth of Jesus’ good news for the world. We cannot keep this good news for ourselves. Nor shall we domesticate it or strip it of its power. The stakes are too high. The world groans to be liberated by God’s transforming love working in and through us.
This is exactly why former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said “the Church exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Our vocation as the church is to reach out to the world. We’re not meant to stay here in church, but to be nourished here for our work outside of here—to the ends of the earth.
In the opening lines of The Ultimate Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams writes, “This planet has a problem, which is this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper. Lots of the people were mean and miserable. Two thousand years ago they nailed one man to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.” Obviously this is an over-simplification of the human condition and the message of Jesus. But the insight jumps off the page.
By the gift of the Spirit, we are called to be agents of a self-giving love that turns misery into joy. Through Jesus we are freed from the shackles that keep us enslaved to the gods of this world, green pieces of paper and all. Theologian Brian McLaren writes, “God’s kingdom advances with reconciling, forgiving love: when people love strangers and enemies, the kingdom gains ground. This kingdom advances with neither violence nor bloodshed, with neither hatred nor revenge. It is not just another one of the kingdoms of the world.” He likens the outpouring of the Spirit to a revolution. “This kind of revolution, on the one hand, seems laughable,” he writes. “It’s the crazy dream of poets and artists, not the strategy of generals and politicians. Anyone who believes it should be laughed at or perhaps pitied. It’s hard to imagine anything more unrealistic. On the other hand, what other kind of revolution could possibly change the world? Perhaps what’s crazy is what we’re doing and pursuing instead thinking after all these millennia, that hate can conquer hate, war cure war, pride overcome pride, violence end violence, revenge stop revenge, and exclusion create cohesion. Perhaps we’re the crazy ones!”
The Ascension prepares us to resist hanging out only in our safe places. We are the Church, and Christ in his Ascension calls us to move out and reach out with the healing, transforming power of God’s love. Starting, of course, in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities, but moving beyond to embrace those places and people we might not otherwise know, if it weren’t for the prodding of the Spirit. This is the reconciling love the powers and principalities of the world want to resist. Yet it is the love that promises the very salvation of the world. No mission could be more urgent.