One day when I was eleven or twelve, my family was sitting around the dinner table, talking about Jesus. I don’t remember what we were talking about specifically, but I remember my mother using a present-tense verb – something like, “Jesus is always merciful,” let’s say. And I responded, “You mean was.” “No,” my mother replied, “I mean is.” “But Jesus is dead,” I said, “Isn’t he?” I had learned about the resurrection, but didn’t know what came next. I guess I had assumed that the resurrected Jesus had basically resumed his pre-crucifixion activities, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, telling stories to the disciples, and lived out the rest of his life until he died of old age. That was when my parents discovered that, although I had faithfully attended Sunday school, week after week for years, I had never heard of the Ascension.
My mother’s face flushed, and her eyes welled with tears, and her voice shook a little bit as she told me what she believed: that the resurrected Christ lives; that the story of Jesus is not just something that happened, but something that is happening. “But if he didn’t die, then where is he?” I wondered. And my mother told me about the story that we find in our text from Acts today.
It is forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, and he is with the eleven remaining apostles (all except for Judas, who betrayed him). He instructs them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit – we’ll hear more about that next week. The disciples ask him whether he is about to restore the kingdom to Israel, but Jesus reminds them that the future rests in God’s hands and is not for them to know. Again he promises that the Holy Spirit will come, and that when that happens, they will witness to what they have seen in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. After these words, the text says, Jesus was “taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” As the disciples stand dumbfounded, staring into the sky where Jesus is disappearing, two men in white appear. “Why do you stand here look into the sky?” they ask. They declare that Jesus will return in the same way that he left.
And so the disciples return to an upper room – perhaps the very same upper room where they gathered for the last supper with Jesus, perhaps the same upper room where they saw the resurrected Christ – and they pray there, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, and certain other women whom the text mentions but does not name, although I am certain that Jesus knew their names, and would have listed them himself if he were writing this story.
I try not to assume that my own experience is universal, but I’ve heard enough stories and questions to know that my own experience as a child was not unusual. I was not the only regular churchgoer who did not hear of the Ascension for many years. We Protestants tend to downplay this part of the Christian faith, to the point that I have met plenty of other people who, like me until that day at the dinner table, weren’t quite sure what happened to Jesus after the resurrection.
For some reason, the Ascension is a miracle story that strains our credulity – for some of us, almost to the breaking point. It is a story that is very hard to believe. Many of us accept easily that Jesus was the son of God, born of a virgin – although there is certainly room in this community for different interpretations. Many of us easily accept that Jesus performed miracles – that he healed sick people, turned water into wine, calmed a rough sea with a command – although, again, our understandings of those stories are as diverse as we are. We embrace, each in our own way, the story of Jesus rising from the grave, appearing to the disciples, showing Doubting Thomas his wounds. But something about this story is harder. Perhaps because, as modern people, we have abandoned the “three story cosmos” system that was accepted in Jesus’ time. We know that if you keep going physically up and up and up and up into the sky, you will reach not a heavenly city as the ancients believed, but the airless stretch of outer space.
Or perhaps we resist this story on a more spiritual level – how can we accept that our loving Savior reigns in glory at the right hand of God, when we live in a world where 272 kidnapped Nigerian girls are still in captivity far from home? How can we trust it when we live in a world where a young man can go on a shooting spree, murdering six people and injuring thirteen more, because he felt so entitled to the bodies and attentions of young women that he believed they deserved death for the crime of not being romantically interested in him? How can we believe it, when for two thousand years after Jesus’ ascension, war and violence have held sway over this earth, our weapons growing more and more powerful and deadly? This story is hard to believe.
And yet, if we think of it as a metaphorical kind of story, a symbolic statement, that raises even more problems and questions. If Jesus metaphorically ascended to heaven, then what actually happened to the resurrected Christ? Is the resurrection, too, just a metaphor, a figure of speech, a nice story to make us feel better about the facts of mortality and the sorrows of this world? I don’t believe so. And yet, this story is hard to believe.
But as we stand here, scrutinizing the sky, trying to wrap our minds around this challenging account, the text itself offers us a way to think about this story. Two men appear and they say to the disciples – and, perhaps, to us – “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Those words remind us that our call as disciples is not to stand staring at the sky, trying to answer all the puzzling questions and paradoxes of our faith. We can ponder them, certainly, we should ponder them. But ultimately we are called to set our hands and minds and hearts to work, here on the ground, doing the work that Jesus has set before us. Our call is not to figure out the facts of the ascension, but to live into the deeper truth of the ascension.
When we say that Christ ascended into heaven, we say that the reign of God is very, very near. And so our call is to live as if the boundary between heaven and is not a wide river or an impenetrable wall, but a porous and permeable bit of cobweb.
When we say that Christ ascended into heaven, we say that Jesus is, at this very moment, near to God. And so our call is to live as if the God who created the Milky Way and the whale’s song and the human brain is not a distant and unknowable deity, because God sits next to the same Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee.
When we say that Christ ascended into heaven, we say that Christ lives. And so our call is to live as if the story of Jesus did not end two thousand years ago on a cross on Golgotha, or even outside an empty tomb one Sunday morning, but continues to this very day. To live as if we are entrusted, for a time, with the momentous gift of being the body of Christ in this world.
Earlier this week, the poet Maya Angelou died. She spoke many times of her Christian faith, a faith that is deeply infused in her poetry. And as we celebrate Ascension Sunday, I am reminded of these lines from her poem “Still I Rise”:
You may shoot me with your words,That, I think, is the truth of the Christian faith: that the power of sin and violence to hurt and kill is nothing compared to the power of God to raise and rise. Christ rises. Christ is rising – rising toward light and hope and love and beauty and God, not to leave us behind, but to draw us along with him. And every time we see God at work in the world, every time we see the resurrection that happens when love overcomes fear, when hope overcomes despair, when the arc of the universe bends toward justice, we see the truth of the ascension.
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
So as we gather around the table and as we go out into the world, friends, let us not stand looking at the sky, confounded and paralyzed by theological paradox. Let us set ourselves to the work of the people of God, the work of love and justice, prayer and witness, feeding and healing. Let us do so in thanksgiving to the God who calls us to be part of this grand story of the risen Christ.
Image from Jesus Mafa