While most of us were busy doing other things this week a major feast day of the Church slipped by. This past Thursday was Ascension Day, the day that Christ, who has already risen from the dead, finally ascends into heaven.
Ascension Day is listed in the Book of Common Prayer as one of the seven principal feast days of the Church. But because it always occurs on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter, it is easy for it to pass by without much notice or fanfare.
Ascension Day marks a turning point in the history of Christianity. Think about how the first disciples must have felt. The grief and horror they experienced at Jesus’ death had turned into astonished joy at his resurrection.
For 40 days now the risen Christ has been present with them. They have touched the nail marks in his hands and side, they have eaten with him, walked and talked with him. He even cooked them breakfast early one morning after they had been out all night fishing.
Granted, this Christ who has risen from the dead is not exactly the same as their friend Jesus. He has a tendency to do things that are a bit unsettling – like suddenly appearing in the middle of a locked room, and just as suddenly vanishing. They are never quite sure when or where he might show up. And sometimes they are slow to recognize him when he does.
But the fact remains that he is present with them – something they could never have dreamed possible during those dark hours of his arrest, crucifixion, and death.
And now – just as they have gotten used to the fact that their dead teacher and leader is still with them – he is suddenly taken from them again, this time into heaven.
The story in the Acts of the Apostles tells us that all of the disciples are gathered together with Jesus outside of Jerusalem when this momentous event takes place. Jesus is teaching them about the kingdom of God when he looks at them and says,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And with those words, with that final promise, Jesus is lifted up into the air and a cloud takes him out of the disciples’ sight. One moment he is there with them, the next moment he is gone, his familiar shape slipping into the clouds.
As you might imagine, the disciples are transfixed by this unlikely sight. They stand with their heads back, their mouths probably open in amazement, staring at the sky, trying to take it all in, trying to understand what has just happened.
While they are standing there looking up at the clouds two men in white robes – Biblical code words for angels – suddenly stand by them.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” they ask.
The question the angels ask is really a gentle rebuke. They are reminding the disciples – and us—that we are not going to see the risen Christ again by looking up toward heaven. Better to look around instead – at each other, at the world, at ordinary people with ordinary lives.
That is where Jesus’ disciples – both past and present – are most likely to find the risen Christ. Not in the way that he was once known on earth, not in his own body, his own flesh and blood, but in our bodies, our flesh, our blood.
When the disciples do what the angels suggest – when they stop looking up at heaven and start looking at each other and the world around them – amazing things begin to happen.
The disciples return to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they have been congregating since Jesus’ death, and there, together with a group of faithful women, they pray and wait for Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit.
They don’t know when that promise will be fulfilled, or what will happen when the Holy Spirit does come upon them, but they gather together to pray and wait. And while they are waiting they get their house in order, choosing another disciple to take the traitor Judas’ place among them.
It is after this that Jesus’ promise is fulfilled. As we will hear next week, on the day of Pentecost, this same group of faithful women and men are once again gathered together in prayer when the Holy Spirit descends upon them with the whooshing sound of violent wind.
And with the Spirit’s empowerment, this group becomes the Church. Not just a group of friends who gather together to mourn the death of their leader, but the Church, a living, active body filled with the Spirit of life and power, the Spirit of Christ.
With the coming of that Spirit these men and women, the Church, are suddenly empowered to do things they had never done before.
Those who had once been shy followers are suddenly leaders, boldly proclaiming the Gospel, saying things that sound like Christ himself. They begin to do things that they had never seen anyone but Jesus do before. They become brave and eloquent and wise.
And over and over again Scripture tells us that when they are together they sense Christ’s presence with them.
They know that they are not alone, that the Christ who once walked the earth with them, the one who has now ascended into heaven, has indeed sent his Spirit to be with them, to empower them to continue his work in the world.
“Why do you stand looking up into heaven?” the angels ask. There is work to be done here and now.
The angels’ words of reproach stand firm today for any church that wistfully longs for the return of its long departed leader, as if the church were a mere memorial society for a dead Jesus.
We today, the men and women gathered either in person or online in this place in prayer, are the inheritors of the promise Jesus made to his followers before his departure. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
We are promised that the same force that empowered Jesus will be present with the Church throughout the ages, will lead, guide, and empower us to continue Christ’s work in the world – to become ourselves the Body of Christ.
That is the purpose of the Church – to worship and remember, certainly – but most importantly to continue the work that Christ began: to proclaim the word of God, to work for justice and healing, to help bring about the kingdom of God here on earth. This is our work, our task, and we have the power of the Spirit to enable us to do it.
The promise of Ascension and Pentecost is that we are not left alone to do that work. In fact, we know that alone we cannot do it. It takes the community of faith together with the Holy Spirit for a group of women and men to become the Church, the Body of Christ.
The Holy Spirit that empowered that first group of faithful men and women gathered in Christ’s name is still with us today – empowering us to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, to minister to those in need both within our community and without, to strengthen us to work for justice and peace in our work places and our daily lives.
The risen Christ has ascended into heaven, but he has not left us alone. In the power and love of the Holy Spirit we are the Body of Christ.
Look around us. There is work to be done.