The story we heard in today’s reading from Acts may be one of the strangest in the New Testament. One moment the resurrected Jesus is talking with his disciples, the next he is lifted up into the clouds, ascending into heaven.
I have to admit that this story always makes me think of Mary Poppins holding her umbrella high, floating away from the Banks children, or more recently, the crusty old man in the movie Up lifted into the clouds by a cluster of helium balloons.
This week I’ve read supposedly learned scholars debate the scientific reasons why the Ascension could or could not have happened. I’ve read theologians’ convoluted explanations of what it all means.
One finally ended up saying that the Ascension of Jesus “is endlessly problematic and admits of no simple explanation.”
To get bogged down in the debate over whether Jesus’ ascension is literally true or not misses the point of this story.
What is clear is this – that for 40 days after Easter the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples. He ate with them, he cooked them breakfast, he walked with them and gave them comfort and direction.
It wasn’t exactly like it was before he died – the resurrected Jesus had a tendency to do unsettling things like suddenly appearing in a locked room or just as suddenly vanishing into thin air.
But even though he was no longer flesh and blood, he was still present with them in a real and tangible way.
Then just as the disciples are getting used to this new reality, Jesus disappears again, this time for good.
No wonder the disciples are looking up into the heavens in confusion, standing with their mouths open in amazement, watching as Jesus’ ankles disappear in the clouds. Surely they felt confused and abandoned and neglected, wondering how they would cope without Jesus.
The liturgical tradition of the church has been to make the Feast of the Ascension a festival of Jesus’ glory and power. But the Biblical tradition is something different.
We hear it in today’s story. Jesus is still ascending when two men in white robes, biblical code for angels, suddenly appear next to the disciples.
“Men of Galilee,” they say, “why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” This mild rebuke of the disciples suggests that the meaning of the Ascension is not to be found in the heavens, but here on earth.
The Biblical interest is less in what happened to Jesus than what it going to happen next to his followers.
Peter Gomes, who for many years was the chaplain at Harvard, puts it this way:
“The Ascension is not simply a bon voyage to Jesus. It is not simply upward in focus. It has a downward, earthly dimension as well.
“Doubtless the apostles would gladly have gone up into the clouds with the Lord,” Gomes says. “Given the choice of returning to the mundaneness of Galilee or of partaking of the glories of heaven, who wouldn’t?”
But Jesus’ disciples – both then and now – are not called to spend life pondering the coming glory of heaven.
“We are not permitted the luxury of gazing at Jesus’ feet. No, we must get on with Jesus’ work,” Gomes says.
“We are called to service in the world that is: a world without Christ, a world that is impoverished in spirit, and that daily devises more means to make life increasingly nasty, brutish and short.”
The men in white remind us that the church is not a memorial society for a dead Jesus, not a gathering of people wistfully longing for the return of a long-departed leader.
Instead, the people of God should have their eyes on what is happening around them, always looking for how we can help bring about God’s kingdom here and now.
With Jesus no longer on earth, his followers are given the task of becoming the body of Christ, carrying out Christ’s work in the world.
And to make that task possible, Jesus promises that we will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, a power that will enable us to spread the news and works of Christ to the ends of the earth.
Visions of heaven are wonderful things, but they are dangerous if we allow ourselves to become so enthralled by the vision of the coming glory of God’s heavenly kingdom that we neglect the earthly world God has created.
The disciples followed the men in white’s advice. They and other followers of Jesus, men and women, went back to Jerusalem, and gathered in prayer, preparing themselves to be ready for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit.
Next week we will hear how that promise becomes a reality.
The irony is that with the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples too ascend. They have the courage and strength to rise above their fears and limitations and transform not just themselves, but the world.
The Spirit still helps the followers of Christ do just that – to both engage and transform the world God created and to ascend above the limitations the world tries to put on us.
Poet Maya Angelou wrote often of her faith, and how it gave her the courage to persevere over poverty and abuse, and the limitations that the culture placed on a black woman born in the Jim Crow South.
Her poem Still I Rise seems an appropriate way to close this reflection on the Ascension.
You may write me down in history
with your bitter, twisted lies.
You may tread me in the very dirt
but still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Just like moons and like suns,
with the certainty of tides,
just like hopes springing high,
still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
weakened by my soulful cries.
You may shoot me with your words,
you may cut me with your eyes,
you may kill me with your hatefulness,
but still, like air, I’ll rise.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.