Acts 1:1-11+Psalm 24+Revelation 3:20-22+Luke 24:46-53
This morning, the disciples woke up. They’ve been sharing living space in Jerusalem since coming from Galilee for Passover, so they each had commandeered their own little sleeping area. The women among the disciples had a separate room that undoubtedly smelled better and was more comfortably appointed. Over breakfast, they talked amongst themselves about plans for the day. Usually, they would go to the temple to pray and do their best to help the sick and poor who were invariably waiting at the gates.
In hushed tones and whispers, they wondered if maybe he would show up today.
Over the past almost-six weeks, he would appear at odd times, mostly when they were all together wondering what to do next. He kept teaching them things, mostly repeating stuff he had already said, but now with even greater urgency, like he knew a secret they couldn’t quite figure out.
Well, he did show up that day and spent a little more time with them than usual, reminding them of all the things they had seen and heard and telling them to wait in the city until they were “clothed with power from on high” Luke 24:49). And then he said to them, “Let’s go. We’re going for a walk.” And they strolled right out of the city, down into the Kidron Valley, and up and over the Mount of Olives to Bethany, not far from where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived.
And while they were all standing around wondering why he had brought them out there, suddenly he began floating into the air like a human-shaped balloon. It was as if the disciples were nailed to the ground. They couldn’t move. They just stood there, mouths agape, as he disappeared from sight, and then, once the clouds had closed behind him, they rather sheepishly looked around at each other, shrugging, as if to say, “I didn’t see anything. Did you see anything?” And then, like a scene out of Monty Python, they scurried back to Jerusalem, high on the last blessing Jesus had bestowed on them, worshipping, and praising God in the temple.
What was this all about? In some ways, the Ascension is even more mind-boggling than the resurrection. Why do we give such weight to it when it only appears in Luke-Acts and in the appended ending of Mark?
Well, it had to happen that way, didn’t it? Jesus had to return whence he came so that the disciples could do the work he had given them to do. As long as Jesus walked around, whether living or resurrected, it would be too easy to rely on him. He’s the boss, let him do the teaching and healing and preaching.
No, Jesus had to go away so that we could be the Church.
And we have failed miserably.
When things go wrong in our world, we point fingers at God, accusing God of not being loving enough or powerful enough to bring 19 little fourth-graders home from school safely on a Tuesday. We throw up our hands in helplessness and despair as if we are not the hands and feet of Christ in this world.
Those disciples had no idea that the 40th day would bring their last morning with Jesus any more than those 19 families knew that those fruit loops would be the last bowl of cereal their child would eat. Ten days from now, we will recall that those followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem did receive the power from on high when the Holy Spirit came to town. It’s that Holy Spirit that continues to empower us just as it did them, and yet we behave as if the forces arrayed against us are just too much.
No, I say. No.
If this Feast of the Ascension means anything in our lives of faith, it means that we have the power and authority to move mountains. We are the ends of the earth to which those original disciples were witnesses, something they could not have imagined in a million years. So why do we stand here looking off into the heavens when we are the ones who are clothed in power? Why doom scroll through social media or news stories about the tragedies and terror that befall our world and then go back to doing the same old things with the same old predictable results?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu this week who, in the deepest and worst years under apartheid, persisted with courage and hope, because he knew that victory was already won. The other side just didn’t realize it yet. And he exhorted those who were discouraged to keep doing what little bit they could to move that moral arc of the universe, even if just by a fraction, because, as he said, “it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
Friends, we can’t stand here looking up into the heavens. We can’t hide in our homes wringing our hands. Jesus commanded us to be witnesses and to bear the Good News into the world. God knows, this old world needs it.
I have been praying a prayer of Archbishop Tutu this week, one that he adapted from the sea explorer Francis Drake, and one that I have prayed before in this place, and I offer it again now:
Disturb us, O Lord
when we are too well-pleased with ourselves
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, O Lord
when with the abundance of things we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the water of life
when, having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth,
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.
Stir us, O Lord
to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas
where storms show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.
In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow.
Amen. (An African Prayer Book)