Ascension of our Lord
We and the disciples are stuck between a rock and a high place. Especially on Ascension it feels like we are stuck between a rock and a high place. When we witness and observe Jesus ascending into the highest heaven to be rightfully confirmed as the name above all names, the authority over all in heaven and on earth, we feel stuck between the rock of harsh reality and the high place of unrealistic hopeful expectation- stuck between where we are and where we wish we were.
When we are between a rock and high place as the disciples were, there is always a temptation to focus too much on one or the other. We may feel tempted to direct our attention toward the harsh reality of our world, the rock beneath our feet, and live without courageous hope toward the promised heavenly future. Or we may feel tempted to direct our attention toward the great heavenly promise of God without seeing the presence of God on the ground around us.
The disciples were in danger of focusing too much on holding onto the glory of our world and lacking the imagination to see the new ways Christ’s spirit could be bringing life to the church. Jesus ascended into heaven and before he did, he told the eleven disciples that they should wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come. Then, they will be sent out and empowered to proclaim the Good News. The disciples were left with a bit of a puzzle. What do we do while we wait? So the eleven disciples decide to restore their numbers to twelve- not exactly the most innovative and exciting ministry opportunity… Before Judas had killed himself, there were twelve disciples and the remaining eleven figured that that was how things were supposed to be. The eleven cast lots (similar to throwing dice) until chance would have them induct Mathias into the exclusive club of the twelve disciples.
The disciples get it wrong here. The text shows the disciples’ biases and their lack of holy imagination. They could only imagine the ministry of Jesus being continued with twelve men as it had been during Jesus’ earthly ministry. But when Christ Ascended and his Holy Spirit shows up, something much greater than the disciples’ limited vision occurs. At the first Pentecost, not only the twelve disciples, but thousands of Jewish pilgrims receive the Holy Spirit and are empowered to share the Good News of Jesus. Some time later there is a second Pentecost, when many more Gentiles are added into the mix. Other leaders of the church are empowered throughout the book of Acts including Paul who is named as an Apostle (bringing the official number to thirteen, not the expected twelve) and including Dorcas/Tabitha who is a woman and also called a disciple (now muddying the waters of who is an “official” disciple or not).
We are often tempted to think like the eleven disciples. When we are waiting for the Holy Spirit to act in our lives and send us out to do the work of God, we often look to the past of how we have always done things and we are often not prepared for the wild and unexpected ways in which the Holy Spirit will direct the mission of the church. I have seen churches scramble to restore the numbers of their Sunday School because they have always had 4 classrooms of children, but the Holy Spirit inspires them to pursue an intergenerational learning model in which 80 year olds and 8 year olds are learning the stories of God together. I have seen churches try to build up a traditional food pantry only to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to start a food truck feeding and worship ministry. I have seen churches try to start an Easter community meal only to find themselves sent out to the local Home Depot to share in the Lord’s Supper with day laborers. As we wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and as we move forward into the vision to which God has called us, we will not be limited in mission to restoring the number of disciples from eleven to twelve. God’s Holy Spirit falls on many more people than that and her mission will be greater than we can imagine. Where and to whom will we be sent? Personally, I can’t wait to find out.
One temptation on Ascension is to focus too much on the world as we know it and to leave little room for holy surprise to that which God’s Holy Spirit is calling us. The other temptation is for us to have our head in the clouds with little care about the world beneath our feet. When Jesus is lifted up into the heavens, the eleven disciples stare absently at the sky. As they were looking into the clouds after Jesus had disappeared from view, I have to wonder what they were thinking. Maybe, “Is he coming back for us now?” or “When can we leave this earth and go with Jesus?” Maybe we can sympathize. Have you ever desired an escape plan? Sometimes we think of our faith as an elaborate system of escape. Some believe that if you are a good enough person, when you die, God will pluck you up from this terrible, no-good earth and whisk you away to the pearly gates. If such a belief system were true, while on earth we would merely be trying to keep away from evil and kill time. Jesus doesn’t call us to that kind of life or that kind of faith. Jesus came to this earth and called us to be his hands and feet for the sake of the world. We may be tempted to fix our gaze toward the heavens in hope of escape, but just like the eleven, God’s word comes to us asks us, “What do you think you are doing? Jesus will come again. In the meantime, if you want to see Jesus, look around on this rock upon which you are standing. Look at your neighbor. Look in the mirror.” In all of these things, you will see the work of God and you will see the spirit of Christ.
Christ ascended into heaven not as part of a cosmic escape plan. Christ ascended into heaven so that we might know by faith that Christ is above all the powers in hell, heaven, and earth. He is the name above all names. He is is all in all. If Christ is above all, that means his spirit is in all. Not just beyond the clouds of the heavens, not just among twelve disciples. Christ is all in all. We have been called as witnesses to see and point out the acts of lovingkindness, mercy, justice, forgiveness, and life that are present in our world. We have been empowered and filled by Christ’s spirit to continue to be his presence for the sake of the world. The book of Acts records the early church following and serving as Christ. In a way, we disciples are like echos of Jesus’ own voice. When we see the disciples preaching, teaching, healing, and welcoming, it all looks uncannily like Jesus himself. Peter preaches and heals like Jesus. Paul teaches like Jesus. Lydia welcomes strangers into her home like Jesus.
Christ is still active in the world. Christ ascended so his Spirit might be shared in the world through the church, through the community, and through your hands and feet.
We may feel like we are stuck between a rock and a high place- like we are stuck between the harsh reality of our broken world and the high hopes of Christ’s promised heavenly kingdom of mercy and life. As we stand frozen with our gaze directed far away, the messengers of God speak to us just as they had to the disciples. Redirect your gaze and your heart here. Christ ascended above all to be all in all. He is here and his kingdom of life and mercy is unfolding before our very eyes. We may feel like we are stuck between a rock and a high place, but through the ascended Christ, the high place hope of heaven is here on this rock.