“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” What a weird question! As if what they had just observed was an everyday occurrence. Who would not be frozen in place, mouth agape, as people did the very first time a space launch sent human beings into orbit destined to land on the moon?
These friends of Jesus had just about gotten accustomed to the fact that he had been raised from the dead. They ate with him. Walked with him. Touched him. Laughed and reminisced with him. Now he was gone again—in a New York minute. Vanished. Poof! Ascended into the clouds.
The first reading this morning describes the event. The author of the Book of Acts tells us that Jesus appeared again to his disciples forty days after his Resurrection and was taken up right before their eyes into heaven. The first readers of this account really believed that Jesus ascended to a literal heaven, a specific location from whence he would return at the end of time.
While we cannot deny the possibility of such an ascension, we totally miss the point of it if we focus on Christ’s outer space travel or speculate about the geographic location of heaven rather than on what the implication of this event is for our own spiritual journey.
Luke is the only evangelist who talks about the Ascension as a separate dimension of the life of Jesus. He dates it on the fortieth day after resurrection. I wonder if it was because Jewish students typically studied with a rabbi for forty days, a metaphor for how long it took to learn the master’s teachings well enough to be able to teach them.
To Luke, the time between the Resurrection of Jesus and his Ascension may have less to do with Jesus than it does with us, with the positioning of our minds and hearts on the world and the work at hand. The last line of the Gospel tells us that the disciples returned to Jerusalem and were continually praying in the temple praising God.
Jesus is gone but not really. Jesus has left them but not left them at all. They remember the Jesus of history and now they live immersed in the Christ of faith. Their minds have been raised to a new awareness, to new insight, to new perception of the power of God among them.
Like everything Jesus did, the Ascension pointed beyond that immediate moment. They had to grasp the reality that their teacher was leaving them to continue the work of God as they had been taught. All they needed to do now was to wait and pray and the Holy Spirit would come and give them the courage and power to go out and do it.
The Ascension of Jesus has little to do with our deliberating about the exact whereabouts of heaven and how Jesus got there and everything to do with paying attention to what is going on around us here on earth where we, like those who witnessed his departure are sent out to help build the kingdom of God. We have inherited the power of the Holy Spirit with which God promised to clothe us.
Retreat leader and author, Paula Darcy, writes, “God comes among us disguised as our life.” God comes among us disguised as our life. Said another way, God’s story is always related to human need. If we come with concerns about our health, the gospel is about God’s healing power; if we come with feelings of guilt, the gospel is God’s assurance that we are forgiven; if we have come in bereavement for someone we have lost, the gospel is God’s strong word of resurrection. For those who are hungry, the gospel may be bread; for those who have been marginalized in any way, the gospel may be liberation and affirmation.
People don’t want to stand around looking up at the sky to see where God lives, they want a God who comes down to them, to feel God’s presence in the places of their lives where they have felt a huge void— a God who comes among us disguised as our life.
How do you look for God to act and to enter your lives? For whatever reason, certainly unknown to us, God has chosen to enter the world today through us. We may have a story or two about miraculous interventions and lightning bolt moments, but far more often God comes to us in human form, just as God in Jesus did more than 2,000 years ago.
I’ll bet if I asked you to recall five sermons you have heard in your life you would probably be hard pressed to answer. But if I ask you to name five persons through whom God has put a hand on your life, I suspect you would not hesitate for a moment.