May 13, 2018
My favorite part of this passage is when the mysterious “two men in white robes” appear by the disciples as Jesus is taken into heaven. And they first ask why they are standing there looking up into the sky. Then they state that Jesus will return in the same way he was taken, that is, from heaven.
They are saying that, on the one hand, these disciples will be Jesus’ witnesses, and they can’t do that if they are spending all their time gazing into the sky. On the other hand, they do say that Jesus will come from the sky. So the manner of their waiting for Jesus to return is by committing themselves to the work that needs to be done down here.
This is not going to be a faith that has to do with measuring or counting out “the times or the periods” before Jesus comes back. That is a form of this fruitless and pointless “looking up towards heaven,” that these two men in white are critical of, and it is not the job that Jesus has left the disciples to do. We are not like dogs who sit looking anxiously out the window all day until their master comes home. Jesus has promised that he will be with us “always, even to the end of the age.”
At the same time, this story does seem to be saying that he goes away to heaven, leaving us alone here on earth, waiting for him to come back the same way he went. In the meantime, Jesus’ presence will be known in the Holy Spirit, who is about to come upon the disciples, empowering them to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.”
So the disciples are implicitly instructed not to waste their time looking up into the sky where Jesus appears to have gone, but to realize that even though he is “lifted up” until “a cloud took him out of their sight,” which means that he is no longer visible or perceptible to their 5 senses, and his physical, tangible, mortal, temporal presence is no more, he is at the same time, by the Spirit even more directly present with them than he was before his crucifixion.
His having gone into “heaven,” then, is way to say, not that he has abandoned the disciples. For heaven is the place of highest and most inclusive and comprehensive vision. From heaven everything is seen and known, inside and out. Heaven is the eternity that is within, around, among, beneath, and above the time/space continuum that we experience. There is, then, a sense in which “heaven” is everywhere, embedded in and penetrating everything, yet at the same time, because of our limitations, unknown to and remote from our perceptions and experience. Therefore, to say that Jesus has gone into heaven is really to say that he has emerged into everything
The Holy Spirit is our interface with that eternity, the breath of God by which all things are created, which has left God’s imprint on and in everything.
The Ascension means that Jesus is with us, as he promised, to the end of the age, always, by the mediating power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is still here, with us in an even more intimate and direct form, than he had been when he was, for 33 or so years, with the disciples as a “historical” figure.
So Jesus is actually closer to us now. But, as we know, this creates other problems. Jesus is so close to us that we often confuse him with ourselves. That is, it is easy to imagine that the voice of our ego is actually the voice of God telling us what is best to do. Discerning and distinguishing God’s voice in our hearts from our own becomes a primary task of Christian spirituality.
This is why the church eventually came to rely on the gospels. Let’s not forget that the church lived and grew for many years, perhaps even a century or more, before any of the written gospels were relatively widely available. All of Paul’s letters are written to churches that did not possess copies of the gospels — because they hadn’t even been written yet. Aside from the cross and resurrection, Paul almost never refers to anything Jesus does or says during his historical life.
This is because the church has always relied, not on people’s memories of the historical Jesus, but on his direct, living presence, with them by the power of the Holy Spirit. We, of course, have the inestimable benefit of the gospels. But my point is that we should, in theory, be able to thrive in mission even without a New Testament, as the earliest church did, and just depend on the indwelling presence of the ascended Lord Jesus, by the Spirit. That is, in fact, the story that Luke is about to tell in the rest of the book of Acts.
Before he does ascend, the disciples ask the risen Jesus if he is going to “restore the kingdom to Israel” now, a question which he ignores because it indicates stubborn cluelessness on the part of the disciples. They still, even now, imagine that he is about something as small as bringing back Israel as an independent kingdom under Davidic rule. Jesus is requiring them to expand their imaginations exponentially. He doesn’t mention “Israel” again, but tells them to start their mission in Jerusalem, and “Judea and Samaria.” Judea and Samaria were the two regions representing the old divided Israelite kingdoms from centuries before, but currently under Roman administration, whose respective peoples still hated each other.
The Lord says that on the one hand this mission is to the whole world, but that on the other hand it has to start locally and spread from there. If this good news of God’s reconciling love revealed in Jesus the Messiah can take root in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria — places of crushing oppression by a foreign power and bitterly divided internally — it will surely be able to work in other places as well. If the disciples can bear witness to God’s love and justice in such an inhospitable place, then It’s like Jesus is saying, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
The story of the church will be this spreading throughout an oppressed, conquered, colonized, exploited, divided, conflicted world, the Roman Empire. And the message, the truth to which they bear witness, the basic, bottom line, essence of the good news, is Jesus: the Romans crucified him for sedition, but he did not stay dead. He rose! He’s still alive with, within, and among his people, which means that a whole new future, a future not under the yoke of a cruel empire, is now open to anyone who follows him.
Jesus gives the disciples instructions to be his witnesses in the whole world. In other words, they are to retell this fundamental and very simple story. It is the elevator pitch of the new movement, a brief summary easily memorized and repeatable by anyone in less than a minute.
There’s this man named Jesus, the promised anointed King of the Jews. The Romans crucified him for treason. But he rose from the dead and now he lives forever with us. Visit us on Sunday morning and we’ll show you!
Anyone hearing this would have immediately understood that if there was someone the Romans couldn’t kill, their whole gig was over. It’s a new world. We’re free! Jesus is Lord! If we get together to follow Jesus, we don’t have be jerked around by Caesar anymore. And there is nothing Caesar and all his wealth and power can do about it. Because, even if they do kill your physical body, Jesus proves that that simply gets you closer to him. Joining this movement is a win-win.
If we truly understand his cross and resurrection, the church is inherently and necessarily an alternative and subversive gathering loyal to Jesus Christ alone, which means it is radically disloyal to any and all other political, economic, or social powers, people, or philosophies.
And this whole movement depends, in the end, on the Ascension. Otherwise, Jesus’ death and resurrection are interesting and perhaps very attractive stories that we remember, admire, and support… but they have nothing directly to do with us and how we live our lives. There is no necessary “now what?”
The real energy in the Jesus movement is in the knowledge that Jesus still lives and remains present with, within, and among his followers, who still participate in his life, ministry, blessings, and truth. He lives, not just out there, not just far away in heaven, not just long ago, not just when he returns in the far future. He lives now. He lives here. He makes a difference.
The early church understands and lives within the absolute connection between Jesus’ death at the hands of the world’s mightiest superpower, his resurrection negating and neutralizing that power, and his ascension by which he continues to live in and among his disciples, by the Holy Spirit. The early church knows itself to be an alternative Way of living together trusting in Jesus and practicing his values of humility, non-violence, forgiveness, compassion, and equality, and in opposition to the demands of a regime based on arrogance, violence, selfishness, and inequality.
The church cannot be about standing around, looking up towards heaven. We have work to do down here. The Ascension means Jesus is with us down here. His death and resurrection identifies him and therefore us with those who are real victims of violence and injustice, exclusion and colonization, exploitation and bondage. And we start here and now, where we are, and move out to all the world.
And it is only and because we in Christ identify with the broken and oppressed of the world that the words of William Gaither’s now classic song make sense as an affirmation of the Ascension:
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future
And life is worth the living,
just because He lives.