Tonight we mark the seventh and final Sunday in Eastertide. It seems a long time since Lent drew to its close with our celebration of the Resurrection. The lilies and eggs and bunnies that the wider culture associates with Easter are long gone, yet the liturgical calendar still has us calling out our alleluias and proclaiming that Christ is risen. It is a fifty-day season, running from Easter Day through to next week’s celebration of the Feast of Pentecost. Maybe part of the force of that is to let us know that the forty days of Lent have been trumped; that this is our primary story.
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We draw the season to a close by hearing the story of the Ascension, as told by Luke in the opening chapter of Acts. The Book of Acts is really volume two of the Gospel according to Luke; the gospel marking the movement from Bethlehem to Jerusalem—the centre of the Jewish world—and Acts the movement from Jerusalem to Rome—the centre of the known world. Luke ends his Gospel with an account of the ascension of Christ, and then opens Acts with a slightly different account of the same event. Clearly he sees it as something of a hinge, on which his two-volume narrative turns. In fact, of all the gospel writers, Luke alone attends to this particular event. Mark’s urgent and clipped gospel ends with the women at the tomb, Matthew’s with Jesus commission to his followers to take the good news to the very ends of the earth. In his typically poetic and freely speculative style, John understands the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension as being one seamless movement, such that in tonight’s reading from John, on the very eve of his death Jesus is already speaking of his being “glorified”.
For Luke this moment of ascension seems crucially important to a deeper understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. And yet for several generations of critical biblical scholarship, the account has often been treated as either merely symbolic or purely mythical. It is an account that presumes a pre-modern three-tiered view of the world—a flat, firm earth over which stand the heavens, and under which is she’ol, or the place of the dead. To picture Jesus ascending upward into the heavens works very well within that pre-modern view, but now that we know that the earth is a spinning globe and that “up” is really only relative to the vastness of space, what do we do with such an image?
The question I’d like to ask those who have been drawn up so short by Luke’s account is this: How else might that company of Jesus’ followers have experienced his going from them? Luke is describing a deeply mystical experience, which is something altogether different from mythical. It is an experience of seeing something of the way things truly are, and it dovetails perfectly with John’s insight that the death, resurrection and ascension are one seamless whole. The power of death has been shattered, and in his resurrection Jesus is so vibrantly and fully alive that the created world as we know it can barely contain him. As the New Testament scholar Matt Skinner emphasizes, Jesus’ ascension to the “right hand of God” (Acts 2:32-35) refers “not so much to location but to status.” “The right hand of God” says Skinner, “is not a place, as if we could find Jesus and his Father sitting in a throne room somewhere, or sharing a booth in a heavenly tavern.”
And implicit in the whole Christian vision is that what has happened to Jesus is what is promised for us. Even though we die, death has been defeated. When we read of the fully embodied, extraordinarily alive resurrection and ascension life of Jesus, we see our future. In the words of the Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan,
All we can say is that the transition has occurred, that there is a beaten path that lies before us, linking our physical existence to an existence in the presence of God which lies beyond its conditions. We cannot see the path—the cloud which hid Jesus on the mountain-top is a veil for that which cannot be comprehended from below—but we know that the path has been taken, and that we are to take it too. (O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order)
That little group of followers who stood on Olivet could not yet anticipate the full meaning of all of this. They’ve heard Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and they’ve shared this experience of his going from them, but as they stand there slack-jawed, craning their necks and “gazing up toward heaven” they’re unexpectedly interrupted. “[S]uddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Seriously? Why are they standing there looking up toward the heavens? Can you honestly blame them? That’s what I’d be doing. And then these two figures—their sudden appearance and white robes suggesting that they are angels; the Greek ángelos meaning literally messengers—add that, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” That being the case, why don’t we keep watching for him, heads turned to the sky? Well, maybe the force of that statement is to say, “don’t worry, you won’t be able to miss it when he returns,” which also implies, “so for now get your heads out of the clouds.” For all of its wonder and appeal, you can’t hang on to this experience. Get your heads out of the clouds, set your feet on this earth, and start walking back to Jerusalem. The story isn’t over yet, and you’re a big part of it.
And so they do. For the first time, those often-thickheaded disciples finally get it right. “When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
Had we read on through the rest of the chapter, we’d have heard that they didn’t just sit and pray, they also took on one very practical matter. Jesus had assembled a company of twelve disciples—a significant number in Judaism, reflecting the twelve tribes of Israel—yet with the defection of Judas they were now just eleven. Two good candidates were proposed—“Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias”—and while the process was enfolded in prayer, the final selection was left to the casting of lots; “and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” Imagine. Dear Bishop Don, we’re discerned that we are in need of an associate priest at saint benedict’s table, and after proposing several good candidates we gathered on Sunday night in the chapel, drew straws, and the lot fell on… Please plan to have an ordination service here when you visit us next Sunday night. Now, to be fair by the time of the writing of the 1st Epistle to Timothy the early church had done some deep thinking about the qualifications for bishops and deacons, yet in those earliest days they held their hands very much in a posture of absolute and utter openness. They were just those kinds of days.
In the time-line offered by Luke, it is ten days that lie between the ascension and the day of Pentecost; days in which this group learns some things about waiting. It is really a kind of a little Advent season for them, these in between days. As Matt Skinner writes,
Presumably the Holy Spirit could have come immediately after Jesus’ ascension; but God waits. Rather, God has Jesus’ followers wait. I like to think that in this waiting they learn, or begin to learn, that they are to be a responsive community, a community that waits upon God to initiate.
The delay; the waiting; the in-between; this what they most needed to prepare them to be that responsive and dynamic community called the Body of Christ. For a culture as restless as ours—a culture that finds delay difficult, and holds as a credo, “spend now, pay later [with interest of course…]—there is just so very much to be learned from that.