“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Acts 1:8-9
We say it every week. Every single week. “He ascended into heaven; he is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Each week I keep expecting one of you to stop the proceedings and say, “Hold up just a minute…What does this even mean??”
I think we get that Jesus was born. At least that story we can do a Christmas program about. We understand that he died – though we don’t like to think too much about how he died. And even though it’s difficult to grasp, we can stumble through the part about how he rose from the dead. There are some good hymns about that story to help us out.
But this business about ascending into heaven? There aren’t as many catchy songs about that.
The author of Luke and Acts paints quite a vivid picture for us. First, Jesus, right in the middle of blessing his disciples, “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” The retelling in the first chapter of Acts is even better. Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit, gives them a mission, and then “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The disciples stand there gazing up into the sky where Jesus has floated away.
Heaven help me, but I almost always think about Mary Poppins when I read these Ascension stories. She, too, arrives in mysterious fashion to fulfill her mission of taking care of the Banks children and helping their family reconnect. And, mission accomplished, she floats off into the sky when the wind changes.
I’m not suggesting that Mary Poppins is Jesus – or vice versa – but if Mary Poppins were in this Ascension scene, you can bet she would say to the disciples as she once did to young Michael Banks: “Close your mouth please…we are not a codfish.”
The two men in white robes who appear to the disciples don’t quite say that, but they say something that I always hear as a little bit accusatory: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Maybe it’s my own discomfort, but I hear their question as something like this: “Don’t waste time lollygagging and staring at the sky. Jesus has told you what will happen next. There’s no point in hanging around with your mouths open. Get ready for the mission.”
You would think the disciples would have figured it out by now. You can’t pin Jesus down.
You want him to stay in the temple, but look. There he goes, wandering off outside the temple walls, and beyond the city gates into the wilderness, into the river, into all of those backwoods, out-of-the-way places that no one else wants to go.
It’s time for dinner. Has anyone seen Jesus? What do you mean he’s at the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who has cheated nearly everyone he knows?
Oh, so you want him to give you exactly what you want exactly when you want it? A healing, a blessing? But look! There he goes by himself to have some quiet time and to pray. And then he’s getting into a boat and heading to the other side of the sea.
When he dies, you think as you grieve: “Well, we know where he is now. He’s in that tomb.”
Except when you go to the tomb, you find a stone rolled away and two men in dazzling clothes who ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
And now, just when you’ve gotten used to having him back from the dead, there he goes floating off into the sky. For a moment all you can do is look up at the clouds through which he has disappeared.
We try to pin Jesus down too. We want to domesticate him, reign him in, pull him down on the end of a kite string and keep him to ourselves. We try to make him our private good luck charm, our savior-on-demand, ordering him up like the latest Netflix special when we want him and conveniently ignoring him when we do not.
But that’s not how it works. He’s given us our mission. We share that mission with the first disciples. Do you remember what he tells them? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus might say it a little differently for us: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Chatham, in the Township, in the Borough, in all of New Jersey and the United States, and to the ends of the earth.”
The point is the same. We cannot contain Jesus. We can’t pin him down. No amount of staring up at the sky will change what he has called us to do – to go out and bear witness.
We have a mission. We are stirred up by the Holy Spirit to do those things he has shown us how to do – to go to the places where “holy” people have stopped going, to have dinner with the folks who aren’t getting all the best dinner invitations, to forgive the people who have hurt us, to take some time for stillness and prayer, to do whatever it takes to make the world safer for the most vulnerable among us (and that includes figuring out how to stop the gun violence that takes more lives every day). We have a mission to keep telling God’s story…and our story…and how these stories come together in a way that only God can make possible.
I told you a few weeks ago about the death of one of my favorite writers, Rachel Held Evans. Yesterday I was able to watch Rachel’s funeral via a livestream from the church in Tennessee that hosted the service. It was one of the most beautiful funerals I have ever witnessed. All of it – the music, the prayers, the eulogies, the sermon – testified to the revolutionary power of being resurrection people.
Rachel’s sister Amanda spoke about her sister so powerfully. She shared a poem that Rachel once wrote, admitting that Rachel did not consider herself a poet and would probably be furious at her for reading it at her funeral.
I want to share that poem with you because it seems fitting for a day when we ponder Ascension, when we struggle with the push-pull between looking up toward heaven and getting to work here on earth.
Rachel’s poem is titled “Deep and Blue”:
Flying a kite,
like fishing upside down,
I gaze into the infinite dizzying blue
and wonder what’s swimming around up there,
currents of air
that tug and tighten up my string.
I’m glad we live in in-between
not at the top
or bottom of anything.
That’s where we live – in that in-between. Between heaven and earth. Between what is and what will be. Between what Jesus has promised our future will look like and what Jesus has given us to do in the meantime. A time between what God gives us now and what God has in store for us – which is beyond anything we can imagine.
I don’t understand it all. The good news is that we don’t have to understand it in order to look down and take the next steps.
People of Gloria Dei, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? There’s so much more that awaits us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am so thankful for the generosity of Rachel’s family in making the livestream of her funeral available. It was one of the most moving services I’ve ever witnessed. I was especially touched by the eulogy and song offered by Rachel’s sister Amanda. I have no idea how Rachel formatted her poem, so I hope that she will forgive me for sharing it and for taking my best guess at how it might have been shaped. If you’d like to view Rachel’s service yourself, try this link: https://rachelheldevans.com/funeral