Ascension of Jesus: A Story Still With Us

May 29th, 2014
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It was an interesting sight, staring upwards at the stained glass in all those cathedrals and churches. Everywhere we went in England, my wife and I found a church, whether great or small, laden with the most elegant of stained glass windows. Over the decades and yes, even centuries, these wonderful scenes of the Bible or the saints of the Church greeted the worshippers and visitors, though admittedly, most churches in England (and increasingly in the United States) today see more tourists than pilgrims coming to look at the stained glass.

The one stained glass panel that I still find myself musing over is the one of the Ascension of Christ, as told in the book of Acts. Imagine if you will the stained glass as a square panel. At the bottom of it are all the various disciples, staring upwards at the ascending Christ. As for our Lord and Savior, the only part of Jesus visible is his sandaled feet, the rest of him "off panel" and literally just out of sight.

In the biblical narratives, Jesus appears to his faithful, giving instruction and then after a time, departs for the heavens above. While we are more familiar in the preaching and teaching of the Church about the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection, we honestly spend very little time talking about his ascension. For many Christians for whom the reciting of creeds is normative in worship, the language of the Apostles' Creed, one of the earliest Christian affirmations of faith, will come to mind. In part, the faith is confessed:

on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

With all of this talk of glory and the heavens above, we might just think that the story is over for the time being. Indeed, the ascension of Jesus is just a minor plot detail to some, and for others, eclipsed by a preoccupation (and in some cases, obsession) about the "second" coming of Jesus, especially the questions of When will this happen? Where will it take place? In addition, what mood will He be in when He shows back up?

I suggest that the Ascension of Jesus provides us with more than just a footnote to the story of the Gospel. The story of the Ascension is a bit like the moment of uncertainty as a child takes its first steps or a little bird takes its first tentative flight from the safety of the nest. The Ascension of Jesus calls the gathered people called Jesus' disciples to move into a new chapter of life, perhaps one fraught with the unknown but also one wide open to new possibilities.

So, the early disciples might seem like your new best friends. Just like them, you are asking, “What do we do now?” And you ask, knowing full well that getting to an answer (or answers) will take time and promise more uncertainty ahead than certainty. “What do we do now?” It’s a question I help churches with as part of my regional ministry work. Such a question is helpful to ponder, yet more often than not, I hear that question asked more often out of a place of anxiety.

Part of my work is to suggest to churches that they have a choice at hand. Change happens, yet do you wish to greet it with earnest effort or give in to the butterflies and anxieties along the way? Clearly, all churches need to choose wisely. I am most hopeful you will find yourselves looking at the future as an opportunity to learn how to ask that question more fruitfully. We can be in the midst of what seems like the frightening unknown or we can allow it to be an opportunity to grow in ways that give us a new horizon for ministry. Just as the first disciples had to learn to walk bravely into “what’s next?” so must this bunch of 21st-century disciples living in what’s charitably called “post-Christendom”.

The book of Acts reminds us: The more boldly we move forward, the more forward we will move. It may seem like anxiety and the unknown are just lurking around the corner, or the sky might fall, but we are already part of a faith tradition that knows adversity, yet embraces the hope found in the One who “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” The Ascension in the stained glass piece I mentioned earlier not only includes the fleeting last glimpse of the Christ heading heavenwards, it also captures the moment in the faces of the disciples still on earth below. The looks on their faces vary: some are amazed as they look upwards, others are saddened, and some are befuddled.

Moreover, again, all that you see are Jesus’ feet as he disappears from sight. The Ascension of Jesus reminds us that the disciples could have remained stuck in the midst of the moment, never really moving on in their journey. Jesus gives clear direction to the disciples. “Don’t worry about this or that. Be my witnesses everywhere you can go‚” is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ worries and wonders about the future, and then off he goes. The choice is then to those who look amazed, sad, and befuddled: you can feel these things, but will you choose to embrace the challenge to go into that next step ahead of you?

The ascension of Jesus keeps Luke’s story moving on from the tales of Jesus, and the disciples to the tales of the disciples without Jesus. They could have had the church version of "writer’s block‚” the pausing or inability to write the next words or shape a story beyond a certain point, but they did not choose to do so.

These disciples kept at the task (thankfully, even a few angels show up to help them get moving. In 20th-century Baptist Clarence Jordan’s wonderfully “Southern” way of translating the Bible, the angels are men in white overalls who show up saying, “Git yer work britches on! There’s work to do!”.

May it be so with us!

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