Ascension of the Lord
from the book
Sermons On The Gospel Readings
For Sundays In Advent, Christmas, And Epiphany
Frank G. Honeycutt
The Ascension of Jesus into heaven is one of those strange Bible stories that Cecil B. De Mille would've enjoyed filming. Charlton Heston would play Jesus, of course. He would give the apostles some final instructions and then say with just the right touch of divine resonance, "STAY HERE IN THE CITY UNTIL YOU HAVE BEEN CLOTHED WITH POWER FROM ON HIGH." Charlton/Jesus would take the next cloud to heaven in proper cinematic flourish. I picture it as an escalator-type effect, slow and lingering but with a decided trajectory, just the right light but without the stairs. Maybe some cherubim music, but clearly within the bounds of proper taste.
Finally, the camera cuts to an overhead shot of the apostles -- dazed, mouths agape, like Gomer Pyle looking up at a skyscraper for the first time. Shazzam, he's gone. Someone once playfully suggested that as Jesus departed into heaven, the disciples finally saw the "sole" of Jesus. S-o-l-e, the bottoms of his shoes. Anyway, they all stood there looking up as if visiting Cape Canaveral for an Apollo space shot. "Now what?" we can almost hear them all say. "Our leader is gone. Now what?"
The Ascension of Jesus is a great story. Like the parting of the Red Sea, or the sling-shotting of Goliath by David, or the feeding of the 5,000, you can see the Ascension in your mind. You can use your imagination and fill in the details. My childhood King James Version devoted a full-color plate to the Ascension. Yours probably did, too. Rembrandt's version of this scene, painted in 1636, is a classic.1 The disciples are in the shadows looking like they want to grab Jesus' feet and keep him on earth (like trying to tether an escaping hot air balloon) while the little child angels sans underwear are pushing him up and away towards the light. There's a devilish little angel over in the corner (actually more resembling a Munchkin from Oz) who's making a face directly into the gaze of the viewer of the canvas as if to say, "We've got him up here now. You don't. Now what are you going do?"
It's easy to imagine the Ascension in your mind. Pick an impressive cumulus some fine afternoon and you're halfway home. This is dramatic, spine-tingling scripture. A great story. It's too bad Cecil B. De Mille died in 1959. Less clear, though, is the actual meaning of this event.
For example, why did Jesus have to ascend to heaven in the first place? It seems like someone who went to all the trouble to be killed and rise from the dead would want to hang around longer than a mere forty days before taking the first flight home. (And this is the traditional period of earthly post-resurrection time. Luke maintains that the Ascension occurred Easter evening!) Anyway, didn't Jesus have more to teach the disciples? Wouldn't his ongoing crucified and risen presence win a few more converts to his side? Couldn't Christianity use someone even today like the Dalai Lama who would speak truth and ooze wisdom for the masses? Jesus seems to be leaving the whole show to a group of guys who frankly do not have an impressive track record for theological insight or fidelity to his teachings. What was Jesus thinking? Why did he leave them there so alone in some field outside of Bethany? Better yet, and this is the question we'll ask if we're honest: Why did he leave us?
I clearly remember my first day of college. In 1975 I chose a school where I did not know a single soul. It seemed to be a great idea at the time of acceptance, but when my parents drove me four hours to a campus of 10,000 strange faces, I wasn't so sure. We piled my stuff into the dorm, walked around a little, had lunch, and said good-bye. I remember watching their license plate until I could see it no longer, knowing I would not be going home until Thanksgiving. It was a tough transition for me, going from the very familiar to the utterly unknown. I was homesick for what once was. I turned and headed to my room, alone. I imagine the disciples felt a little like this as they watched Jesus until he was out of sight.
Jesus loved his disciples. Why did he leave them? He leaves them, I think, because if he stayed around they would never be able to grow in their understanding of God and their understanding of their own mission in the world. If Jesus had stayed, we would always be looking to him -- for the miracle, for the right word, to touch the hem of his garment. If you recall in the Gospels, Jesus never tried to draw attention to himself. His concern was for the disciples and their growth. For that to have a chance of happening, Jesus had to remove himself bodily. He loved his disciples, but he wanted them to grow up.
We all know families, and it's painful to see them, where the parents linger so close and for so long in the lives of their children, well into adulthood, that the children aren't given room to be themselves. "After all I've done for you, the least you could do is ..." When a parent says this, the family has failed. A primary purpose for a family is to allow enough room for the children to grow and become what God is calling them to be. There are families whose members simply will not let each other go. It is good to be close. But each family member also needs room to fly and let God's spirit fill their wings.
Jesus knew this with his disciples. And I frankly think this is one of the main theological functions of the Ascension. It was time for the disciples to be out on their own. Out of Jesus' nest. The disciples surely must have asked each other: "Now what?" It's a good question to be allowed to ask. Many people never get to ask it because all the decisions are made by someone older and wiser or with more authority. That's why Jesus ascended. That's why he got out of the way. To help disciples everywhere discover that Christian mission is in the hands of his witnesses now. We might say, "Please, Jesus, stay with us like you were. Pull all the miracles. Comfort us when we're confused. Be our Big, Safe Teddy Bear. Take all of our tears away." No. The ball is in our court now. "Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" the men in white robes want to know (Acts 1:11).
Nevertheless, remember this. After Jesus ascended, the disciples' relationship with Jesus has changed, but it's important to know they aren't alone. "I will not leave you orphaned," he once said (John 14:18). The disciples weren't alone any more than a freshman college student whose parents leave their son in a strange place with new decisions to make. What's important to see here is that Jesus loves us enough, has enough faith in us, to be his witnesses and carry off his mission in this world.
There will be plenty of times when we shake our heads, look up in the sky, and ask, "Now what, Lord?" Be glad that you can ask such a question. Be glad that someone has given you room to answer it.
1. Hidde Hoekstra, Rembrandt and the Bible (Weert, Netherlands: Magna Books, 1990), p. 435.