Ascension Sunday: Head in the Clouds
Today is a Sunday some folks don’t even remember is part of the Christian year - it’s Ascension Sunday. Ascension Sunday is the day we celebrate the ascension of Jesus. After Easter Sunday, Jesus spends forty days with the disciples, a time period I wish the scriptures said more about. We don’t know much about what Jesus does during this time, except that some people get to see and talk to the resurrected Jesus, and he continues to ready his disciples to receive the Holy Spirit after he’s gone again. And then, forty days after Easter morning, when the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, Jesus says some final words, and is swept up into the clouds.
Ascension Sunday is kind of weird, I think. I think it is weird because it kind of implies that we actually think heaven is just “up there” somewhere, as if if we could pop above the clouds, we’d find heaven. That kind of imagery worked great when you couldn’t get above the clouds, but since we can just take an airplane ride and get above the clouds, and so far I have seen some pretty sights, but no pearly gates when flying, thinking of heaven as “up there” is a little bit limited. Sure, when I was little, it was hard not to picture heaven as something like where the Care Bears lived - everyone just floating around on clouds. But as an adult, I’ve stopped thinking of God’s eternal home as a place I can get to if I go high enough or far enough. I’m guessing you don’t think of it that way either - as a location we could pinpoint on a map. All of this is to say that the Ascension is a little weird because when Jesus returns to heaven and he “ascends” into the clouds in the scripture, we don’t know exactly where it is he’s going up and off to.
Does that change what Ascension means to us? Well, to answer that, we’d have to figure out what Ascension does mean to us. Does it mean something to us? The fact that we sort of forget this liturgical day exists, or the fact that we can sort of pass it over, sort of want to pass it over if anything more interesting to focus on in worship that week arises tells me that it doesn’t hold much space in our hearts. But I feel like there’s really a lot here for us to think about. Think about it this way: After the extreme pain of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, which also involved the betrayal of Jesus by one of their own, and Peter denying Jesus, a low point in his discipleship, after Jesus’ public, tortuous death, the disciples experience the rapturous joy of Jesus’ resurrection. And now he’s going to leave them again.
For nearly a month and a half, it must have seemed to the disciples that they could breathe again. Jesus was not dead, and everything could go back to normal. They would follow him once more. They were not abandoned. Jesus was with them again. But now, he’s leaving again. And although this time he doesn’t die - death has no power over Jesus - and this time he isn’t torn from them through violence, this time, he’s physically gone for good. And this time, it isn’t others who cause Jesus to leave them. He’s choosing to leave them behind, to return to God while leaving them on earth, along with responsibility for the mission. Jesus ascends, and there’s no mistaking that he’s no longer on earth with them. They see it happen. There’s no tomb this time. His body is not on earth. When I think about it this way - about the grief of Jesus leaving them again, I’m both surprised we don’t focus on the Ascension more - because there’s a lot of feelings to connect to in this text, and not surprised - because who wants to dwell on the fact that we’ve been left alone by Jesus on purpose.
So I’m not surprised, then, that the bit of conversation that we get in our text today shows that the disciples are still experiencing a bit of denial about what Jesus has been trying to tell them - about his leaving, about Jesus’ mission, and about what will happen next for the disciples. I don’t know if the disciples knew, when they gathered with Jesus, that this was their last moment with him on earth among them in this way or not. But their question to Jesus suggests at least some - confusion, if not outright denial. They ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They want to know if Jesus is going to set Israel free from rule by the Roman Empire, to set Israel free from oppression at last. It’s a reasonable question on its own - it’s just that Jesus has kind of been answering that question all along, all throughout his ministry. Many people assumed the messiah, the anointed one of God, would come to “restore Israel,” that the whole point of a messiah was restoring Israel, ending the Roman occupation, letting the people hold the land again that God had given them. But Jesus consistently deflected such requests during his earthly ministry, trying to show that he was not that kind of messiah. The kingdom Jesus was about was the one he talks about in his parables: God’s reign brought to earth, not through overthrowing governments, but through persistently trying to make God’s ways our ways.
The disciples, though, can’t seem to help but ask again. Because Jesus is now leaving earth, and still, the people are oppressed. Still, Rome is in charge. Has God’s messiah come and gone from earth, and nothing changed? Maybe Jesus has been saving the restoring of Israel for the very last thing. Or maybe they can just go with Jesus. If he’s going to God’s eternal home, a place where surely everything is set to rights, maybe they can just go with him! Jesus has conquered death, so they just can go straight to heaven, ditch this messy earth, and get to the time when God magically makes everything right, fixing what everyone else has screwed up for so long. Jesus corrects their thinking though saying, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set for the unfolding of things. Instead - you’ll receive power from the Holy Spirit, and you’ll do the work of witnessing to what I’ve been doing among you. You’ll carry my message to the whole world!” After he’s whisked away, the disciples are left looking up into the sky, perhaps trying to keep their eyes on him until the very last second when he disappears from their sight. But as they’re standing there, eyes fixed on the clouds, two of God’s messengers, what we call angels, appear and break their reverie: “Hey! Why are you still staring at the sky? Jesus will return eventually, but not right now. Get a move on!” (That’s the Pastor Beth paraphrase.)
And here, I think, is the tension of Christian discipleship: We want to keep our eyes fixed on heaven, fixed on God’s home, fixed on this place of perfection where everything is finally restored. Oppression and struggle and tyranny and hatred and violence - we long for God to bring these injustices to an end. We long for peace and love and harmony, and we’re pretty sure we’ll experience all that with God. And so if Jesus is leaving for elsewhere, we want to go with him. The disciples might have wanted to literally go, right then. And we, I think, while maybe not ready to check out of this world, are happy to have our heads in the proverbial clouds, thinking of how perfect things will be when God gets God’s way and sets everything to rights.
And yet: Jesus who ascends to the clouds calls us to keep our feet set firmly on the ground, because while Jesus cast a vision, we’re the witnesses Jesus has appointed to carry out that vision. Do we want to see things restored to God’s vision of justice and righteousness for all? Well, what will we do to see it happen? How will we recognize our own part in the brokenness of the world around us? I keep thinking of the words of a song written by Carl Daw Jr., that was adapted in a beautiful arrangement by Mark Miller, the professor of church music at Drew. The first verse goes, “Till all the jails are empty and all the bellies filled; till no one hurts or steals or lies, and no more blood is spilled; till age and race and gender no longer separate; till pulpit, press, and politics are free of greed and hate: God has work for us to do. The rest of the verses are equally compelling I think. God has work for us to do. We’re part of God’s vision for restoring the world. Jesus promises to equip us with the Holy Spirit. And Jesus promises that even though he’s not walking this earth in the same way beside us, instead he is within us. God is within us. God’s Spirit is within us, closer than ever. The clouds - heaven - God’s home? God’s home is in our heart, and we’re in God’s heart, already.
So I think we can have our head proverbially in the clouds, and our feet proverbially on the ground, as we serve as the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, doing God’s work, even as we long to draw closer and closer to God. God longs for that too - to have our whole heart and soul. And God knows just how that closeness will come about - through our lives spent loving God by loving one another, feet on the ground, clouds in our heart, committed to carrying out the work of Jesus until God’s vision is our reality. God has work for us to do. Amen.