So there we were at Passover. Peter and John went and got all of the things required for us to eat, like the lamb. We got the room ready and prepared for the feast. Here we are getting ready to enjoy the Passover meal when Jesus drops a bomb on us. He informed us that it would be his last meal. He wouldn’t be eating again until he was in the Kingdom of God. Then he broke bread and we ate. Like it was No big deal! After dinner he dropped the second big one of the night. He decided to inform us that one of us would betray him. Obviously, all of us fought about it. Why would any of us betray him? In the end, of course, he was right. Judas betrayed him and Peter disowned him. The next day, Jesus was beaten and crucified, died and was placed in the tomb. And then, something crazy happened. Days later he was back with us. We all got back together in Jerusalem and he showed us his hands and his feet to prove to us that he was Jesus. We had 40 great days with Jesus. He was back with us again and it was fantastic. Everything made sense again. And then he went poof.
I mean he told us that everything that was written about him would come true and that he would send what his father had promised but I wasn’t expecting him to just disappear. He brought us to Bethany and blessed us and then all of a sudden he was taken up to heaven. He was right in front of us and then he ascended into Heaven and all that was left was a cloud. It was like he went poof.
In the book of Acts, Luke gives an official account of what happened, but Luke was a well-educated doctor. That is what I think it would sound like if one of the other, not as educated, disciples narrated what happened during the ascension.
Ascension Sunday is not one of those days on the liturgical calendar that I get excited for. It’s not like Lent or Advent where there is a whole season for it. It’s not like Easter or Christmas where there is a whole lot of attention given to it. Heck, it’s not even like Pentecost where there are special pageants or special clothes. It feels like it’s just a random day. Some random Sunday between Easter and Pentecost without any flair added to it. When Cindy asked me to preach today I said sure but once I realized that it was ascension Sunday I regretted it a bit. Ascension Sunday? Why? Is it really all that big of a deal? Maybe I should leave the lectionary and preach on something I want to preach on. The way we thought in Jesus’ times and the way we think today are totally different, does it even matter anymore? But, No. It is ascension Sunday and that’s what I’ll do.
Alright, so picture this. The world is flat. We all believe that the earth is simply a flat surface. We know this to be truth. Our parents knew this to be true and so did their parents. But there is a dome over us. This dome covers all of the earth-disc. It prevents all of the waters circling our disc from crashing in on us. It keeps all of the chaos out. Everything is simple. We are here, on our disc, and God is above us, outside of the dome. In a way, God is the dome because He holds the chaos away from us. In a world that had almost no scientific knowledge…this made perfect sense!
When European missionaries first arrived in Africa they faced many obstacles. In South Africa they faced a particular issue that was difficult to overcome. The natives of South Africa, the Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho believed that God, whom they referred to as Nkulunkulu or the biggest one, lived in the ground. Caves and holes were known sacred spaces and were decorated to show respect. Whenever a villager was faced with an obstacle they would go to a cave in their homeland, and in order to ask for advice they would pour beer to the ground. This was very difficult for the missionaries who were to preach that God lives in the sky and that there is actually a place called Hell (something that these tribes had never heard of) and it is deep in the ground, not God.
That makes teaching the ascension rather difficult. I’m guessing that they were as confused as I was. When I think about it, God being in the ground makes sense to me. Man was made in the image of God, man was made with dust. All things beautiful grow out of the ground. Nkulunkulu makes sense. But the European missionaries did not feel that way so the notion of God in the sky, right outside of our lovely little dome spread.
The Acts account of the ascension has Jesus literally being swept out of sight. One second he is there praying with his friends and then the next poof he’s up in the clouds, above the dome. Now I don’t know about you but I’ve never seen anyone poof out of sight. None of my friends have managed to figure out how to ascend into the clouds. It is hard to relate to this whole notion of Jesus ascending into the clouds. To the first century thinkers, it made total sense. They thought heaven was directly above the earth. In that case it would only make sense that Jesus would be swept up into the clouds to return to God. Even though we still point up when we talk about Heaven or look up when talking to or about God, we know that you can’t just float up high enough and reach heaven…just the stratosphere. This just makes everything even more difficult to understand, which makes me like it even less.
I read the Acts passage over and over trying to break it down. Trying to understand what this whole ascension business means and then finally one line got my attention. So right after Jesus goes poof, the disciples are staring up at the sky and two men, dressed all in white appear and say “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Right, duh, we knew that. Jesus said that the Kingdom would be restored but not when. Well, Jesus ascended, will come back at some point and the Holy Spirit will be with us in the meantime. We should probably get down to business and keep doing all of the things Jesus told us to do.
In a way He did leave a to-do list. He wanted the disciples to continue doing the things they were doing while He was with them. There is preaching and converting, baptizing and teaching. They’ve got to continue spreading the Good News. As Christians we need to work on that to-do list as well. While, all of us are not expected to go travel in pairs converting, preaching and baptizing, spreading the good news is on the list. Acting justly, being loving, being merciful, and walking humbly. Yeah, those are all things on our to-do list.
Now, I think of the ascension as the kick-off of our preparation time. It’s sort of like a huge rally day. We aren’t sure how long out preparation time is, but we know that we are preparing for Jesus’ return. We are making ourselves and the world better so that when Jesus returns we will be ready. Enough looking at the sky, time to roll our sleeves up and love our neighbor. Our tasks are pretty simple. They are really things that we are all ready doing. I guess in a way, Ascension Sunday is our yearly reminder: Jesus is going to return and we’ve got things to do to get ready but the Holy Spirit is with us to guide us every step of the way.