Reading the Bible is like being at a family reunion. No one tells the same story the exact same way. There are no two people who think the same way about everything--but we are a Christian family, and by the time we leave that family reunion we are missing each other already. We turn around for one last look as we are parted; we watch for the last glimpse of a figure at the door, as we are pulled apart. We stare after that glimpse until we are sure we won’t see it again… and then, we turn back to life, and ask ourselves how to stay faithful to the experience.
If you were here last Sunday, I warned you: Ascension is a story Presbyterians could argue about, if they were inclined. Here in this very room, full of good people, there are faithful Christians who believe that this is a literal story of Jesus’ body being raised up to heaven; who believe this is a metaphor for Jesus’ reunion with God; who believe this is a vision, rather than a literal report of fact; who believe that this was just an embellishment, and nothing more, by well-meaning early writers. All these groups believe there is a truth in it, but what kind of truth is something Presbyterians can comfortably differ about.
More than most other miracles, people wonder about this one. The ascension is such a weird miracle, in that it just seems more like the work of a good magician than a caring God. If God is going to hand us a miracle, let it be my little friend’s cancer, or my grandbaby’s health problems. Let it be a family about to be evicted who are suddenly given a home, or someone needing a car to get to work and suddenly getting one, or a farmer whose entire livelihood was lost to a cyclone, and had decided to accept that he and his family were going to starve to death. Let miracles be about healing, an active shooter whose gun suddenly breaks, needed rain that suddenly falls from the sky… not flying into the sky like Superman. That may be why it isn’t officially a Sunday of the church calendar. Ascension, officially, was two days ago; it doesn’t get a Sunday, maybe because it’s seen as being mostly palatable for the particularly devout--after all, why invite dissent?
But we can handle dissent--we are perfectly comfortable differing with one another... and still, when the time comes, we leave missing each other, wishing we could stay… staring after that glimpse of the figure in the doorway until we are sure we won’t see it again, and then returning to life trying to hold the experience in our everyday. We are family; we are strong for each other.
I want to talk this morning about why the Ascension might have happened--what reason there could be behind it. We all believe there is some kind of truth in it--so what is its importance, and why might it have had a place in God’s story to tell us--that, at the end of Jesus’ time with us, the apostles watched him go in this way.
Remember the stories that all the apostles, students of the Jewish scriptures, had been steeped in from birth in long Saturdays of keeping sabbath. One of them was the story of Elijah and Elisha. For Elisha, seeing Elijah’s ascent--actually witnessing it with his own eyes--was a sign for him that he would have a strong share, a double portion, of God’s spirit--that God would remain with him in power. Here are the disciples, losing Jesus once again--they will need it. They will need a sign of strength, something they can remind each other about. Because when they, or we, get to that place in life, where we are facing darkness head-on, walking into it next to someone we know or love, or trying our best to make it on our own, we will need to know that there is a caring spirit with us--something connected, strong, present. A double share of the spirit, left to be present with us. This image would not have been lost on the apostles.
Jesus says as much to them, just before he goes: “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.” This is the last thing he is remembered to have said, before he left--this text that echoes the meaning of Elijah’s flight.
There is also the pastoral issue of honoring the body. We have been known to denigrate these fleshy homes we are given. The Bible tells us that we are each as beautiful as the lilies of the field, but most of us don’t easily believe it. Flowers, we know, are universally beautiful. Birds are beautiful. Pets are beautiful, and leaves and nuts and clouds and everything Sir David Attenborough narrates for us is magnificent, wondrous, perfect… but not us, we think. We have a different measuring stick for how we ought to look--something like Idris Elba or Meghan Markle at their best, we think, and then we come up short in comparison, when we wipe a spot clean on the bathroom mirror after a shower, and look at ourselves. But Jesus is inseparable. He’s not a double-layered Christ, separated out into rough old flesh wrapped like phyllo dough around some glorious spirit that ascends--his body, your body, is honored and beautiful, perfectly fit for heaven.
But beyond that still, there is the simple gift that God lets us see him go. When the tomb was found empty at Easter, everything was about questions, curiosity, mystery. This time, it isn’t; this second time, following the mystery, there is nothing concealed; there is only God, hiding nothing, pulling no tricks.
We instinctively know the importance of this, without having thought about it. When we have important guests, we walk them to the door when they must go. And when we are going to miss someone very much, we stand at the door or even run to the corner and wave, catching the very last glimpses we can of them, looking after them long after they are gone. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” After all, they have been given a commission: “Be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria--everywhere.”
When you are going to lose someone, you want to be there when they go. Husbands, wives, children, parents, sisters and brothers--they sleep in chairs in hospitals so that they are there, so that no one has to go alone. They wake up with achy necks, and eat bagged snacks from vending machines for meals, and they forget themselves and their own needs in their desire to sit beside someone they love--because they want to be there for every minute they have, right to the end. They want to cherish the time together. They do not want a friend to be alone. Remember how the disciples already messed that one up, once? This time, they don’t.
Pastoral care: God gives them another chance, and they see it all, full of glory.
This is how it is for us, with those we love. When they go, we turn around for one last look as we are parted; we watch for the last glimpse of a figure at the door, as we are pulled apart. We stare after that glimpse until we are sure we won’t see it again… and then, eventually, we turn back to life, and look around at our worlds, and ask ourselves:
How can we stay faithful to the experience? How can we keep that love alive?
… and the answer, of course, is that we must become it.