“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven?’”
Wade in the Kingdom
I struggle with this text. As it turns out, I don’t have a lot of stories about defying gravity and ascending, with the help of a cloud elevator, to the realm of God. In fact, I don’t particularly like flying at all, so this story strikes in me a sense of horror. I am well accustomed to the ground, I like for my feet to feel the earth, I’d rather look straight ahead than up above or down below. So, given my gravitational limitations, I’ll begin this morning with David Foster Wallace, and his (dare I say it) parable of the fish: “This is Water”
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’
Now the disciples have grown accustomed to their upside-down reality. They’ve encountered Jesus, followed him about, despaired at his death and rejoiced at his resurrection. And after those three horrible days they found in all of the subsequent days a insatiable craving for Jesus’ presence, challenging and curmudgeonly though he could be. He’d been preforming miracles since that day and teaching too. As with his life before his death, his life on the other side of death was centered around the Kingdom. He’d told them to stick around Jerusalem, which was strange given how haunted, how heavy the place was. This was, after all, the place where he’d been flogged and tortured, where he’d been crucified. It was the place of his grave. But he’d commanded them to stick around, and this time they’d paid attention. So the disciples listened and followed and watched and waited.
They’d gotten used to this strange pattern. They enjoyed Jesus’ presence. It was comforting. I imagine not a few of them had considered that his resurrection might mean something for their own lives beyond the grave or, perhaps even their continued lives without a grave at all. So they’d gladly wait with him, remain in Jerusalem with Jesus forever and ever amen.
“The point of the fish story”, suggests Wallace, “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to talk about.”
They heard Jesus talking about the Kingdom in those 40 days, talking about the coming of the Spirit and the need to witness, but they’d heard him talk Kingdom before, so they weren’t surprised. Their world was this man, and his absence, a second absence, a long absence, was outside of their imaginings. But on that particular day Jesus, the old, wise fish, swam along: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now […] 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.’”
They weren’t getting this new talk of Kingdom. Deaf by perceived familiarity with the subject, they missed a distinctly post-Easter spin: when Jesus spoke of the Spirit he spoke of empowerment to witness, empowerment to go out to the corners of this big wide world and proclaim a reconciliation achieved. And if they were going out to the wide world empowered by the Spirit, then that meant Jesus wasn’t with them—at least not as he had been.
The disciples were wading on the Kingdom’s shores, about to be flooded by the Tide of the Spirit and they didn’t even know it.
The Ascension is a turning point in the history of salvation. It formally closes the time of Easter, and, as such, it is the culmination of the Incarnation. It is as important as Christmas, as important as Good Friday, as important as Easter. We would not properly understand any one of these things without Jesus’ returning, in his human body, to the realm from whence he came. Yet Ascension is almost entirely overlooked—perhaps because it is so foreign, so absurd to modern sensibilities. Or perhaps it’s fear, fear that Jesus has left us, fear that stops our feet to the ground and leaves our necks craned and aching. Because we, too, are swimming neck deep in the Kingdom and, like the disciples, it seems that we aren’t quite sure what to do about it.
In the event of Easter we gazed into the empty tomb. Behind it we saw the void of Hell, emptied through Jesus’ redemptive death. In the Ascension our gaze shifts again, from the God in flesh who once walked the earth to the buzzing heavens above. For only there will we find the Incarnate Son, returned to the Father from whence he could govern the world.
Now that’s no easy thing to comprehend. It is, I’d wager, nearly incomprehensible. For goodness sake, Jesus up and floated to heaven in the middle of a sentence. He floated until a cloud came and obscured him from the disciples (whose ears were still strained to hear that incessant Kingdom talk).
Clouds have a history in Israel. When the Hebrews were fleeing from Pharaoh they were guided by the Lord, shrouded in a cloud. When Moses goes up the mountain it is haloed by clouds. Clouds serve the dual purpose of shrouding God’s form and signifying his Presence. Clouds contain within them the promise of glory—the anticipated breaking open of what is within. And this cloud is no different. The cloud that obscures Jesus buzzes with promise. Yes, he is gone now. Gone definitively. Jesus, who was just here—he isn’t here anymore. But, as those two strange men remind us, he will return again.
And in the meantime he does not leave us alone. For that mid-sentence promise was one of profound presence. Jesus was not resurrected for the disciples alone. He did not just come for them, for their time and place and benefit. He came for the world, for all of the times and places and spaces that he ordained in the time before time. And the means of that proliferation of good will, that gift of salvation in the absence of the Savior, is none other than the Spirit. The Spirit binds the Father to the Son and the Father and the Son to the world they created.
Now when those disciples, toes already in the Kingdom, heard about baptism in the Spirit, they assumed that the coming of the Spirit would inaugurate Israel’s longed-for reign. They thought “Kingdom” was all about acquisition of territory and military dominance. The Spirit would bring Israel’s Kingdom and usher in the end of the world.
But Jesus, whose world ever expanded outward, had no view for earthly powers and territorial principalities. “‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.’” It turns out the Kingdom, the Kingdom inaugurated in Jesus’ baptism by John, isn’t about military power, it’s about the power of the word, the power to proclaim, the power to preach an already-achieved forgiveness and reconciliation to a far-off world.
So our gazes must shift one final time. From the buzzing cloud of the ascendent God we we must ever look outward. To Jerusalem. And Judea. And Samaria. And the ends of the earth.
The ascension inaugurated the time of discipleship, and discipleship is marked by mission. The disciples, still wading in the Kingdom’s water, must’ve realized in that ascendant moment that the Empty tomb was not just for them. It was theirs first, but no less for the world. And it conferred a responsibility, a call to live outwardly, and the promise of accompanying power. “He may be a hearer of the Word”, wrote Barth, “to become a doer”.
We’re sinners, all of us. We fall short of God’s glory. We don’t live up to the great gift given in Christ Jesus. And we know it. So we remain silent, afraid that to witness to the faith that changed our lives because we have failed to live up to its promise. But in the ascension, and in Pentecost, we are given power that transcends all of our doubting. We are given the Spirit.
So the disciples suddenly noticed to men, like the ones at the empty tomb, that other confounding absence. Jesus is gone, and with Mary and Martha and the 11 aren’t sure what to do about it. 2000 years later, neither are we.
And the men tell us simply “‘This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’”. That’s the promise. Just as he left he will return. As the Incarnate Son, as the Redeemer, Jesus Christ will return. But for now, we must rest in faith. Rest in the promise of the ever-present Spirit. Rest in the power that compels us to testify to the Kingdom, with its mercy and kindness and love and forgiveness, with its justice and righteousness and peace here and now. Rest in our doubts and in our certainties that somehow, someday he will return and the world will be reconciled once and for all.
The disciples waded in the Kingdom until the fire of Pentecost plunged them into its depths. And we’ve too’ve been floating in that pool, vaguely aware of our own Power, having experienced hints and winks of Kingdom glory. And while we don’t have Jesus in the flesh we have the promise of his presence in faith and the seal of the Spirit in power. And until he returns, in this in-between time, we are to be his witnesses. We’re to swim in this great Kingdom, boundless and ever-expanding, inquiring as we go, “Morning, how’s the water?”