This is the text of the reflection I perpared for the West Wimmera Health Service (Kaniva Hospital) Day Centre service of worship on 4th June 2019. I didn’t present it as I was called away that morning for a pastoral need.
Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11
Have you ever been told a story that has left you wanting more? You know, the broad brush-strokes are there, and maybe the point of the story has actually been shared, so you do know what’s going on; but somehow you’re still left wanting more? Is that a familiar experience for you, do you know what I’m talking about?
Thursday last week was the feast of the Ascension in the calendars of those churches which celebrate such things. It’s not a big deal in the Uniting Church, and it’s no deal whatsoever in the Churches of Christ, but the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and the various national forms of Eastern Orthodoxy tend to get excited about such things. If you don’t know what ascension is then let me tell you, it’s the anniversary of the day when Jesus returned to Heaven for the final time after his resurrection. Ascension is forty days after Easter, and ten days before Pentecost, and since both of those vents are always on a Sunday Ascension is always on a Thursday. So it’s easy to overlook if you’re not looking for it especially, it’s never a Sunday thing so it can be left alone. But I think that’s a shame, because I like ascension.
It seems that Theophilus, the addressed recipient of the gospel according to Luke also liked ascension, because the accounts of it appear in both Luke and Acts. It’s as if there was a reply to the first book where old mate Theo said “ta for the Jesus story, but I’m a bit confused about the end part: what happened when he went back to Heaven the last time?” Then the author, maybe Luke, wrote a bit more detail in the first chapter of Acts before going on to describe the coming of the Spirit on the Church at Pentecost in Acts 2, and then on with the rest of the book as a rundown on the activities of some of the apostles.
In the first story, recorded in Luke 24:50-53 and describing an event that takes place in the evening of Easter Day, Jesus simply steps away from the group and then goes up. Previously on that day Jesus had walked out of the tomb and bypassed the garden, (it’s actually angels who speak to the women), and appeared on the Emmaus road. After walking to Emmaus he vanishes, only to reappear in Jerusalem where he eats some fish, leads a Bible study, and then takes the group out to Bethany where he speaks a blessing over the disciples and then steps out of view. It’s no wonder that Theophilus needs a bit more information.
In the second story, recorded in Acts 1:1-11, there’s a brief recap of the whole of Luke in Acts 1:1-2, and then we get a bit more info about that final few hours. The first thing we are told, in Acts 1:3, is that the ascension takes place forty days after the resurrection and does not occur on Easter Day evening at all. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction, the two books have different points to make and the emphasis on events is different. Jesus commands the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes with baptism, and they ask when the Kingdom will come, and he says that that’s not their concern but that they will be involved in its arrival. Then, as in the first story, Jesus goes up, and again like the Easter story angels appear and ask why the disciples are looking for someone who obviously isn’t there: Acts 1:11 and Luke 24:5b.
So, two stories with basically the same plot, told by the same teller to the same hearer: the second story filling in some of the gaps left by the first, but making the same point. And what is that point? The point is that Jesus is bodily removed from Earth now, he’s no longer here like he was before the crucifixion, and he’s no longer here in his risen form which can eat fish and appear in locked rooms or alongside open highways at will. But God is still with us, in the form of the Holy Spirit who came and filled these same men ten days after and who has never returned to Heaven without returning again to Earth. The ascending Christ, risen and glorified, is seen in the descending Spirit, powerful and glorious, and that experience, that vision, that presence and comfort will never be taken from the Earth until the fullness of the Kingdom comes to complete the work of Christ.
The message is lift up your heads, not to look at the empty sky, but to look away from the sorrowful ground. There is no need to fear, there is no need to despair, there is no need to feel alone or abandoned. The risen one now sits enthroned in Heaven it is true, but the king on his throne is a good thing; and the blessing of Father, Son, and Spirit almighty which Jesus prayed over his friends in his final human words on earth remains upon us always.