As the book of Acts tells it, Jesus’ ascension occurs without much bravado.
You recall that after his resurrection, Jesus logs about six more weeks with his disciples to prepare them for his imminent departure: there is plenty of final teaching, eating and dreaming to do.
But the final question his disciples pose to him before he’s beamed up to heaven is not inspiring. In fact, it’s a bit thick-headed. They ask, So, Jesus, we know you’re about to leave, but is this finally the time that you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?
They are still hung up on quick fixes, on flashy outcomes, on a Savior who waves his magic wand and does the heavy lifting for them.
So Jesus sets them straight by reminding them that timing isn’t for them to worry about. Their job, in this interim time, is simple: witness to my love for all people and enact my dreams for the world.
With his final words ringing in their ears, Jesus is suddenly taken up and gone for good. The striking scene we are left with is his bevy of disciples staring up at the empty sky, squinting with all their might to catch a final glimpse of him. They didn’t really get a chance to say goodbye.
Growing up in Minnesota, I learned from an early age the art and duration of a bona fide goodbye. We did our goodbyes in stages – the initial verbal goodbye, the goodbye in the kitchen after forcing leftovers on our guest, the goodbye-hug at the door after putting on a coat, the goodbye-hug at the car and finally the goodbye-wave as the car pulled out of the cul-de-sac.
That’s how we politely say goodbye in Minnesota: by doing so as slowly as possible, by dragging it out as long as we can. Jesus’ tactics – I think it goes without saying – would not fly where I grew up.
Yet, in between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus does prepare his closest friends for his departure, for the day when he would no longer be with them physically to share the good news, heal the sick and feed the hungry. That mission would now fall to them. He would say his goodbyes and hand off the baton.
In the church, we are always tempted to look up, searching for some divine sign, when God usually wants us to look down and love our human neighbors.
We need to be kept from staring into the empty skies of our past and strengthened to envision the sunny skies of our future. We need to hold our feet to the fire, so we don’t dawdle and grow complacent. We need to learn to live in the tension of a world full of alreadys-but-not-yets.
What finally jerks the disciples out of their collective stare into the empty sky is the voice of two celestial strangers.
They shout, Hey, you Galileans! What are you doing, staring aimlessly into the clear blue sky? You know how this story ends. Don’t worry – Jesus will be back, but in a way just as mysteriously as he left. So put it out of your mind. Now’s the time not to look up, but to look around you to a world in need.
There’s a reoccurring line in one of my all-time favorite television shows, The West Wing. The main character, President Jed Bartlet, played brilliantly by Martin Sheen, in several different episodes turns to his staff after accomplishing something significant and says, So, what’s next? Though grateful for the accomplishment, Bartlet doesn’t want to squander any time. So he continually asks, What’s next?
That’s part of our calling: to discern what’s next for us. To discover how we can remain faithful in this new time and place. To carry on the mission that Christ handed off to our ancestors so long ago. To so pray and love and give and serve that God’s dreams for the world come true.
In the words of a prayer by Teresa of Avila, that inimitable 16th-century Spanish mystic, God of love, help us to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world. Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
May all of us be those hands, those feet and those eyes to everyone we encounter in Fort Wayne and beyond today, tomorrow and forever. Amen.