“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
This of course is the Ascension, when Jesus was taken up bodily into heaven. As I read this story, I find myself wondering about the state of mind of the apostles. Remember that, while we have the benefit of history to use as a lens, the apostles did not have this same opportunity. For them it was not history, but the present. And their present was a time of unbelievable turmoil. They were living through what was likely some of the worst times of their lives.
The disciples had been living quiet lives as fishermen, tax collectors or simple peasants when they were called to follow this strange man from Galilee. And they left their nets and their homes and went. They had no idea what was in store for them, but they found this man strangely compelling and his message of love and peace from God attracted them. As the weeks turned to months, they listened to him teaching and observed his acts of kindness and mercy and they began to wonder if this might be the Messiah that had long been promised to Israel.
We know of course that they were right, that Jesus was the Messiah, but remember that they were not looking at this as history, they were living it. And so they waited and wondered. If he was the Messiah, they were convinced that the deliverance of Israel was at hand, as the Messiah was certain to overthrow the romans. Remember that this tiny country, populated by God’s chosen people, had been conquered at various times by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans. As God’s chosen ones, they were certain that a Messiah would come and restore the Kingdom to Israel, and that was their fervent wish. Again, we have the lens of history to tell us that Jesus did bring about the kingdom, not of Israel, but of God. But that was beyond the disciple’s comprehension at the time.
As Jesus’ popularity increased, they were proud of their master and enjoyed their travels with him throughout Judea and Samaria, and they were especially excited at the triumphant way he had been welcomed into Jerusalem before the Passover. It seemed clear that he was a beloved figure and the disciples must have been anxiously awaiting what would come next now that they had been so warmly welcomed into the city of the powerful.
And then, what had been a wondrous time, turned to fear and tragedy virtually overnight. Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified while the disciples stood by in horror and ran away in fear for their own lives. To make matters worse, one of their own had betrayed him and they were left without a leader, wondering if they were next to be arrested and killed. So they hid from the world, with no idea what to do or where to go next.
And then, a miracle beyond their comprehension. The tomb was empty and Jesus, having risen from the dead, appeared to them alive and healthy. Sorrow was turned to joy and they now knew, without any further doubt, that Jesus was the son of God. No one had overcome the power of death, and they now understood that their hopes had been true. Jesus was the Messiah, and all that was left now was for him to overthrow the romans and return the kingdom to Israel.
But they were to be frustrated once again. For we know that the kingdom Jesus would bring was not an earthly one, but a divine one. Rather than lead the overthrow of the romans, the disciples watch as Jesus is taken up bodily into heaven on a cloud, without having done what they expected him to do.
Luke tells the story of the Ascension twice, once in the Gospel and again in Acts. In the Gospel he says that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. In Acts, he simply says that they returned to Jerusalem. It seems like a small thing to leave out the joy part, but I think it is realistic. These people, the men and women who had been with Jesus for months and years, following him, learning from him and caring for him, had just been through the most extraordinary experience of their lives. They had gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, only to return to even higher heights of joy at the resurrection. And now, they found themselves once again parting from their Lord, this time with a degree of permanence. And yet, the work they had expected him to do was still not done.
I don’t know about you, but I expect that if I went through all that they went through, I would be physically and emotionally exhausted. I might just fall down on the spot and not move again. But that is not what happened. For even though they still didn’t understand everything, they were changed by their shared experience. Jesus had given them a mission, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And he had promised them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them.
They had no idea what the future held for them. One thing was certain, their experience of the flesh and blood presence of Jesus was ended. The physical ascension of Jesus body into heaven was an ending, but it was also a beginning. While they would not have the physical Jesus to guide them, they would have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit would give them power to accomplish Jesus work on earth and to support them in all things. They also knew that Jesus had gone ahead of them to the Father and would be waiting to welcome them when their time on earth was over. “In my Father’s house are many rooms, and I go before you to prepare a place for you.” They now knew that there was no reason to fear death, as Jesus would be waiting for them in Heaven.
And so the disciples, no longer living in fear, returned to Jerusalem to await the coming of the Spirit. They knew they would suffer, they knew their path would not be easy, but they also knew that the spirit would give them power to accomplish great things, and they knew that Jesus and the Father waited for them in heaven. That is how Peter, poor all too human Peter who once was so afraid for himself that he denied the Lord three times, could say to us “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you; after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.”
Returning to our lens of history, we know that the ministry and travels of the apostles would be anything but easy. They would be cursed and spit on, chased out of towns, arrested and jailed and some would be killed. But they never lost faith and they never stopped acting as Jesus’ witnesses throughout the world.
In time, each of them died and returned to heaven. But the mission remains. It is our task now to take up that mission and to be Jesus’ witnesses to the world. We who have been changed by our relationship with Jesus Christ have a responsibility to share the gospel with others that they too may experience the power and joy of Christ’s presence in their life. And like the apostles, we too have the power of the Holy Spirit, given to us in baptism, to guide and strengthen us.
There will be times of great suffering in our lives. Our plans will be frustrated. We will not always get what we want, or even what we think we need. We too will suffer through fiery ordeals. But like the apostles did, we can rely upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives to strengthen and empower us, and we know that the Father and the Son wait to welcome us to heaven when our time on earth is over.