Hello, again! I am Jim Jelinek, Interim Rector of Trinity Church, Newport, RI, where I serve with my colleague The Rev. Alan Neale. Today is the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into heaven, and unfortunately, because it falls on a weekday, it is one of the least observed or celebrated of the major events in Jesus’ life.
There are two accounts of the Ascension in scripture, one in the first chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles [1:6-11], and the other in the last verses of the last chapter of the Gospel according to Luke [24:50-53]. I shall read the passage from the Book of Acts:
Jesus said, “This is what you have heard from me; 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 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.”
Here ends the reading.
The version in Luke is a little different, some last teaching, the promise that they will be “clothed with power from on high,” [a reference to their baptism in the Holy Spirit], and concluding like this:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. There ends the Gospel of Luke.
These are not really very different. In both Jesus assures the disciples that they will be given power from above, that they will have new energy, new insight, a greater ability to preach, teach and heal, and then Jesus is gone. They attest to seeing him rise and then disappear.
I like the little added piece in Acts. The two men are possibly the two angels who met the women as they went to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. Certainly, they are again dressed in white, the color associated with angels, they are messengers, which is the work of angels, and they reassure the disciples just as they did the women.
The question they ask is fascinating: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” That’s a question we might answer with “DUH!” They were probably trying to see if Jesus was still visible somewhere. And their hearts and their spirits were probably still longing for him to be there with them in the now. They seem not to have been sad, but a part of them seems to have gone with Jesus as he disappeared from view.
There are two major teachings about this day. One of them, to put it in rather a crass manner, is that God is getting Jesus out of the way. Think of it, as long as Jesus was with them, they depended on him to do all the teaching, preaching and healing. Yes, they had had a good experience when he sent them out into the countryside to practice what they were learning in his seminary of the streets. But think of their awe of him and what they were experiencing of his spiritual energy. Surely, they were constantly comparing themselves to him and finding themselves like a shadow rather than the real thing. But once Jesus was out of their sight, out of their daily lives as a physical presence, they had to learn how to experience him in a new way. They had to learn that he is inside, inside each of them. My sense of the follow up to the question about looking up is a directive from the men in white: “Look inside you. That’s where Jesus is. Look around you into the eyes and hearts of your friends. That’s where Jesus is, inside them, too.” The disciples had to learn to see in a new way; they had to trust that what Jesus promised them about their spiritual energy was true.
And that is true for each of us who loves and follows Jesus.
The other major teaching is in one of the Collects in the BCP for this day. I shall pray it in a minute, but the powerful image we are given is this: that Jesus “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” Jesus is no longer confined by time or space. He can be everywhere at once, listening to my prayers at the same time as he listens to yours, caring for each and all of us with the same love, the same intensity, the same mercy and the same grace.
St. Paul carries this even further in his Letter to the Colossians [3:11]: “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Let us pray.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things; Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.
Thank you for visiting and sharing this time together. I hope you are staying safe and are staying well. God’s every blessing to you.