“Alleluia. Christ is risen – again!” Did you know Jesus is twice risen? Easter and then forty days later his apostles watch him lift off and rise through the clouds to be with the Father in heaven, where ever that is. It’s called the Ascension. It rates little more than a yawn in the church. Try finding a Happy Ascension Day card at Hallmark to send a friend. It’s a tough story to explain in a world where about all that rises is the cost of gas and taxes.
His apostles thought he’d come back soon to restore the kingdom to Israel and boot out the Romans and pagans. Jesus tells his apostles nicely it’s none of their business. It’s God’s decision. Then he launches up. That’s really being “Left Behind.” Jesus’ words still stand, regardless of hucksters today who try and forecast the rapture or the end of time. Jesus says we are to be witnesses, not speculators.
Two angels have to prod the Apostles on to Jerusalem where Jesus tells them to go wait and pray. They still don’t understand Jesus, and won’t on their own. He tells them to wait and pray because they will be witnesses – to what – that he’s gone again? He’ll be back soon?
The church has never caught on well to waiting and praying. Maybe we don’t know how or for what. We jump right in – as if we need no divine consultant or inspiration. We want things now – immediately, on demand. We don’t have time to pray and wait. Maybe that’s why so many believe all Jesus is good for is to get us to heaven instead hell when we die. He never says that. He says be my witnesses – of God’s love, forgiveness – just accept it. Now go and tell it: Everyone’s in – that’s the good news. Jesus feels more strongly about us being witnesses, than getting our ticket to heaven punched. Besides that’s up to God – we have enough to worry about helping bring heaven to earth here and now.
Jesus ascends to heaven to be with God. That means Jesus is no longer local, time-bound, and restricted to Israel. Jesus is both gone and present at the same time, everywhere, for everyone. But for many, everywhere means nowhere. Can we miss someone we haven’t seen? Yes we can.
Sometimes people leave the church because they feel more shame than love – tired of being told what to do, how bad the world is, and they probably are too. Yet they believe God’s more than that. They leave the church, but find that God never leaves them. As Augustine said our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Some come back, maybe to a different place, because leaving doesn’t satisfy the restlessness. Others who come to church faithfully one day realize they know about Jesus, but don’t really know him. They have no real connection. They know his name, but as a person he’s absent. In the absence they yearn for more, too.
I was talking with some former members of St. Paul’s a while ago, telling them what we are up to now. They shared memories of their experience here – the Christmas Eve star rising, carols, Easter Alleluias, sacred music concerts, the choir, weddings and old friends buried from this church. They tell me they experienced God here. They will always carry that experience especially in dark moments of their lives. They came here, prayed and waited, ate bread and drank wine, shared laughter and tears, raised kids, and found a community of those who try to keep Jesus at the center. They found Jesus to be here – in people, in worship. It’s not enough to intellectually know Jesus. When Jesus left he takes us into a larger world, while at the same time, Jesus comes closer – everywhere, always.
Until last week I thought I was digitally challenged. I learned I am a digital immigrant. If you are born after 1989 you are a digital native. Immigrant or challenged, I feel like a foreigner in cyberspace. I am in a foreign land, trying to learn to live in the land of Digital and speak Digital. Amazing stuff – and my parents died thinking a phone was something you talked on. I recently discovered by touching the phone screen and moving my fingers apart enlarges the picture and distant figures come closer at the same time. Here’s what I realize – that’s like the Ascension. Our world view enlarges and Jesus who goes away comes closer than ever. And as with a smartphone, I know it’s a mystery I can’t explain, just experience. Jesus ascends to raise us up into a larger world that surrounds the present one we live in.
Not everyone believes there’s another world that surrounds this one. We believe it. As Christians, we’re twice risen, too –raised to new life in baptism, and sealed by the spirit to be raised into God’s reign, where love, compassion and justice replace power, force, status and prestige now. The kingdom comes through us until God brings it finally to completion. That’s hard. It takes more than just coming to church. Living in God’s reign, we keep meeting and praying and waiting. We eat bread, drink wine, sing hymns, serve the poor – because that’s where Jesus is, and we want to be with him. He ascends; He empowers us to tell the whole world; and in his name we invite from death into life, just as he has done for us.
So think of Luke the physician, not as a research scientist, but as a writer telling a truth too large to imagine and too great to for our minds to hold. It’s a story to be experienced, not explained. We are raised into God’s reign – a world that is so different and makes everything different, now, not later. We are witnesses – Jesus makes us so. By what others see in us, do you figure they’ll want to be one, too?