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Ascension: The Great Day of Honesty

If Jesus is making a way for us, are we following it?

by Danielle Shroyer

New Testament Reading: Acts 1:6-14

For Sunday, June 5, 2011  Year AEaster 7

There are some stories in Scripture that veer into what I call “Fringe” territory; unknown, supernatural stuff we don’t have names for except to say they are strange, and we don’t know what to make of them.  Welcome to the Ascension, where that kind of thing happens.

Wha???

In our reading from Acts, the disciples first ask Jesus whether it’s time for the kingdom to be restored. They’re like little kids on a long car ride, constantly asking, “Are we there yet?” Jesus gives his usual answer- it’s not for them to know- but he says the Spirit is coming to help them, and they will be his witnesses to the end of the earth.  And then…drumroll please…Jesus is lifted up in a cloud and disappears from sight. (Wha???)  The disciples find themselves obviously gazing up at this incredible scene, when two white-robed men then appear (Wha???) and ask them, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

“Dear white-robed guys, who appear out of nowhere, WE’RE WATCHING JESUS FLOAT AWAY IN A CLOUD—that’s why!”

(I mean really, the fact that the disciples are intently watching this happen is the very least crazy, the very most rational thing going on around here.)

Moving on…the robed guys also tell the disciples that Jesus will return in the same way they saw him leave.  And then the disciples return to Jerusalem, to the upstairs room, with no further commentary. (Wha???)

The Great Day of Honesty

I confess to being rather obsessed with the whole idea of the Ascension. How do we understand Jesus’ absence?  Why does nobody talk about it?  What does it all mean, anyway? I’ve begun a little campaign in recent years to call Ascension the Great Day of Honesty, where we all admit out loud that Jesus isn’t here, and we all wish he were, because most of the time we have no idea what we are doing.  It hasn’t caught on yet.  Maybe that’s because it’s too hard for us to say, and we’d rather say things like “Jesus is near to us in our hearts.” I personally think one day of honestly staring that truth in the face might do all of us a bit of good. It certainly makes you feel a lot more responsible, the truth that Jesus expects us—US—to hold down the fort.  There’s only one catch- if we’re going to be true to the way the story unfolds, the Great Day of Honesty shouldn’t lead us to despair or resignation.

Do Not Despair

In fact, what happens to the disciples is just the opposite.  They go back to their beloved upper room and constantly devote themselves to prayer.  And soon, Pentecost happens just like Jesus promised, and they find themselves out on the street, prophesying and spreading good news to the ends of the earth.  This is no late night ice-cream binging depression.  They are just fine moving forward without Jesus.  So perhaps the strangest question is this: Why aren’t the disciples more bothered when Jesus leaves them?

Personally, (and with a little help from Jurgen Moltmann) I think it’s because the disciples see Jesus not as removed from them, but ahead of them.  Jesus is preparing a way for them, and for us, and our job is to go forward, to venture out in that direction.

The Hardest Question

Who would have thought that the hardest question about ascension wouldn’t be about the cloud, or the white-robed men, or even Jesus’ cryptic words about the time of kingdom restoration.  The hardest question is staring right at us, demanding an answer: If Jesus is making a way for us, are we following it? Perhaps that is its own great day of honesty worth heeding.


Danielle Shroyer is the Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, TX. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and blogs at www.danielleshroyer.com. Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.

Comments

  1. Bill Uetricht says:

    This is very good! Thanks for helping to make sense of a non-sensical day in the life of the church!

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thank you, Danielle. I was not going to touch this one with a ten foot pole, but you’ve got me excited about it.

    The image of Jesus gliding up to heaven just seems to me so…unreal. It has overshadowed the whole rest of the passage for me. But there’s more than just the floating up into the sky. And, I think that’s the point the men in the white robes were making.

    So, I think I’ll start out my sermon with some honesty about my thoughts on the whole floating up to heaven kind of thing and then play with the texts a bit.

  3. Kurt Lammi says:

    You actually articulated what I was already thinking! How cool! I was already thinking of today as a great day of honesty. I’ll be happy to join that little campaign of yours.

    It almost feels like Ascension makes us be really honest about the stories of Easter. Easter: “Christ is risen” Ascension: “Really? Then where is he now.” E: “He’s not here.” A: “Then how is he risen?” Ascension makes us be honest about our doubts of the Christian message. It also makes us be honest about the permanence of death.

    And yet, it also makes us be honest about the promise of the good news. That’s what I think the men in white are getting at. In asking “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” it sounds to me like they are repeating their earlier question to the women at the Easter tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Or, in other words, to both groups, “Why are you looking for Jesus all the wrong places?” He’s not here. He is risen.

    Risen how? In us, in we who are sent in Acts 1:8, in we who are “the body of Christ” in the world. The line of these men in white speaks to me in a way I haven’t heard any other commentary suggest. The men say “This Jesus, who has been take up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Most of the time, people think this means “As Jesus went up into heaven, so he will return by coming down out of heaven” – but that’s _the opposite_ of the way he went, not the same. So what would be the same? Well, the men tell us how he went. “This Jesus, who has been taken up FROM YOU…” So the same way would be that he comes “from you” again. From us. (Do you, or anyone reading this, think I’m way off base here? To me, this sounds like incredibly good news.) So where is the risen Christ? Gone, but present. Distant, but here. In heaven, but present with us. And isn’t that the good news of this Ascension? We’re looking for Jesus in all the wrong places – but he’s still right here with us the whole time.

    Now that good news is honest too!

  4. Bill and Jennifer, glad I could be of help!

    Kurt, I’m glad to have you join my honesty campaign. :) I see what you are saying about Jesus coming from us and returning from us. I do think the space between Ascension and Pentecost is like a holding cell, a space of liminality, and after Pentecost what we receive is the Spirit in us and flowing from us, too. That fulfills the last part of this Ascension story for sure, and I think you’ve found a creative way to tie that into the text. Regardless, I think we could all create entire sermons around the fact that we are looking for Jesus in all the wrong places, no matter where we’re looking. He’s like a quantum quark, that one. :)

  5. I did an transformance art installation last weekend that focused on the ascension and I was exploring exactly this aspect of the ascension. Great to see I’m not the only one thinking these thoughts about it. There was a question I got from Don Skinner’s “Prayers for the Gathered Community” which goes “Jesus has come and gone, and what have we to show for it?” It was a haunting question for the night and it has stuck with me still.

  6. Angela says:

    I think it’s only fair to acknowledge the possibility that the disciples weren’t “more bothered” because they thought that Jesus would be back in a few years at the MOST. I feel like we (I) live with the cumulative disappointment of hundreds of generations who lived and died waiting.

  7. Bruce Case says:

    What a beautiful reflection! It recalls another quote I read while preparing for Sunday: Since Jesus is not here in an obvious way, the church BETTER be. Good stuff, Danielle. Go Rangers!

  8. Jonathan, that’s a fantastic question. It’s one that should stick with us as God’s people and ask something of us. Thanks for sharing.

    Angela, I feel you. And I agree. Thanks for bringing that insight. It’s part of the reason why I feel angst-y around Ascension. And why I think we should fess up at LEAST once a year that Jesus isn’t physically, touch-my-side here with us and we wish he were. I wonder if we can use that longing as a form of prayer and even lament?

    Bruce- great thought, indeed. Wish we all took that more seriously on a more consistent basis!

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