I don’t know about you, but if someone gave me an assignment—a mission, really—that involved going to the ends of the earth, I would immediately begin packing my bags. I would be checking airfares and train schedules. I would be consulting the map feature on my phone and GPS on my car to determine how many miles it is from here to there and how long it will take to get there.
I am all about jumping straight away to the most fun and exciting part of a project.
Well, Jesus did tell his disciples that the good news of changed hearts and new life must be taken to all nations, even to the ends of the earth.
At this point I might pause in my happy packing to remember that the ends of the earth include not only the Grand Canyon, the coast of Maine, and the Swiss Alps but also the crowded slums of India, where the skies are filled with smoke from funeral pyres and dead bodies float down the Ganges River because there is not enough wood to cremate the bodies of COVID-19 victims on land. I might consider that every nation means not only European Union countries but also the poverty- and violence-riddled nations of Central America and the stateless people of Palestine, suffering yet another deadly round of state-sponsored bombing by Israel.
I might stop to wonder what good news would look like in those seemingly God-forsaken places. I might pause to realize that I alone could never be adequately prepared to take on such a mission.
And then I might remember that Jesus also told his friends something else. It’s that thing that I want to talk about this morning, in something of a prequel to Pentecost Sunday.
But before we get to that, I want to say a few words about something we progressive Christians don’t talk much about, and that’s what some call the Ascension of the Lord—the moment that, according to scripture and tradition, the Risen Christ leaves his disciples—bodily, at least—and returns to God. The details of the story, as with so many things about Jesus’ life, are hard to comprehend and, sometimes at least, even harder to believe. But, as with so much of scripture, the meaning is both true and relevant far beyond the story itself.
Tradition tells us that the Risen Christ has been with his beloved, if often confused, disciples (the remaining 11) for 40 days. He has given them his peace, his forgiveness, and his presence. He has walked with them, broken bread with them, revealed his wounds to them, and made them breakfast on the beach.
And now, he tells them, it is time for him to go. The one who took on flesh and blood to bring the fullness of God to humanity now will take the fullness of humanity to God. Having spent three years-plus teaching about the kingdom of God, he is passing the gospel mantle to his disciples, who are still concerned about the kingdom of Israel. And so Jesus ascends—less to “heaven,” I think, than to something beyond the limits of earth and the boundaries of time and space.
“It was almost,” says Barbara Brown Taylor, “as if he had not ascended but exploded, so that all the holiness that was once concentrated in him alone flew everywhere, flew far and wide, so that the seeds of heaven were sown in all the fields of the earth.”
And that’s the point, I think: The ascension, whatever we make of it, is the hinge, the turning point, between the story of Jesus and the story of Christ’s church. God’s embodied love for the world is not leaving the building so much as shifting locations—from Jesus of Nazareth to Mary Magdalene and Peter and James and John and such unlikely characters as an anti-Christian zealot named Saul, an Italian lover named Francis, a Spanish mystic named Teresa, a German reformer named Luther, a modern mystic named Thurman, and countless people no one’s ever heard of, including you and me.
But Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples on their own. He doesn’t leave them empty-handed or brokenhearted—not then, not now, not ever. He’s simply making way for something different, something new, something powerful and transformative.
And . . . for the disciples, it’s not there yet. Jesus offers no word on when the Holy Spirit will arrive. No word on how she will arrive. No word on how they will know she has arrived. Only that she will come, and that will change everything.
Having led his disciples out of the center of Jerusalem and up the Mount of Olives in a reversal of their Palm Sunday procession, Jesus commissions them and then, instead of telling them to get to it, to start packing their bags and mapping their journeys, he tells them to stay put. He orders them not to leave Jerusalem but, instead, to wait there for the promise of God.
Turns out that what they will need most for this mission is not maps or supplies or plans or even a budget, but presence and power and clarity. This strength and sense of purpose will come not from their own smarts or efforts, but directly from the Spirit of God.
I have to confess, all this makes me wonder:
Do we even know how to stay put? (Do I know how to sit still and wait?) Do we know how to wait and open ourselves up to clarity of purpose and mission? Do we know what it is to wait for the promise of God?
These are just some of the spiritual challenges we are inviting our church to take on in this liminal season between a long and demanding sanctuary ministry, pandemic isolation, and whatever comes next. These are some of the spiritual challenges we face as we consider coming back together physically and discerning anew what it means to be the church in this place at this time.
Oh, we are pretty good at responding to crisis. I am continually amazed at the prayerful open-heartedness of this church when it meets an urgent need. And I am always struck by the ways this openness creates an opportunity for the Spirit to embody God’s love in us and empower us to take that love into the world.
The ascension story tells us that God’s love-mission has been given to us. The Pentecost story, which we’ll hear next week, reminds us that we can’t fulfill that mission on our own.
Meanwhile, so the ascension story goes, as Jesus is lifted up into a cloud, the disciples stand slack-jawed, craning their necks to try to see where he’s going. Their eyes are still following the soles of Jesus’ feet when a couple of angels show up, and say, “Hello! Why are you standing there looking up—instead of all around you? Why do you focus your faith on what is beyond you when the holy is right here?”
“For now,” writes Jan Richardson as she echoes the blessing of Jesus.
hear me when I say
all you need to do
is to still yourself,
is to turn toward one another,
is to stay.
and see what comes
the gaping hole
in your chest.
Wait with your hands open
to receive what could never come
except to what is empty
You cannot know it now,
cannot even imagine
what lies ahead,
but I tell you
the day is coming
when breath will
fill your lungs
as it never has before,
and with your own ears
you will hear words
coming to you new
You will dream dreams
and you will see the world
ablaze with blessing.
Wait for it.