The lectionary reading this week marks the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 1:6-11). The ascension story is only told by Luke (in both Luke and Acts); it’s absent from the other gospels. Maybe that’s why I’d never given it much thought before now.
The poor disciples, they’ve been through a lot. The harrowing last week of Jesus’ life, his execution and burial, then the disappearance of his body, followed by the shock of his re-appearance (followed by the shock of his re-disappearance!)… If they weren’t confused enough back when Jesus was talking about tearing down temples and going to his father’s house, they’re definitely confused now. It would be a lot to take in, all this appearing and disappearing and cryptic teaching.
And then this: Jesus says farewell (for real this time) and ascends into heaven on a cloud.
And the disciples are just left standing in this field, jaws on the ground, staring after him. Finally some angels (or at least mysterious white-robed guys) come along and say, “What are you guys looking at? He’ll be back. Get to work!” So, off they go, and start praying.
I love that they understand their mission to be “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). And it’s good that they’re praying so fervently: we all know the early church has a tough road ahead of it. I wonder how many times over the next few years they thought about Jesus’ last words to them:
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 Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:7-8)
Those aren’t words of comfort or clarity; those are words of call. “You don’t know what you’re doing, but I promise God’s spirit will be your power, and you will be my witnesses.” He doesn’t ask them to be his witnesses. He tells them that they will be. And there’s not much they can do about it. They can’t equip themselves, because they don’t really know the plan. They can’t back out, because they aren’t given a choice. And they can’t empower themselves, because God is going to provide the power.
They’re along for the ride. They’re both-feet-in, no-turning-back, point-of-no-return committed to this cause.
And Jesus’ ascension introduces another period of precarious waiting for them. He dies on the cross, and its days until they know that he’s been resurrected. He ascends into heaven with a promise, and its days before wind and tongues of fire come to signal the fulfillment of that promise.
Why is faith filled with so many periods of uncertainty? Why is witnessing filled with so much challenge and confusion? Why is it so hard just to be the Church, to be the hands and feet of Jesus?
Heeding the Call, Together
One of the lessons I noticed from the Ascension story this year is that the disciples do this whole thing together. The text tell us over and over:
So when they had come together, they asked him “Lord, is this the time…?” (Acts 1:6)
All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together… (Acts 1:14)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. (Acts 2:1)
They are together in their questioning, they are together at the ascension, they are together in prayer after the ascension, they are together at Pentecost when the spirit comes. And they will keep being together all the way through Acts as they spread the word and bring people to faith, as they suffer and die for that same faith. Don’t we still look today to the powerful example of community in those early believers:
All who believed were together and had all things in common… Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:44, 46a)
They don’t go it alone. They’re clinging to each other like a life raft, in a sea of upheaval, doubt, and fear. How often we forget to do as they do: to lean on each other as we heed the call of our souls, to share our concerns and celebrations as a community, to be witnesses to all the earth with our faithful prayer and love.
So this week, as I’m thinking about ascension, I’m also thinking about call and community. I’m thinking about what it looks like to step out in courage, even before I feel equipped, knowing that Pentecost is on its way and that God will keep His promises. I’m thinking about how grief and confusion can be the very foundations of faith, how loss can be a catalyst for growth, and how our work as witnesses starts with fervent prayer.
So, brothers and sisters, will you kneel with me this Sunday, before we go into the week, and offer incense of prayer to our good and gracious God, who calls us into boldness:
You are the God who makes extravagant promises.
We relish your great promises.
of fidelity, and presence, and solidarity,
and we exude in them.
Only to find out, always too late,
that your promise always comes
in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience.
You are the God who calls people like us,
and the long list of mothers and fathers before us,
who trusted the promise enough to keep the call.
So we give you thanks that you are a calling God,
who calls always to dangerous new places.
We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us
that we may be among those
who believe your promises enough
to respond to your call.
We pray in the one who embodied your promise
and enacted your call, even Jesus. Amen.
(prayer by Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth, 90)