The ascension is one of the most challenging stories for modern Christians to believe. And yet, it might be among the most important to hear.
Ascension | Acts 1:1-11
When reading Scripture, I have a simple internal process. I read the story and try to catch all the elements of the story, what I think the writer is trying to tell me, and what strikes me most about it. That’s the first pass.
The second pass is where I look at what my brain tries to tell me about the story. And I try to trick it into doing the hard work it doesn’t want to do. If it scoffs, I try reading it literally. If my brain is stuck in the specifics, I try to read it like a poem. Or maybe I hear what wise teachers told me about it or what tradition holds about the story and I look instead for something novel.
I look for a new way in because I want scripture to continue to teach me. I need it to teach me. We aren’t learning when we listen to our canned voices telling us to ignore it. Avoid it! You don’t really believe this stuff anyway! The voice says. Or maybe If you question that, you can’t believe anything!
The voices which restrict our scripture by clarifying it and make it go down easy are just trying to help. They don’t know that they are no help to us at all.
This is how I read and respond to scripture and why I’m always looking for a novel response to it. Because I honestly believe that if we don’t, we’re not really listening to it.
And this is why I struggle so much with the Ascension.
The Ascension is really funky.
Since most of us listen to our scholars, we believe that these two books: the gospel we call Luke and the book of Acts: were written by the same person. When taken as two parts, they give us two gospels in a complementary way. One is about the life and ministry of Jesus and the others is about the Holy Spirit. I’m really fond of this.
It just gets hard to reckon with the fact that Luke ends with the Ascension and Acts begins with a different ascension. Jesus says different things and they play differently.
Then there’s the ascension itself, with Jesus floating up into the sky and if we were to actually stage this out and figure out how long it would take for Jesus to disappear and how long the disciples must have been standing there watching, and the logical question of how fast was his ascent, by the way? Too fast and it’s ridiculous, but too slow and we’re talking a perfect opportunity for sharp British comedy or an absurdist staging. Imagine Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Jesus to finally leave.
My head goes logical and I can’t handle it. So what does it do to protect itself? Symbolic/Metaphorical.
Explaining away the Ascension
The best way to defang the ascension’s funky logistical properties is to explain it away. For that, we can take two approaches. First we talk about the weakness of the thinking of first century Palestinians–their tribal character made them too ignorant of the real world. So we don’t have to believe it at all.
We don’t even need to get to the metaphor because really, we’d rather get rid of it. We want to focus on the death and resurrection anyway. We don’t need to wrestle with the ascension if we just make it disappear! Send it up into the clouds to be with a Zeus-God sitting on a cloud with lightning bolts and angels in diapers with bows and arrows.
Instead of explaining away the ascension, we find ourselves belittling, ignoring, and avoiding the fact that the ascension exists. That we include it in our Eucharistic Prayer every Sunday.
Wrestling with the Story.
When I realize I’m just avoiding the story, I go back to it and listen again. And that’s when I see something really important.
In Acts, Jesus has called the disciples to gather, wait, and then go out into the world to do the ministry for which he has trained them. Gather. Wait. Then go.
So, after they have gathered, it says they ask Jesus
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
This is the most important line in this story.
Their question, while simple, common to our own questions, ones we hear around us, reveals total ignorance of what they’ve encountered, experienced, witnessed in recent days. After all the prophetic statements, after Peter’s denying and Judas’s betraying and the cock crowing and the crucifying and the walking on the road and the hearts warming and the seeing of Jesus changing the game, they are still thinking of armies and military coups. They are looking for Jesus to not only free the people from bondage to Rome, but for the restoration of Israel to it’s highest heights, back when it could crush people with its might and the king was a global arms dealer or the expression of God’s blessing came in the form of a few decades of supremacy over their neighbors.
Their seeking the restoration of Israel, means making it mighty and powerful: the greatest country in the world.
To make the children of God as powerful as God, to not be kicked around, but to kick others around.
Their expectations for Jesus, even after his death and resurrection, after the harrowing of hell and the rising in light is for the power of God to not be found in overcoming death and the grave, but installing Israel as God’s executioners.
Witnesses of God’s Weakness
I imagine Jesus resists the urge to pat them on the head after this. You poor things. You think God’s power is seen is oppression rather than liberation! You still don’t hear me?
But rather than push or dominate or demand they understand, Jesus invites them once again to hear with ears and see with eyes what God’s power actually looks like. And what their role in it is.
“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.”
The power they receive is the Holy Spirit, not titles and wealth in a vast kingdom. Their work is not to wield power, but witness God’s power.
A power that doesn’t come as power over, but power with. Power as weakness. As God revealed in relationship and love; at a common table and in prayer. A weakness displayed when we lay hands upon each other in healing and inviting friends to lunch.
A weakness revealed in wrestling with weird ideas and sharing a journey with friends and family, full of hope and anticipation. Not for the destination, but for each new leg of the journey. Each opportunity. To love. Heal. Witness the weakness of God’s love. The very light which darkness can’t destroy and the evil of the world can’t snuff out. A light which stays on long after the power goes out.