Acts 1:6-14 | John 17:1-11
If you’re ever going to murder someone – and let me just make it absolutely clear that I am not recommending this course of action – but if you ever did, one of the problems that you would have to deal with is what to do with the body.
In a strange way, the life of Jesus has the same problem. After the death and resurrection, what happens next? Jesus has appeared, multiple times, to his friends, in ways that stress the real, physical nature of the resurrection – eating, drinking, touching and being touched – this was no ghost, no mirage, no trick of the eye – and yet at the same time, hint at there being something different – entering the room when the doors were locked, appearing incognito on the road to Emmaus, and then vanishing from site – in the resurrection Jesus is portrayed as real and physical, and yet somehow more than that; more real than reality; somehow merging the physical and spiritual lives.
And for a highly symbolic period of forty day, Jesus, in this resurrection body, has met with his friends, taught them, reassured them. But now the time has come for him to leave. To complete the final act of what C.S. Lewis calls the one great miracle of the Christian story:
that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.
This is the place of the ascension in Christian theology; the completion of the miracle begun in the incarnation. At Christmas, God enters into creation; in the ascension, creation is taken up into God. The work of reconciliation, creator with creation, is done.
But that’s all very well with hindsight. It must have looked very different to the disciples at the time…
So they came together, and the disciples asked him: is it now? Are you now going to restore the Kingdom to Israel? Perhaps in those words we have a hint at the reason Jesus had to leave them. Throughout his life, throughout his teaching, people had been asking this question, making this assumption; that this Kingdom he spoke of, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, was an immediate, real, political reality; that as the Messiah, the Prophet, the King, Jesus had come to restore to the people the Kingdom that they had enjoyed under David and Solomon; but this time forever, as a kingdom that would never fail.
And plenty in Jesus’ teaching gave encouragement to this belief. For he did speak of the Kingdom as a present concern and eternal reality. So they were looking for the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel – perhaps they had noticed that Jesus had called twelve especially to follow him, and, seeing in this an echo of the twelve tribes, concluded that they would be the new patriarchs in the new order.
So Jesus gives them a very gentle slap down – it isn’t for you to know the times that the Father has set. Gentle, but firm; you are not as important as you think you are. This Kingdom that I have been teaching you about, all these days and months, this is not your kingdom. It belongs to the Father.
But… and what an important word that is. Jesus tells them: you are not going to get the Kingdom you are thinking of, it’s not happening now, it’s not even your place to know when – or even if – it will ever happen.
But… you will receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses. It’s not the kingdom you expected, not the power you expected, not the role you expected.
But it is a Kingdom, you will receive power, for you still have a role. In fact, your real job is just about to start.
You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem – now that’s a scary place to start. Jerusalem had just seen the rejection of Jesus, his persecution and crucifixion. The followers of Jesus still had a lot to fear in the Holy city, a lot of reasons to go elsewhere with whatever message they had to bear.
…and in all Judea… was more like it. That was home for the disciples; the towns and villages, the fishing fleets and farmers and herdsmen. All of Judea – that was the Kingdom they knew, the Kingdom David ruled. That made sense.
But, of course, Jesus hadn’t finished. For the kingdom their history taught them of, the Kingdom of David and Solomon, was a kingdom too small for the one they had followed.
…and Samaria… do not just set your eyes on your people; do not limit your witness to those who are like you. Don’t you remember when I said “love your enemy”? Were you listening to the parable of the good Samaritan? Do you remember the story of Jonah? Go to them, too. Be my witnesses there. This Kingdom is for them.
…and to the ends of the earth. And once you’ve left your comfort zone, once you’ve stepped out from the familiar territory where you know the rules, know the people, know the lay of the land; once you’ve gone beyond there, don’t stop. A Kingdom of Judea and Samaria is what Joshua was promised, but it’s too small. Too small for God.
You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth. And then he was taken up, hidden from their sight.
No wonder they just stood there, staring into the sky, mouths, I imagine, hanging open with a slightly stunned, dumb look on their faces.
What just happened? What has he just done to us? Five minutes ago we were talking about how we thought now was the time, how Jesus was alive again, with us again, ready now, at last, to claim the kingdom, to set us free, to make God’s people, once again, the glory of the world.
And then, with one sentence, he’s gone and changed everything. What we thought was the end of the story has just turned into a beginning. The kingdom we thought we were working for has expanded beyond boundaries.
And then, just to cap it all, he’s gone. We thought we’d lost him before, when he was taken from us, but this is different. This, somehow, was even more final than crucifixion. This was him, saying goodbye. Leaving.
Giving us a new job, a new role, a new calling, and then leaving.
And surely, the cry on their lips was “Come back! We aren’t ready to do this without you! We don’t know enough, we aren’t brave enough, we aren’t wise enough, there aren’t enough of us, we don’t have what it takes!”
But such cries were futile. For God has done what God so often seems to do – taken those who heard and responded to the call to follow, and thrown them in at the deep end.
So what did they do?
The exhilaration and excitement of the resurrection replaced by the let down, even abandonment of the ascension.
The expectation of the immediacy of a Kingdom restored turned into the reality of a new role, a new understanding that the work was only just beginning.
The reality sinking in that now the job was theirs, the ball was in their court – Jesus had handed on the baton and departed.
What did they do?
They went back to Jerusalem.
They found the other believers, the men and women who had been with Jesus, who knew him, followed him, loved him.
And they prayed, and waited.
If there is just one lesson from the ascension that I wish I could truly take to heart, one lesson that we in St. John’s would do well to learn; this is it:
Out of their depths, with an uncertain future, almost non-existent resources, and a task laid before them that was far, far too big, they gathered together, and they prayed.
Those are the words that set the scene for next Sunday, for Pentecost.
They are the words written over every great movement of God in history.
They gathered together, and prayed.
And then the Spirit came.
But that’s next week’s story.