Christ the King-Epiphany Church Ascension Sunday
May 29, 2022 Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
The Ascension, which we celebrate today, which I purposely altered the church calendar so that we could celebrate it today – I concede that the Ascension poses some difficulties for the modern reader. In the ancient world – where the cosmos was understood to be three-layered (we live on the middle layer, with heaven above us, and hell below – in that cosmology, the Ascension made all kinds of sense. Jesus came down from heaven to earth. He died and descended to hell. He arose again and walked around with us on the middle layer for a while longer. And then he ascended back into heaven where God lived. That all works very well if you believe that the universe is a 3-layered affair – which we do not. So what do we do with the Ascension? Some have chosen to disregard it altogether as having no meaning for the modern believer. But I believe it’s important in its meaning. And the aspect of this story that I’d like to think about today is that it changed the disciples’ focus; it changed the direction the disciples were looking.
Here’s a little bit of Bible history for you: the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were written by the same author. Actually, the book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke – like two volumes of one epic story. As you just heard from the last chapter of Luke, the Gospel of ends with the story of the Ascension. And as you heard earlier, the book of Acts starts with that same story. The two books have just this little bit of overlap. Here’s another bit of Bible history: Luke’s gospel is the only one that mentions the Ascension. It’s not in Matthew. It’s not in Mark. And it’s not in John. We can safely assume then that, while the perspective of the other Gospel writers was that the Ascension was not essential for bringing people to faith, it was a big deal for Luke – so much so that he included it in both volumes of the story! But what I find fascinating is that Luke tells the story slightly differently in the Gospel than he does in the book of Acts. And I think that’s intentional because Luke wants us to see different things; he wants to change the direction we are looking.
Throughout the entire Gospel of Luke, the disciples looked toward Jesus. They looked toward him to learn how to pray. They looked to him to learn about the kingdom of God. They learned from his teaching. They learned from his example. They watched as he was crucified. They looked to him for reassurance after the resurrection. And finally, at his Ascension, they looked up as he lifted his hands in blessing and then was carried into heaven. That’s how Luke’s gospel ends Jesus’ earthly ministry.
The book of Acts, though it begins with the same event, directs the narrative into the future. It’s kind of like when you tune in for a new episode of your favorite TV show and it starts with “Previously on . . . “ and you see a few video clips from the last episode. Except when they do it on TV, they are showing actual video footage from the last episode. When Luke begins his Volume 2, he doesn’t repeat exactly the same version of Jesus’ ascension. He changes it up just a bit. In Acts, as the disciples are standing there, jaws agape, staring at the spot where Jesus disappeared into the cloud, a couple of men dressed in white say “What ’cha lookin’ at?” Well, okay, they didn’t exactly say that, but that was the gist of what they said. And if you kept reading in Acts, you’d see that the words of the men in white caused the disciples to stop looking toward the Jesus they had known and look instead into the future of the Jesus movement. The encouragement of those angels turned their gaze outward to a lost and hurting word and made the disciples – who had been followers, into apostles – those sent into the world in mission. Those men invited the disciples to look in a different direction, and in the book of Acts, Luke seems to be inviting us to do the same: to stop gazing after Jesus and start looking outward at the world; to stop looking exclusively into the past to find Jesus and instead to turn to the future, to see where Jesus is – and where he is calling us – today. Two versions of the Ascension looking in two different directions.
This shouldn’t be an unfamiliar concept for us. We are currently in the season of graduations – from high school, from trade school, from college, from seminary, from graduate school– there’s lots of families around this time who are focused on the accomplishments of one of their own. Graduation is the crowning achievement of perhaps years hard work, a celebration that brings to a close years of study. But graduation is also called commencement, because while it is an ending of one chapter, it is also the beginning of the next. Graduation is a culmination – commencement is a starting point. Both are important, essential even – but they feel very different, depending upon whether you’re looking back or forward.
If we take Luke’s two-volume book seriously, we must look in both directions. We must both look for Jesus in the scriptural stories of his life, and we must also look into the future, to see where Jesus is leading us. We must look inward, to find Jesus here within these walls, but we must also look outward, to find where he is “out there” and get busy serving him by feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, by welcoming the refugee and advocating for the powerless, by comforting the hurting and bringing peace to places of turmoil, by sharing the good news.
Jesus’ ascension – whether it was up into the clouds as the ancients believed or somehow to a different realm of existence as we might put it in modern terms – his ascension released our Lord from the physical limitations of being in just one place at a time so that now he is available to us in all places at all times through the power of the Holy Spirit. And that means that no matter which direction we look – inward, outward, backward, forward, upward or downward – we may trust that whichever direction we look, Jesus is already there to guide us, to empower us, and to lead us in the way of love.