The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Well, if we learned one thing from Acts today, it is this: some angels cannot read a room. These snarky angels are pretty insensitive. While the disciples stand by, all dazed and heartbroken, these two men in white robes suddenly appear, not to console them, but to challenge them: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The angels know why, at least they should. The disciples' eyes are glued to the very spot in the heavens that just devoured Jesus and his cloud car. And the disciples are trying to keep their eyes on Jesus. See, that has been a pretty difficult task in recent weeks. They already lost him once; they did not want to do that again.
But now he is out of sight, gone – for the second time in just six weeks. Once again they were powerless to stop him. And now all they have left is a limitless, empty sky. The second goodbye stinging their eyes even as the first wounds are still fresh in their minds. Holy Week cut deep. They had stood by impotently and just watched as he was dragged away and killed on a cross. And they thought they would never see him again.
But then just three days later, while their stomachs still ached with grief, he returned. And their grief was replaced with a strangely appropriate mix of terror and joy and confusion. It made no sense; it was nothing they expected. But Jesus, who was dead and buried, returned to them. And for once, all of the pain of this mortal life seemed to melt away – as if his new life meant that life would never be the same, that God's good news might infect every human heart – bring dead hearts to life, make broken hearts whole, melt the ice off of every heart cooled by sadness and loneliness.
The band was back together. And the disciples knew that on this side of the resurrection they would be unstoppable. Their leader was risen from the dead – the proof in his wounds. Every doubter would be convinced. Every opponent would fall at his feet. Every skeptic would now receive their Gospel message with eager gladness. He was back and they were ready.
But forty days after his Easter resurrection, the disciples are starting blankly at the sky and Jesus, once again, has left them with all of their dreams dead on the vine. Of course they were just standing there looking up toward heaven: there was no where else to go.
And then two men in white robes and a confrontational question jarred them out of their day dream and back into reality. There was nothing to see in the sky; there was nothing to see in the heavens. It was time to re-focus, to lower their gaze.
The Feast of the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, is one of the seven Principle Feast days in the Church calendar – along with Christmas and Easter, Pentecost, All Saints' Day, Epiphany, and Trinity Sunday. It seems a strange thing to say, but we celebrate Jesus' exit. Not only do we celebrate it in our calendar, we find it in our creeds and in our Eucharistic prayers. In some way, the Ascension lives at the heart of our Christian faith. That we celebrate Jesus' ascension out of sight in the present would probably surprise those eleven disciples who watched him leave. That morning as he pierced the sky it did not seem like a cause for celebration.
“Why not just stay?” is probably what I would have thought as I watched Jesus leave. And then, as I reflected on the event, later, tried to make sense of it, played detective, maybe I would come back around and revisit his final words for clues. What were the last words Jesus said? What did he save for the encore? After all of the profound sayings and timeless parables, what was worth going out on?
“You will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth.” That is the answer. That is why the Ascension. That is why he left. My boys have these colored bath tablets – only yellow right now because they use up the red and blue ones as quickly as they can. These tablets are small, no bigger around than a tube of chap-stick, and when they are dropped into the water they grow smaller and smaller until they disappear. Once that tablet is gone, all of the water is changed. The color that once existed as a tiny tablet spreads to the ends of the tub. Jesus left so that his presence would grow – so that the love that once dwelt in a single body might cover the planet, fill the universe. So that the message would spread. So that the gospel might explode – bursting the boundaries of 1st century Palestine.
Jesus leaves. But that is not the end of the story. As he goes up he sends us out. The light is green and we have to get going. Because the message doesn't move if we don't move. The message doesn't move if the Church stands staring at the sky. We're not meant to die looking up. We're not meant to die just waiting. We are sent. Out. Jesus leaves us with the dismissal. And the dismissal is always a call to mission.
But the truth is, most days, it is easier to live with our heads in the clouds. Because down here, on the ground, it impossible to avoid the pain and struggle and suffering that will inevitably leave scars on your heart and soul. Down here in the muck, you will see things no one should see; and hear things no one should hear; and think things no one should think; and feel things no one should have to feel.
And to escape the chaos down here on the ground, you might turn your eyes toward heaven – maybe looking for that crease through which Jesus slipped. And maybe you will even hum to your self the old spiritual “I'll fly away” as you look up and dream about your Great Escape. They say that in Heaven there are no more tears, and no more crying, and no more pain. There children aren't killed by suicide bombers. And loved ones don't stumble into the grip of death. And peace replaces the anxiety that seems to flood our lives through computer, cell phone, and television screens. Heaven is the best distraction from this world yet created. And it is easy to turn our eyes away from the things that haunt this earth toward the dreams of a distant heaven.
But Heaven is not interested in your interest – at least not yet. The angels are quick to break our gaze with their snarky question: “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And Jesus is quick to remind us that we still have work to do right here on earth.
And it turns out that those very things that cause us to want to divert our eyes – the pain, the struggle, the suffering and chaos of this world – are the very reasons the angels break our heaven-ward gaze. We want to look up because this world is filled with terrible things; but we are called by Jesus to look into the terror, into the pain, into the suffering.
Jesus did not ascend to hide in the sky. He did not leave to avoid the messiness of this world. Jesus ascended into every broken heart that would offer him a place. He ascended so that he could fill every empty space, hold every suffering child, comfort every mourning parent. He ascended so that this anxious world could live and move and have its being in the sacred heart of Christ. The ascension is not an escape; it is like an explosion that rained down divinity on this world so that no one would ever again suffer alone.
And we are the witnesses. Jesus is sending us out with this story on our lips and in our hearts, to witness to what we have experienced in our own lives. And so we cannot stand staring at the sky; we cannot dream away our days thinking about Heaven. Our mission is on the ground – on street corners and in the crossroads and at the dead ends. Our mission is on the ground – where bended knees meet cold pavement, where bodies are broken, where tired souls search for rest. It is time for the Church to lower our eyes. If we are looking for Jesus, he's not hiding in the clouds. So “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” If we are looking for Jesus, we should probably lower our gaze; we are much more likely to find him down in the muck.