Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Jesus is gone. After his death, they had thought he was gone forever. But then he appeared to them, alive and well. And he kept on appearing to them for forty days. And they were hoping that he was really going to reveal his power this time, that he was going to overthrow the Roman oppressors, restore the Kingdom of Israel, and rule as king forever. But then he was taken away, and now he really is gone.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a scientific perspective, the image of Jesus ascending into heaven. Most of us have heard the story enough times that we just take it for granted. But if we really stop and think about it from a modern, scientific point of view, it’s really quite ridiculous.
Jesus takes off from the earth and starts zooming through the air. If he were traveling at, let’s say, 50 miles per hour, which seems pretty fast for a guy wearing a robe, then within five or ten minutes the air would be getting thin enough that he’d have some serious trouble breathing. After about 15 minutes Jesus would just be entering the stratosphere, where he might pass a couple of weather balloons. After an hour of ascending, he’d finally be in the thermosphere, but it would take more than four hours before Jesus would make it to the International Space Station. After 208 days, Jesus would have made it to the moon. It would be 214 years before he made it to the sun. By now, 2000 years later, Jesus would be lucky to have made it to Saturn. Even if Jesus were traveling at the speed of light, he would only have made it 1/20th of the way across our Milky Way Galaxy, no where near the end of the universe, where, presumably, heaven might be. For our modern science, it doesn’t make any sense at all.
But in the Mediterranean world view of 2000 years ago, it made perfect sense. Back then, everyone knew that the earth was flat and that it floated on a giant ocean. And everyone knew that above the earth there was something resembling a large glass bowl turned upside down, the firmament. It kept the huge ocean in the sky from falling onto the earth in an uncontrolled deluge. That’s what had happened during Noah’s flood, God had opened the windows of the firmament. All the stars and planets were there, pinned to the inside of the firmament. And God’s realm was on the other side.
Besides that, every good Jew knew that the center of the earth was Jerusalem, more specifically, the temple in Jerusalem. And situated directly above the temple, at the high-point of the firmament, there was a door. And beyond the door was God’s home, the divine temple.
When those first apostles saw Jesus ascending into the sky from Jerusalem, they knew that he was going through that door in the firmament directly into the most holy place in the entire universe, God’s own temple. It is proof to them that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Jesus has been proven to be something truly extraordinary, greater than all the prophets from days gone by.
And yet, after the ascension, he is still gone, and they are left alone. They were hoping that he would bring about a new world order. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” they had asked him. Even then, they were sure that Jesus was going to defeat the occupying Roman Empire and bring about a new age, when Israel would be strong and independent. But before their dreams of a new theocracy are realized, Jesus is taken away from them again, and they have to figure out how to live without him.
We too know what it is like to experience loss. We know what it is to be without someone who has been important to us. Many of us have lost loved ones to death, and have had to learn how to live in a world without them. We will mark Memorial Day in just over two weeks, when we are invited to remember those who have lost their lives in military service to this country. Many use the day to remember all those loved ones who have died.
The loss of someone important to us can be an event of seismic proportions. It’s not just that our lives change—the whole world changes when we experience a significant loss, and it can be nearly impossible to get our bearings. Every person grieves in their own way, but there can be no doubt that the process of learning to live after a loved one has died is significant and challenging.
Over this last year, we have had learn to live with all kinds of loss. We have had to learn to live without the normal connections that we are used to relying on. We have had to go to months without meeting with our loved ones. We have had to learn how to do work and school and church from a distance, with a digital mediator. We have had to learn how to stay close to home, how to order online. And even though we have heard the amazing news this week that vaccinated people are advised to start getting back to normal, we are still dealing with our sense of loss. We are still carrying tremendous grief. And even as things begin to return to something resembling normal, we will still have the pain of that loss to deal with.
After the apostles see Jesus taken away into heaven, though, they react not with sorrow, or even with sadness, but with joy. They return to the city, to the temple, rejoicing. And they spend their time every day, in the temple, praising God.
And why is it that the apostles have such an unorthodox response to the loss of their leader, teacher, and friend? It is because this loss is different. Jesus may not be with the disciples in the same way he was before, but he is not lost. He is gone, but he is not gone. Jesus has ascended to the divine realm, but he is still accessible to his followers.
That’s why they go to the temple. That’s why they go to worship. That’s why they go to pray. Because they know that in their worship they will meet Jesus again.
In a way, it must have been a lot easier when they had Jesus right there with them in the flesh. There are many Christians who are nostalgic for those earlier days when Jesus walked the earth as one of us. What must it have been like to see him in person? To share a meal with him? To hear him speak? What must it have been like to be one of the crowd of people gathered to hear him on some Galilean hillside? Or even more, what must it have been like to be one of his inner circle, to be witness to all of the doings and sayings of the master? It must have been extraordinary.
And yet, Jesus is not dead, and Jesus is not hidden away from us. Every day of our lives Jesus appears to us. In our worship, whether we gathered physically or gathered digitally. In the presence of our sisters and brothers. At the table of communion as Jesus invites us share the bread and cup, to partake in his body and blood. In our world, in the eyes of a stranger. In the cries of the needy. In the laughter of children. In the sighs of the aged. And yes, even alone, in our homes, when we feel disconnected from everything else. We meet Jesus the Christ wherever and whenever our eyes and ears are tuned to find him. In ascending to heaven, Jesus was not taken away, but transformed, and he can still be a vital part of our lives. He did not leave the earth in order to leave us behind; he left so that he could everywhere.
Something interesting happens when Jesus ascends. The men and women who had been following him are transformed as well. They had been disciples of Jesus. A disciple is someone who follows a master, like a student with a master teacher. But with his ascension, Jesus’s disciples become apostles. An apostle is someone who is sent out, an emissary of the master, someone who carries the master’s work and message wherever they are sent.
Now, they aren’t sent out immediately. They are told wait in the city until such time as the Spirit is granted to them. Only then can they go out into the world as messengers of Jesus.
We have been waiting. We have been staying close to home, for the sake of God’s love, for the sake of the health and welfare of our neighbors both near to us and clear across the world. And it has been a long, hard time waiting.
But the time is coming soon. It is. The time is coming when we will be released to be apostles.
And I pray that as we consider the ascension of Jesus this morning, as we look up into the sky, as we see him lifted up, with his arms raised in blessing, that we will also be transformed. That we will, through our continued relationship with Jesus, become more than disciples who follow, but apostles who are sent out into the world, to share Jesus’s message of love and grace and transformation, to continue the work of Jesus Christ, wherever we may go, even unto to the ends of the earth.