|Ascension pictures are so terrible they are awesome.|
(Don't believe me? Google "Ascension of Jesus.")
This is one of my favorites.
|Jesus entering the Heavenly CT Scan Machine. |
Or an egg yolk.
Or diving into a bowl of Lemon Tapioca custard.
|Can you see the wires? Also, he always leaves his shoes behind. Always.|
And he never pencil dives either - arms out or not at all.
It’s interesting how a season can wear out. Snow in November makes us giddy and nostalgic, but by April it makes us surly and weepy. Christmas at first is thrilling, and then several weeks later with a brittle tree dropping needles on your floor and more sweet cookies everywhere you go, you are pretty ready for it to be over.
I am feeling that just a little bit about Eastertide. I’m not a very patient people, and we’ve waited seven weeks to see what happens next.
Since Easter we’ve joined the disciples in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus- the times he appeared to people, upsetting knowledge of death with the terrifying prospect of eternity and new life again and again.
We’ve seen them react in all sorts of ways, doubt, devotion, astonishment, ecstatically throwing themselves in a lake. We’ve seen reconciliation, teaching and learning, scripture being opened, and lots of sharing the news with each other. Sitting tight and waiting like he said to do, fleeing back home to do what you know how to do instead.
And we’ve seen lots of meals and hospitality extended in all directions- and the reoccurring pattern that when they really do recognize Jesus, it is in the breaking of the bread, the sharing of a meal, the caring for one another that comes in serving and being served.
And all that raw, alert, attentive wrestling to make sense of what is happening has a huge place in our life of faith, but we can’t stay there forever – it wears on the nerves and keeps us in a holding pattern.
That holding pattern breaks today for the disciples, in a pretty dramatic fashion, that leaves them staring at an empty sky, and told by angels to move on, (that ship has sailed, so to speak).
The ascension ends the cliffhanger of Easter. It doesn’t get much airtime usually, but frankly, it’s pretty important to the whole story. Where is Jesus’ body? He rose from the dead! What happened next?
Now, I don’t know if we think the resurrection itself trumps everything, or that it doesn’t matter what happens to Jesus’ body, or that the knowledge that he just kind of whisks up to heaven in front of his gobsmacked followers is common knowledge and not worth mentioning much? Maybe it’s just too weird to linger on.
But I suspect Ascension doesn’t get much airplay because we like our story to have a happy-ending, triumphant climax, and Easter fits that bill so well that we act like Easter is the end of the story of Jesus, and Pentecost is the beginning of the story of the church, and everything that happens in between is kind of irrelevant.
But what happens in between is vital. What happens in the times in between are always vital. And this one big continuous story without end even yet, has a very important transition occurring in the time between Jesus’ resurrection and the beginning of the church at Pentecost. Something is happening within and between the disciples that is preparing them to become the Body of Christ, making them into witnesses of God’s love and salvation. But it turns out that it can’t happen without watching Jesus disappear, alive, from their sight.
For one thing, without the ascension, they would not be ready to let go of wishing things could be the way they were when Jesus was here, like in the old days. And they need to quit going back to old boats and staring up at empty skies so they can do the fruitful work of waiting for the power of God that is coming, when the Holy Spirit will turn them into witnesses in all the earth.
Shortly after Easter, while it was still very much on our minds, Owen asked a bedtime question. Now, here’s the thing about bedtime in our house- for whatever reason it’s the time the questions come. I don’t know if it’s a stalling tactic or that when the body tired out the mind wakes up or what, but bedtime turns my children into theologians, philosophers and scholars. I often end up standing bedside in long conversation, but Andy, who happened to be doing bedtime on the night this question came, had a different tact. He said, “Write down your question, Owen, and tomorrow at dinner, we will talk about it as a family, so we can all learn from your question.” (GENIUS)
Now, our theological discussions at dinner are something I wish we could record for posterity. They usually involve scrunched up faces and furrowed brows and me translating technical terms into easier words from time to time, but every once in a while, it all clicks together and the whole bunch of us is momentarily alight with insight. This was going to be one of those. It was also to be the first time a full-on diagram would appear at the dinner table. (Theologian Daddies are the coolest.)
So the next night at dinner, Owen brought down his piece of paper with his question on it. The question was this, “If God can raise people from the dead in the bible, why doesn’t God still do it today?”
What a great question. First of all, Andy said, people don’t only rise from the dead in the bible. There are several in the bible- the little girl Jesus healed, Lazarus, Jesus himself, and a few others, but people claim that it happens today too. (Here I interjected and mentioned the movie some of you saw a couple weeks ago together, based on the book “Heaven is for real” about a little boy who died and came back, as an example). Sometimes, from time to time, back in bible times and today as well, people do come back from the dead.
But they all have one thing in common. Do you know what that is?
They die again.
They don’t keep on living. It’s a brief reversal of death – an interruption, but they still end up dying like the rest of us. Nobody doesn’t die.
So Andy drew a diagram on the paper below Owen’s question. On one side of a timeline he put the words, “the time when all die.”
“We live here,” he said.
He drew a huge gap and barrier in the middle, and on the other side he wrote, “the time when all live”.
“We all will die,” Andy said, “because we live in the time when all die.”
“But there is one exception to this – and that is Jesus.”
Then he made a little stick figure, hopping over from the one side to the other. “Jesus is the one who comes from God’s future – from the time when all live, and comes into this time when all die to be there with us. Jesus died, but when Jesus rose from the dead, he does not die again. He comes to take us with him into a future that waits for all of us. The time is coming when life will win out, “the time when all live,” and Jesus breaks into “the time when all die” carrying the future within himself and bringing us into that future.”
We sat there a minute while this soaked in, forks still, and mouths open. Finally, nodding heads, soft, “oh”s, and one, “Cool, Daddy!” And then somebody asked, “What about zombies?” and the spell was broken.
But I have been stuck on that conversation ever since, because I’ve been stuck with the disciples each week who are stuck in the “what is happening and what comes next” of Jesus’ resurrection.
If we’ve learned anything in this lingering resurrection season, it’s 1- that we recognize Jesus among us in the moments of hospitality and shared humanity, and 2- that we are meant to tell what has happened to us, we are meant to share the stories of Jesus meeting us. We don’t get experiences of God just for ourselves – these moments are for us, yes, but they are for the whole community. They are for the whole world. Faith is a shared thing – I will tell you what God has done for me; listen to what just happened to me! From Carolyn’s “Godipity” moments, to the ways Jesus is saying to us, Follow me, we are meant to tell one another about what God is doing in our lives, and in so doing, to remind each other where this is all going. This is being witnesses.
Now, about those people Andy brought up who do, from time to time for whatever reason – medical, mystical or otherwise, come back from the dead. Their resurrection is this momentary miraculous sign, really, a gift to them and their loved ones, to be sure, but miracles are never meant for one – they are always always meant to be shared. Their story belongs to all of us, it becomes a promise to us, a reminder that the time is coming when death doesn’t win.
So – resurrections in our lives, whether physical or emotional, relational or spiritual – however it happens that hope is born from hopelessness and joy comes out of despair – they are signs meant for all of us, that announce that even though we live in the time when all die, in Jesus we are being brought into the time when all will live. Just look at the life springing up inside me, around me, between us, near us! That is a sign of the life that is to come, the life that has already come and cannot be quenched!
So here is the answer to the cliffhanger of Easter, and the reason why the Ascension matters. Jesus is still out there, alive - showing up in whatever way we most need to be met.
A friend recently shared a story of a preacher who, like me, often writes her sermons in a coffee shop. And there are opinionated, unaffiliated people in her regular coffee shop, so she is bold to ask them questions she may not necessarily ask her parishioners. On this occasion, just before Easter, she was chatting with a particularly verbose guy, who often liked to engage her in theological conversation, sometimes outrageous, always animated. She knew he’d respond, so she asked him, “Jack, where is Jesus’ body?” And he answered in brevity and truth, “Wherever we need it to be.”
We are Jesus’ body. He lives in us- between us, through us, in spite of us. He comes to us from “the time when all will live,” into “the time when all will die,” and reminds us of what’s coming. In all life and resurrection, we recognize our Risen Lord and receive the promise that life will prevail.
So we get to sit at dinner and say to our children, yes, our dog died, our great grandma died and our friend’s baby died, and the people in that earthquake or that car accident or that terrible war died, and you and I will die too, because we live in the time when all will die. And we have a God who came to earth and died too – so we are not in this time when all will die alone, God is here in it with us and carries all our grief and sorrow and suffering and death into the heart of God.
But also, my darlings, hear this: we have a Messiah, a savior, who comes from the time when all will live, and rises from the dead, and ascends into heaven and even now, is busy getting involved, bringing life, bringing us toward life, and showing up where we most need to be met, and you and I get to join in and be witnesses of that life.
So the faithful response, the one the disciples are given to do, is to wait for the Spirit. Wait for the power of God to move in the reality that you now carry within you the life of the one whom death cannot defeat, and even while you and I will die, and our institutions will crumble and our dreams disappear and our goals change and hopes waver, we are held in the love of the God of life, living in new life and resurrection that happens again and again as a sign of what is in store for the world. You and I are witnesses of life, we are harbingers of newness and hope. So let’s get busy waiting for the Spirit to lead us once again and not spend another second gazing at an empty sky.