“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven,
will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Seven Sundays have passed now since we heard the Easter message that Jesus was raised from the dead. Since then we’ve heard many stories in this season of how Jesus appeared to His disciples:
We heard how Mary Magdalene found His tomb empty that first Easter Sunday morning, and then she saw Him in the Garden.
We heard how, that same Sunday afternoon, there were the followers who saw Him as they travelled the Road to Emmaus.
And we heard how “Doubting Thomas” actually touched Him, putting his fingers right into the spear wound on His side; even though all these disciples thought He was dead, Jesus was alive and with them all the time! They could see Him, and hear Him, and touch Him!
Last Thursday was Ascension Day, and Ascension Day marks an end to Jesus being with His followers in this way. On Ascension Day Jesus took His inner circle out to Bethany - the place where Mary and Martha lived; the place where Jesus had raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. And there in Bethany, Jesus told them the time had come, and that they should remember and keep telling all the people in Jerusalem and all around the Good News that He taught!
And then “He raised His hands and blessed them - and while He was blessing them, He was carried up into heaven”. Gone, disappeared, just like that!
It’s tempting to ignore the story of the Ascension altogether, especially in a post-enlightenment world. It’s hard to argue for the plausibility of such a story when it’s set against the incontrovertible facts we know to be true about how the world works: We know that the earth is not flat! We know that heaven is not the realm just beyond the clouds. There’s no point in having Jesus float up, up, and away like that.
Unless, that is, there’s another possibility! Maybe this story is not there in eternal opposition to the facts, the mathematics, the truth that our God-given science has revealed to us about quantum mechanics and general relativity and molecular biology and similar disciplines. Maybe taking this story “literally” misses the point altogether. Because this story is pointing us toward something bigger than itself, it’s leading us toward meaning, toward Truth with a capital T.
And this kind of truth isn’t always an easy thing to tell in the world we live in.
Jesus was a political truth-teller - His teaching and His life were a rebuke to the powers and authorities of the world in which He lived. According to the German political-philosopher Hannah Arendt, truth is “hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize…
Unwelcome opinion,” she writes, “can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon; but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies.”
Listen to that again: tyrants hate facts - tyrants hate the truth - because it can’t be controlled and bent to their whim. The tyrant’s only option in the face of facts is outright lies. Arendt’s point is that tyrants always attempt to twist reality to their own ends. She says, “Where everybody lies about everything of importance, the truth-teller, whether he knows it or not, has begun to act; he, too, has engaged himself in political business, for, in the unlikely event that He survives, He has made a start toward changing the world.”
“In the unlikely event that He survives”. Survives, that is, the act of telling the truth. Insisting upon the “truth” is a good way to get yourself killed; because the people at the top don’t want to hear the truth.
Jesus knew all about that; He knew that telling the truth about the way the Roman Empire was oppressing His people would be dangerous. He knew that overturning the money-changing tables in the Temple (so He could talk about economic inequality) would not endear Him to the authorities - but He told those truths anyway.
Forty days after Easter, Jesus teaches a different truth with His Ascension. Not just His words, but His actions reveal a new reality waiting to be born. Why did Jesus lead His disciples out to Bethany to say their final “good-byes”?
Jesus chose to spend a lot of time in Bethany; it was always where He chose to stay when He came to the city of Jerusalem. Bethany is where His friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. Bethany wasn’t a particularly nice neighbourhood, though.
In fact, the name Bethany translates to something like “the house of affliction.” It was where the city of Jerusalem sent people who were poor or sick. There was a Homeless Shelter there, and a Leper Colony. Bethany was built out of sight of the Temple so that those coming into Jerusalem to worship wouldn’t have to see all that ugliness, all that poverty and utter desperation; and that is precisely where Jesus chose to spend most of His time! These were exactly the people Jesus chose to spend time with. He poured out His life in love for them; and Bethany is the last place on earth Jesus chose to be seen, among the poor and the suffering there. This is the truth of the Ascension: that Jesus went from that “house of affliction” into every place and time, carrying in His heart the cares and concerns of all the poor people of the earth.
And now Jesus surrounds and infiltrates all times and all places with the beating heart of this truth! Sometimes hidden just under the surface; but always there, if you’re willing to face it: is the truth that real love costs everything you have, and it’s the only thing that matters.
We live in an age today where “would-be tyrants” try to confuse us with so-called “alternative facts” - or “lies” as we call them in Scotland! Jesus was born to proclaim God’s truth to all of us as we struggle to use our power, no matter how humble, in ways that facilitate God’s reign; and the Church has a prophetic, and sometimes, dangerous role in speaking truth to power.
The Christian writer William Shedd said this: “A ship is safest in the harbour, but that’s not what a ship is built for.” At the moment, all of us have left the safety of harbour and life as we knew it. We’re uncomfortably out at sea - whether making difficult decisions to help keep a business alive or turning hands to home schooling, everything’s at sixes and sevens.
These last nine weeks have provided a pause to contemplate what we were (and weren’t) made for. We’ve had time to think about what we long to rush back to - and the stuff we’ll be lighter and brighter without. But even in an age of uncertainty it seems pretty clear that we were built for connection.
So as the costly and hard won “Road Map” for the cautious and gradual relaxation of the “Lockdown” unfolds before us, what kind of future will we seek for God’s people?
Will we try as far as possible to go back to the way things were? Or will we try to create a more just and caring society? What impact does collective tragedy have on the human imagination? The German philosopher Hegel said that “the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. But the great prophets of the Bible who experienced tragedy, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, said in effect, we must learn from history if we are to avoid repeating it. We have to use the pain we’ve all been going through to sensitise ourselves to the pain of others, the poor, the weak, the marginalised and the vulnerable... Collective suffering can move us from “I” to “We”; from the pursuit of self-interest to care for the common good - which will it be for us?
It’s worth looking at the last two great tragedies in Western history, World War I and the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, and World War Two. After 1918, nothing much changed. It was an age of individualism and inequality, of the Roaring Twenties and the great Gatsby, wild dances and even wilder parties, as if people were trying to forget and put the past behind them.
It was fun, but it led to the General Strike of 1926; and the Great Financial Crash of 1929; the recession of the 1930s; and the rise in mainland Europe of nationalism and fascism; and a mere twenty-one years after the “War To End All Wars” - the world was at war again! On that occasion, Hegel was right - people learned nothing from history!
The reaction to World War Two was quite different. There was the 1944 Education Act that extended Secondary Education to everyone. There was the National Health Service and the birth of the Welfare State. The United States produced the Marshall Plan that helped a ravaged Europe to rebuild itself. The result was seventy-five years of peace! Because people knew they had to build something more progressive and inclusive. When war or disease affects all of us - we learn to care for all of us! I hope and pray that’s what happens now, that we go on together to build a fairer society, where human values count as much as economic ones. We’ve been through too much simply to go back to where we were; we have to rescue some blessing from the curse, we have to salvage some hope from the pain.
The Ascension story, then, is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing presence of Jesus after His death. The God they saw in Jesus they now, though the Holy Spirit, found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as extravagantly as He did. They could live as abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did! With Jesus pointing the way - they had found God, and while Jesus had now “Ascended”, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them!
We, too, can experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in, with, and through Christ’s body in the here and now. As we approach the celebration of Pentecost, we can find in the Ascension story an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.
May these realisations live and breathe and have their being in us - that we may know the joy of seeing Kingdom values point the way into the new normal! And may we know the God Christ points to; the God who is everywhere, even in us. There is no going back we’re only going forward! So may we love as extravagantly as Jesus loved! May we live as abundantly as Jesus lived!
And may we be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place - in this time!
Almighty God, Your Son, Jesus Christ, ascended far above all heavens that He might fill all things. Grant that Your Church on earth may be filled with His presence and that He may remain with us always, to the end of the world;
Through the same Jesus Christ our Risen, Ascended Lord, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit. One God, in glory everlasting,