"While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy." What a difference a few weeks can make. Here we see the disciples reacting to Jesus' Ascension with celebration and joy, whereas after the crucifixion, they had scattered in disarray and fear. Worried that the same fate would befall them as had happened to Jesus, they had run in a dozen different directions, fleeing for their lives. When they did come together, it was to huddle in a room with a locked door. Their fear totally disabled them and, while we can be almost certain that some part of their minds remembered all the good things that Jesus had told them and instructed them to do, they were frozen in time. Once confident of their ability to go forth and accomplish the mission that had been entrusted to them, now they knew not which way to turn or what to do. Without Jesus, they were lost.
Many of us can relate to that situation. A wonderful teacher or leader can do that to us. Even while we hang on to their every word when we are in their midst, even as they instill in us confidence and certainty in our own abilities, being out on our own is a very different story. Recalling their strengths, we minimize our own gifts and talents. How can we possibly measure up? How can we possibly be capable of following them? Who will listen to us?
Think about the crowds that followed Jesus in large numbers, crowds that stayed for long hours listening to his every word, long enough so that meal times came and went, and Jesus worried about giving them something to eat. The disciples were not educated men. In truth, they were a motley crew. Certainly their own lives had been changed by Jesus, and yes, they had believed in his message, strongly enough to make them leave their homes and careers, but how could they ever carry on now after his crucifixion, especially with the authorities breathing down their necks. They began to doubt themselves and, even more, they began to doubt Jesus. Even Peter, the Rock, was so overwhelmed that he denied ever knowing Jesus, not once but three times. It was all too much.
But then Jesus had returned. After three short days they had seen him again, their risen Lord! He came back to them just as he had promised. Things were exactly as he had said after all. And as they walked and talked with him over the next forty days, their faith was renewed and strengthened. Their confidence in his promises and in their own abilities flourished. During that time they became ever more certain that his Spirit would always be with them, that his blessing would remain with them. With renewed confidence they were ready to be about the business of starting the church. They would be the ones to demonstrate what it is like to live out the Gospel. And so when their Lord Jesus was taken from them again, when the clouds received him, there was no sky gazing for them, watching after their ascended Lord. Their sights were locked firmly into serving those on earth. The proclamation of the good news would no longer be through Jesus, but through these disciples as they lived out the faith he had brought to them. By their witness, the word would begin to spread in and around Jerusalem, and then finally to reach the ends of the earth.
Even though there were just a few witnesses to this Ascension event, it had great implications for the future of the entire church, both then and continuing to the present day. Up until that moment, Jesus was seen only where he was, in and around the towns surrounding Galilee. Now, with his Ascension to sit at the right hand of the Father, Jesus was Lord of heaven and earth, present to all believers.
This is the great paradox of the Ascension. By removing himself from the world, he would no longer be confined to a single place or a single moment, but he would be alive in the Spirit to all people for all time. While it seemed at first glance to be an isolated heavenly event, in truth that moment opened the way for his message to spread throughout the world forever, wherever people live in his Spirit even as his Spirit abides in them.
Today the church is literally the Body of Christ, his presence in the world, and it is only as we live out that truth in our lives that the good news of the Gospel can continue to be spread throughout our midst and throughout the world. We are his presence in the world, seen by all in our relations with one another, in our work and in our worship. This should bring to all of us who call ourselves by his name, who call ourselves Christians, an awesome sense of responsibility.
We all know, or have known, people who wear this mantle with great grace, and live it out faithfully day after day. For them, it seems to come so naturally, while for most of us it is an ongoing struggle. Perhaps the greatest example of one who lived out the life of the Spirit on a daily basis in our time is the late Mother Teresa. She was someone who understood fully the message of the Ascension. She knew that in her earthly pilgrimage, it was her responsibility to be the Lord's hands and feet in the world. Placed on this earth in a certain time and place, it fell to her to live out the Gospel message as best she could, one person at a time. Said she, "I believe in person-to-person; every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that moment." For her, it was not necessary to do great things in the world, but only good things that brought the message of Christ's love to every person she met.
In many of our churches these days, the celebration of Ascension Day is in danger of becoming a forgotten practice. Church services on this day are a sometime thing. But in church or out, the message of the Ascension of our Lord continues, and the proclamation of that message falls to each of us. In Christ's time, this task fell to the disciples. Unsure as they were, they were able to muster their strength and go forth, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, to do the Lord's work.
All of us who are baptized have that same Spirit, and now it is our turn to proclaim our Lord's message of love and forgiveness, to bring the good news of the Gospel to this weary and war-torn world. Let us go forth. AMEN.