The Ascension of Jesus caught the disciples by surprise. They weren’t expecting it, and they didn’t understand it. So I guess if we’re not so sure 2000 years later what the Ascension is all about, well, at least we're in good company
What is the Ascension all about? Like the disciples, we have a tendency to stand looking up to heaven when we think about the Ascension of Jesus. And like them, we can use a redirection.
When Luke, the author of Acts, tells the story of the Ascension, he makes allusions to another story that is meant to help us out, to help us understand. The echo is unmistakeable, or at least it would have been to a first century Jewish community. In Luke’s text, the Ascension of Jesus sounds a lot like the Ascension of the Prophet Elijah. Do you remember that story? It’s found in the second book of Kings. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets of Israel, a force to be reckoned with and a powerful healer who spoke God’s word with authority. As Elijah neared the end of his life, he went into the wilderness, across the Jordan River, accompanied by his disciple Elisha. And there, as they were talking, a chariot of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Much like the disciples at Jesus’ ascension, Elisha looked to the heavens, gazing up into the sky long after Elijah was gone. When Elisha finally looks down, he sees in front of him the mantle of Elijah which had fallen to the ground. A mantle is a piece of clothing, like a cloak or a scarf, which is worn over the shoulders. Elisha took up the mantle, draped it over his shoulders and became the successor to Elijah. He took on Elijah’s mission and became a great prophet in his own right. And, we are told, the Spirit of Elijah rested upon him.
You see, the Ascension is a story of succession. It’s the passing of the mantle from Jesus to the disciples, the passing of the mantle from Jesus to the Church. That’s not what the disciples were expecting. When the went out with Jesus that day, they were expecting to be cheerleaders, not the church. “Jesus, what are you going to do next?” they asked him. They had big expectations for Jesus the Messiah. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” You go Jesus!
But he replies, “Don’t you worry about what I’m going to do. Let’s talk about what you’re going to do. Now it’s your time. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
And then, having given them this daunting task, Jesus leaves, he’s lifted up out of their sight. The Ascension is about succession. Jesus is gone. Now it’s your turn. It’s your turn to tell the story. You will be my witnesses. It’s your turn to carry on with the mission that I began. I’ve left my mantle here for you. Are you going to pick it up?
It’s hard to resist the temptation to look up into heaven. But our mission is right here, right now. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” You have work to do, starting right here in Jerusalem. Time to pick up the mantle.
Because really the Ascension is just the beginning, which is why Luke puts the Ascension right at the beginning of the book of Acts. The Ascension marks the beginning of a new relationship between Christ and his followers, between Christ and what will come to be called the Church. Even though it might look like a leaving, even like abandonment, the ascension of Jesus actually makes possible a deeper, more intimate relationship with the disciples. Moving beyond the limits of time and space allows Jesus to enter into a new relationship with his disciples, this relationship of mutual in-dwelling, of mutual abiding that we’ve been talking about these past few Sundays. The church becomes the body of Christ in the world. Christ in us and we in Christ.
The Ascension is about succession. The Ascension is about a new relationship. And the Ascension is about empowerment. It is a daunting task to be entrusted with the mission of Jesus. Quite rightly, we question whether we’re up to the task. No wonder the disciples just kept on gazing up towards heaven. The call to be Jesus’ witnesses, to be the ones entrusted with proclaiming the good news of God in Christ is no easy task. Which is why Jesus makes them a promise. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. You will be baptized by the Holy Spirit not many days from now. Wait for it! And they do. And ten days later they are indeed empowered by the Holy Spirit, and they flood out into the streets of Jerusalem, and they turn the world upside down. That’s power.
The Ascension is about mission. The mantle of Jesus is lying on the ground, ready to be picked up, ready to be passed on to the church. The church has been entrusted with Jesus’ mission in the world. What is Jesus’ mission? It’s all the things we read about in our gospel readings week after week. It’s proclaiming the kingdom of God. It’s teaching, it’s healing, it’s doing justice. It’s forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s showing us what love looks like, so that we can love one another. It’s showing us what it looks like to be fully human, living in intimate relationship with God. It’s making God known. Of all this, we are to be witnesses, we are to be the story-tellers, the truth-sayers, the ones who make God known through our words and deeds. The mantle is on the ground before you. Are you ready to pick it up? This is our mission if we choose to accept it. No wonder we need to be empowered by the Spirit.
This is what the Ascension is about. It’s about succession, it’s about a new relationship, it’s about empowerment, it’s about mission. We’re not called to be cheerleaders for Jesus, gazing up into heaven, saying “You go Jesus!” We’re called to be the church, right here on earth, right here in the muck and mess and beauty and wonder of our every day lives. Because the Ascension is an invitation and a reminder that we are called to be active participants in the mission of God. The mantle has been passed to us, and our primary task is to be witnesses. What are the stories that we’re going to tell with our words and our lives? How is God calling us to proclaim the good news in our time and in our place?
Yr A Easter 7, Ascension Sunday, May 21 2023, Trinity
Readings: Acts 1.1-14, Ps 68.1-10, 33-35, 1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11; John 17.1-11
Image by mstudio