Acts 1:6-14 The Ascension
A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to work out how to explain the Ascension to the toddlers of Little Rainbows at St John’s Itchen Abbas. They tend not to be terribly interested by theology – in fact it’s really all about props and actions with them. Then Lucy suggested – why don’t you just climb the stairs? So it went something like this:
‘On Good Friday all Jesus’ friends were very sad because he had died; they couldn’t see him or hear him. On Easter Day they were very happy, because he had come alive again: they could see him and hear him. Then he said he would be leaving them to go to his father; so they were very sad because they would not be able to see him. But he said they would still be able to hear him.
And then I said – can you see me now? ‘Yes’ (all the mums replied); can you hear me now; ‘yes’ said all the mums. Then after I started to climb the staircase I said ‘can you see me no?’ ‘no’ can you hear me ‘yes’.
Of course by the time that I had climbed the stairs, the toddlers had all started to follow me up the staircase. ‘No you can’t come up here yet – but you will be able to do so later’. The Ascension for toddlers.
The risen Jesus goes from physical presence on earth, where his friends can see him, hear him and touch him, to his Father’s side where they could not see him, but could still hear his voice, through the working of the Holy Spirit, who came to his disciples first at Pentecost.
Of course, there are those who say that the Ascension is a primitive idea – for a people who thought that heaven was ‘up there’ whereas of course we (being so much more knowledgeable about the universe) can dump that particular idea as myth. Why is it necessary to believe that he did take off like a rocket – or defy gravity in some way – as the stained glass window at St Lawrence Alton (where Andrew Micklefield now works) shows him hovering above the ground, like a kestrel, in a way that the artist has clearly found difficult to portray, without making him look ridiculous.
But there is a lot more going on in this passage than one might realise at a first glance.
The risen Jesus had been flitting in and out of his disciples’ perception ever since the day that Mary had recognised him near the tomb: on the road to Emmaus; in the room in Jerusalem; to the disciples while they fished.
His physical solid body had moved through doors and appeared and disappeared. Unless his final disappearance was somehow going to be different, how would the disciples know that he wasn’t just going to reappear again?
It needed to be clear that he was joining the Father. And so he is ‘taken up’ and hidden by a cloud. Throughout the Old Testament the Father’s presence is indicated by a cloud – a pillar of cloud leads the Israelites in the desert, envelopes Mount Sinai and fills the Tent of Meeting. For the Jews of the first century there was no better way of showing that he had returned to the Father, to that other dimension which we call ‘heaven’.
But whether he took off like a space rocket or hovered like a kestrel, there are important points to be made about this passage which have relevance for our Parish today.
They are impliedly made by the two angels whom the disciples encounter in verse 10. As with the two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning at the empty tomb in Luke 24 who ask the disciples why they were looking for Jesus amongst the dead, the question that the two men in white robes ask in verse 10 explain the significance of the moment to the disciples. Their question: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
In other words “Don’t waste your time looking towards the sky. When Jesus returns at the end of time, it will be from the sky that he arrives and be completely obvious to everyone. But in this period between then and now, during this period of waiting, you need to get on with what he told you to do”. What was that? Well, Jesus’ last command “while he was eating with them” for the last time was (verse 8) “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” empowered by the Holy Spirit.
I think that the principle that Jesus was teaching in that final meal before his ascension was “Witness, while you wait”.
He is going to return. The time of his return is fixed by the Father, but we don’t know it. It is going to be completely obvious to everyone in the world when he returns because he will come back in the same way that he left – from the sky. But in the meantime, we must witness while we wait.
You see there are two errors that the disciples (and we ourselves) can fall into our lives as we wait for Jesus’ return. One is to think that what Jesus wants us to do is to spend our time gazing heavenwards, waiting for his return – worship without witness, if you like. And the second error is to carry on our daily lives like everyone else who is not waiting for the return of Jesus – waiting without witness, if you like.
The last thing that the resurrected Jesus said according to Acts is that his disciples would be his witnesses…to the ends of the earth. It is all about witnessing to him. That is what we are meant to do during our lives as we wait for his return.
But how can we be his witnesses?
In three ways: Act/Answer/Speak
Act: I rather like the expression attributed to St Francis of Assisi “preach the gospel, use words if you have to”. By our actions and behaviour, we can be so different from everyone else, so like Jesus that our words and actions tell the gospel story themselves. But how can we be witnesses by our actions and our behavior in our community of Itchen Valley, when there are so many decent, generous, kind and helpful people around, who are not church goers; who look after their neighbours so well; who are so very community minded; who make such a wonderful contribution to the amazing community life that we lead here? Well who do we think is the most clear exponent of St Francis’ phrase “preach the gospel use words if you have to’ in the modern world. Clearly Pope Francis. Praying at the wall in Bethlehem and kissing the hands of the Holocaust survivors are clear gospel images.
But if we want to be witnesses by our behavior and actions then we have to be as radical as Pope Francis – so totally different from everyone else that it gets noticed and provokes questions.
But this is so difficult; as we are all on a journey and we all struggle in this area of how we behave, anyway. St Francis of Assisi abandoned his life as a rich nobleman and lived a life of total poverty. That’s what it means to ‘preach the gospel, use words if you have to’. But not all of us will be able to live a life of such radical denial. But if we do this we will be Credible Witnesses to Jesus.
And we can ‘Answer’. By our actions we may provoke a question. As St Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15 “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who ask you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”. We need to be upbeat and cheerful – not constantly moaning. We need to see our personal suffering and difficulties, when they come, as evil always does, in the context that we are waiting for Jesus to return and that he will put all in order when he does. This should give us hope. Hope despite difficulties, provokes questions and we need to be ready to answer them. If we do this, if we are prepared to give a reason for our hope, we will be Coherent Witnesses to Jesus.
And very importantly we can Speak: It seems to me that we do need to be willing to speak of our faith in Jesus Christ to our friends and neighbours, if we are to be witnesses to him. We can do this in two ways in a community like Itchen Valley, where people are so community minded whether or not they are witnesses to Jesus Christ, that doing good to your neighbor is not necessarily an indication of faith.
Firstly, we can make clear when we are doing things as the church, even if sometimes that may put others off from joining in with us. But in all things we must act with gentleness and respect.
And Secondly we need to be willing to be brave as we encounter our friends and neighbours in speaking about Jesus – as they tell us their problems, as we encounter their pain, we must be willing to share our hope and faith with them. If we can do this we will be Clear Witnesses to Jesus Christ.
Act/Answer/Speak – if we do these three we can be
Credible Witnesses to Jesus
Coherent Witnesses to Jesus and
Clear witnesses to Jesus
If we call ourselves Christians, if we are his disciples, it must be our priority to be witnesses to Jesus Christ.
Because this is the last thing he told us to be.
And if we fail to be his witnesses, our worship in church is really of no greater value than just staring into the sky….