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Ascending Down

Acts 1:1-11: In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying[a] with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”


6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “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.”


This part of Jesus’ story, the Ascension, has always puzzled me. Why would Jesus go somewhere else so soon after being resurrected? Why would he leave at all? Why not just put everything right, then and there?


These questions remind me of John’s Gospel, when Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. When Mary recognizes Jesus she cries out “Rabbouni!” but he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Do not hold on to me? How dissatisfying! The last time Mary saw Jesus his corpse was being laid in the tomb, but now her teacher and friend stands in front of her alive. Of course she wants to hold onto him! But Jesus tells her not to, and the reason is that he has not yet ascended. Jesus doesn’t want Mary to stay there with him because he’s got somewhere to go, but also so does she: he’s got to go to the right hand of the God, and she’s got to bear witness to the other disciples. Jesus will ascend; Mary will witness. So, the Resurrection is not an end point, not the seventh day of the week when we stop and rest; the Resurrection is the “first day of the week,” and the Ascension calls Jesus’ disciples to join in making a new world.


In Acts 1, we hear one of the stories of Jesus ascending, and in this account the disciples also want to hold onto him, in their own way. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” they ask him. Throughout the Gospels, we’ve heard Jesus’ disciples and even his enemies ask this kind of question. We’ve been hearing that the Kingdom of God is at hand and we’ve been taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” Again and again the people who hear Jesus saying such things, seem to think that when he talks about the Kingdom, he’s talking about a military uprising that expels the Romans from the Promised Land and sets Israel up as the new, great empire. This is why Peter pulls out his sword and starts hacking peoples’ ears off in Gethsemane. With this kind of hope, the disciples see the Cross as an interruption in the kingdom-building work that Jesus had really come to do. And the Resurrection now means that this work can resume (If you’re leading a military coup, it’s a real advantage that your general can come back from the dead). So, now that Jesus is risen, it’s time to start looking forward to that  kind of Kingdom again.


The disciples ask Jesus when the Kingdom is coming because the Empire has shaped their desires. They’ve lived their whole lives under Roman rule. They see the Roman roads cutting across their fields, shaping their landscape, and they see how efficiently the Romans can move supplies and troops along those routes. Any time they paid for something, they saw Caesar’s face on their coins and remembered that all of those coins actually belong to Caesar. When they looked out along the horizon, it would not have been surprising to see a garrison, high walls full of troops, full of spears and swords, ready to “keep the peace” at a moment’s notice.


These daily realities would’ve been intimidating, but they are also seductive. And they offer a coherent picture of the entire world where Rome is at the center imparting light and order to all the colonies. Everything is in it’s right place. It is, in it’s way, a beautiful picture, so long as you don’t pay attention to the crucifixions and the violence along the borders that make it possible. Now, imagine if the right people were at the center of that picture, if instead of Caesar there was a man after God’s own heart like David making the name of the LORD known to all the nations. It’s an intoxicating thought. Imagine if you could hold that power, the power to rule the world and keep your people safe, in your own hands. That power is seductive, and so the disciples long for their own Kingdom. They want to hold onto Jesus because they believe he will fulfill their desires for a Christian government.


But Jesus frustrates those desires. As he so often does, he refuses to answer the question, because the question already assumes the type of answer the disciples want to hear. Their question assumes a certain kind of kingdom that looks a lot like Rome. But Jesus won’t let Rome set the terms for his kingdom. He tells the disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He says that the Holy Spirit will give them a kind of power, but when the Holy Spirit comes, their orders are not to conquer, but to witness to the victory that has already happened in the Cross and the Resurrection. And they do that not by taking, not by seizing and extracting, but by giving up everything for each other, by holding all things in common. The kind of communism that the Book of Acts describes, where the believers share all their belongings and the rich give up their wealth and it’s redistributed among the community, isn’t just a nice social justice ethic; it’s a direct confrontation with the order of the Empire.


The plan that Jesus gives his disciples here hints at what Jesus really thinks about Rome. This plan describes a movement outward in concentric circles from Jerusalem to the surrounding areas and finally to the ends of the earth, and this is also an outline for the book of Acts. Acts does begin in Jerusalem with the coming of the Holy Spirit; and then we read of Peter and Paul and the other apostles moving outwards to Judea and Samaria, before going into the Gentile nations...but then the book ends in the capital city, in Rome. So the writer tells us that we’re going to end up at the “ends of the earth” but then the book concludes with the Apostle Paul in Rome. Rome might think it’s at the center, but Jesus turns the things upside down, throws the furniture around, rearranges the patterns of this world.


And this is part of why the Ascension is so important. In it, Jesus refuses the patterns of this world. The disciple’s mission will start in Jerusalem, but Jesus does not set up a capital city of his own. Jesus is the center of the Kingdom of God, and so when Jesus ascends we learn that he cannot be pinned down on any map, in any national identity, but can only be found at the right hand of God. We don’t get to locate Jesus, to identify Jesus with any of our understandings of what is powerful or beautiful or even good. We don’t get to identify Jesus with any regime or leader or corporation (even the ones we like). In the Ascension, Jesus runs out beyond any of our attempts to fit him within the ways we think the world ought to work, and calls us to follow him into a new creation beyond our wildest imaginings.


Jesus can’t be located at the center of any map, but this doesn’t mean that he abandons creation. At the Ascension, Jesus goes to be at the right hand of the Lord, but God is so distinct from the world that God can be present anywhere and everywhere in the world. If God was really majestic just like a mountain or powerful like a king, then it would only be fitting for God to show up in high places or in royal personas, in the masculine, the white, the straight, the American. But God is not limited by our expectations, by our ideas of what is divine, what the powers of this world tell us is good, what is beautiful; and so God can show up anywhere.


Jesus ascends to the Lord, but that’s not really him “leaving.” He promises that he’ll send his Spirit upon us, where we are, so that we, collectively, can live the kind of life he lived, are even his Body now. If the powers of this world tell us we need a great man, a charismatic leader, to make a different world, Jesus says, “No, you only need each other and my Spirit in your midst and you will do greater miracles than I’ve done. If you have but the faith of a mustard seed and bear witness to how my Spirit is calling you to care for each other, you will move mountains.”


Jesus doesn’t want to become an emperor, he wants us to know we’re divine. He doesn’t want to take over management of the world as it is, he wants us swept up in mass movement bearing the fruits of a whole new creation. Jesus ascends to empower us to love each other and our neighbors as if a different world is possible. Yesterday, Mercedes-Benz brought in a pastor to one of their plants in Alabama to try to convince the United Auto Workers that they should give the company’s new CEO a chance before they make their demands or think about striking. That strikes me as an obvious cynical attempt to use faith to slow down some of the union’s momentum, but the Ascension shows that that’s not just cynical politics, it’s bad theology, too. The reality of the Resurrection after Jesus ascends is a mass movement of workers holding all things in common and demanding that the rich give up their wealth.


As Jesus ascends, an angel comes and asks the disciples, “Why are you looking up toward heaven?” It’s such a perfect question. We’ve been taught to look up. Find the authority, find the leader, follow directions, because you’re obviously not adequate to what’s needed. But Jesus ascends so that he can be present to us, not in a position over us, but in each of us and in all of us together. We’re called to bear witness, to bear witness where we are, and to bear witness in the places we’ve been told we’re not allowed to go. New creation isn’t something we look up to watch the powerful and the wealthy do on our behalf, it’s what we’re called to do together, as the Spirit carries us from where we are to places we never could’ve imagined. Amen.




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