One of the lectionary passages for the Seventh Sunday of Easter is part of Luke’s account of the ascension of Jesus — which only seems appropriate since Pentecost is around the corner.
I’ve always found the contrast between the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts to be interesting. At the end of his first book, the author of Luke and Acts includes the following verses: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 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, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
The writing here is bare bones, straightforward. When we get to Acts, it’s almost as if the author realized there was more to be told. I imagine the conversation he had with himself: “Wait, I forgot the disciples’ question; I forgot Jesus’ answer; I forgot the men dressed in white — how could I forget the men dressed in white?! I’ll just start this second book by retelling the whole story.”
And so these first verses in Acts provide details:
- the length of time Jesus was with his disciples
- the place they were to remain
- the promise of the coming of the Spirit
- the disciples questioning Jesus — like that’s anything new
- Jesus answering
- the cloud that takes Him out of their sight
- the men in the white robes
- and their challenge to those staring heavenward.
There is a lot about Jesus in this story. We have his miraculous and mysterious return to heaven, his parting wisdom, his promise of the Holy Spirit.
And we learn a lot about the role of the disciples. This is the event that changes the locus of Christ’s work and ministry from Jesus to those who follow him. Jesus is no longer here to preach the good news, heal the sick, and feed the hungry. This mission now falls to the disciples. And if that’s not enough, before Jesus lifts off, he tells his disciples they will take the ministry global — to the ends of the earth.
Jesus is leaving the disciples, but this time it’s not a leaving in the form of the agony from the death on the cross. Instead this time, it is filled with wonder and blessing. As Jesus leaves them, he blesses them.
And the disciples stand there, mouths gaping open, staring up into heaven. I can imagine my reaction would have been the same — this is a lot to take in! They are jarred out of their stupor by the two men in white who ask, “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, get your head out of the clouds! Get a move on; you have work to do.
Only there is a bit of waiting time for them — you know, where they are waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. And so their waiting is marked with worship in the Temple. Taking seriously their own blessing, the disciples now wait for the empowerment of the Spirit so that they can offer blessings to the end of the earth and bear witness to Christ.
As we ask of all Scripture, what does this passage hold for us today? How does the disciples’ time of blessing and waiting speak to us? I will confess the thought of seeing Jesus being whisked away into the clouds is appealing to me as a representation of divine mystery. And yet, we’re not supposed to dwell with our necks cranked up at the sky. We, too, are challenged by the words the angels spoke: why do you stand gazing towards heaven? Our calling as disciples of Jesus is to get a move on —to share what we know, to offer blessings to the communities around us. The challenge for us is to discern the shape of that witness.
Our passage ends with the disciples devoting themselves to prayer as they await the promise of the Holy Spirit. We know that story too; we know the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. And perhaps for us, it’s not so much that we are waiting for the Holy Spirit to arrive but that we are waiting for the Holy Spirit to nudge us toward the door so that we can step out into the world.
Questions for reflection:
- Thinking of the ways in which God has blessed you, how do you extend that blessing to others?
- How does your life of discipleship witness to the power of the Holy Spirit?
- When have you had your head in the clouds when what God wanted you to do was “get a move on”? What work was God inviting you to do?
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