This is the season of cliffhangers. I don’t watch television with any regularity but there are one or two shows that I try to never miss. Grey’s Anatomy is one of them although I’ve had a love hate relationship with the show since a couple of years ago the cliffhanger involved some serious, scary and very needless violence throughout the entire show. I was so disturbed by it that I didn’t watch the show for an entire year. It didn’t help that at the time I was an overnight chaplain at Yale New Haven Hospital and had to roam the corridors of that big place from the sleep room to the ER.
But, I forgave Grey’s and became a viewer again. Two weeks ago I watched the cliffhanger that wrapped up this season. It was gory but not necessarily violent and it has certainly peaked my interest for next year. Who will leave the show? Who will stay? Whose career as a doctor on TV will change? What’s going to happen next? Cliffhangers leave us yearning for answers and conclusions.
Jesus’ Ascension is a cliffhanger. We are left wondering and waiting, what happens next? The Book of Acts picks up exactly where the Gospel of Luke drops off with the Ascension of Jesus. That’s because scholars believe the author of Luke is the very same author of Acts. In Luke we are told of the stories and ministry of Jesus and Acts contains stories of the life and works of the early church and the people involved with it. What divides the two are the Ascension and Pentecost that we will celebrate next week.
It is forty days after Christ’s resurrection, and the Ascension marks a pivotal moment in scripture where Christ makes his physical departure from this earth. He takes his leave. Let’s read the account from the Book of Acts and then unpack the meaning it holds for us.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying 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; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘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.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.’
I can only imagine that this was a rather unusual experience for Jesus’ disciples, but by now they were used to unusual occurrences with their friend Jesus. He provided them fairly regularly with out of the ordinary situations and learning experiences. In fact, most everything he did was out of the ordinary from miracles and healings to dining with outcasts to scriptural interpretation, and being raised from the dead. Why would Jesus actually leaving this earth be any different?
Now this was not some ‘beam me up Scotty’ type of Ascension but rather it appears to be a gentle taking of his leave and in his stead were two men in white robes. ‘Why do you look up?’ they ask. And then they reassure the men of Galilee, ‘he will come again, just like he went’. Still in all, I would have been a little skeptical at this. I don’t know about you but my head would have been frozen in the looking up at the clouds position like the disciples.
That was it? It’s all over? The last three years…were they an enigma? Was it just a figment of our first century imagination? Did all of this really happen? Did any of this really happen? He was here and now he is gone. We were at our fishing boats in the Galilee and now we are city slickers in Jerusalem. We had this amazing experience and NOW WHAT? Now what?
No doubt they were changed. Unbelievable experiences, whether they are pleasant, exciting or tragic and sad will always change us. Questions swirl in our heads and hearts; what am I supposed to do next? How do I go on living? What’s my purpose if my former reality has changed? How do I reorient myself toward healthy, hopeful living?
It’s as if your life was full and then a vacuum comes and sucks all of the life out of it leaving you empty and uncertain. It’s the silence after a piercing explosion.
I am reminded of this ‘time after’, this ‘now what’ question especially on Memorial Day weekend and to a larger extent on Veterans Day. So many men and women warriors did not make it home alive and their families had to reorient themselves to a life without their loved one.
Their courage in the battle for liberty, in the fight to do the right thing issues to families the question ‘now what?’ when they do not return. How do we go on living, how do we find meaning when the rest of the world continues on its merry way?
And vets will have to reintegrate themselves back into a more or less functioning society when they have had an experience like no other. For some vets, it works. For others it becomes a life long struggle with destructive behavior.
For non-believers in a divine it is a cliffhanger without resolution. For us Christians, two men in white robes appear and offer a different course, a new way of seeing. For us, now what?, really becomes what’s next! Christ’s ascension is not without resolution. Jesus does not leave them hanging, this is not a cliffhanger where you have to wait three months to see what happens. Jesus leaves them with a promise of his abiding presence through the spirit to come. The cliff that we cling to really is the mighty rock of our salvation.
Through the resurrection of Christ we have vision and hope. We know that there is a future that we will eventually get to because promises were made; Jesus died and he rose and we can only believe that he will come again. The apostle Paul reminds the people of Ephesus “...so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” (1:18)
With a heart enlightened, you can see into a mirror dimly and envision the future path that you need to take. With a heart enlightened, you will see that you are not left alone to answer the question, now what? The person next to you is there to help you and console you. It is the beauty of being a church community that the disciples eventually did understand. With hearts enlightened church began. With a heart enlightened there is hope.
The great good news of today is that when Jesus rose to heaven it’s not even close to being the end of the story. The spirit will come, as promised but that my friends is the story for next week!