S. Ascension.15 “First Time to See” Acts 1:1-11
The Ascension of our Lord is kind of a puzzling thing, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why we have the story told to us twice today? But neither Luke’s account in Acts nor the account in the Gospel exactly answers my questions. This may be very simple-minded of me, but I would have thought that if you were God, and you wanted to establish an everlasting Kingdom, embracing heaven and earth and including all humanity, with joy and peace for all, there might be a better way than ascending to heaven a mere 40 days after the Resurrection. Why the rush? You’ve invested 33 years of earthly life in the project, endured plenty of hardship and woe, and the really hard part, the dying and rising thing, is done. Why not bask in the glory of that for a while? In fact, why not just stick around on earth, set up a nice Palace in Jerusalem so that everyone can see You and believe and get their questions answered, and then we’ll all ascend to heaven together when the time is ripe and all the world is convinced? Doesn’t that sound nice?
I mean, seriously, who would challenge You for supreme Emperor of the World? You’re an immortal, omniscient, omnipotent Being. You’re impervious to death, better than Superman! Even Kryptonite can’t slow You down. The world loves Superman, and he’s not even real, but You are! Why not stick around and make the most of it? Seems to me it would make Your Kingdom irresistible. If You’d only extended the 40 day earthly reign, it would make it easier to worship You as Lord and God, for one thing. We could do it in Person, face to face. All we’d have to do is make the trip to Jerusalem, or wherever You want to set up shop. If the Pope pulls a crowd in Rome for Christmas and Easter services (and he does!) imagine how popular Christmas and Easter service with Jesus in Jerusalem would be! I think that would rock! Maybe leap a tall building before every sermon or always enter through the walls? You’d have them on the edge of their seat. You could even preach much more than 10 minutes and still have everyone’s full attention. And I know the liturgy would be traditional!
If only Jesus had extended the 40 days after the Resurrection to this day, we could get all our questions answered, right? So many of us wonder: did it really happen, the Incarnation, the Rising from the Dead thing? Seeing Jesus in the flesh, year after year, displaying the nail holes, doing some more miracles, how could that fail to convince? If we could just see Him, in the flesh, just once, Risen, we’d know, right? And then not only would the Church be full, every Sunday, but we wouldn’t need to have anymore church conventions or bureaucrats. Jesus would run everything directly. And, we wouldn’t have all the corrupt earthly governments we’ve suffered through for millennia, either. No corruption in Jesus’ administration! He’d make sure taxes were nil, and the traffic lights would always be timed perfectly. Who wouldn’t like it?
But instead, after just 40 days, He makes a beeline for heaven, disappears from our sight, and is Present with us only in the mysterious way of the Word and Sacraments and the Church, which requires faith to get Him, and faith is not easy. Seems like the hard evidence of His visible, tangible, Resurrected, Omnipotent Presence would be far better. Don’t you think? So why the Ascension at all?
The first disciples seem to have had the same question. When they asked Him “Lord, will You at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” they are basically asking all the questions I just did. Why not stick around? Why not set up a Palace, here, in Jerusalem, the Holy City, where everyone can see You, always? Sounds like a plan right?
But Jesus responds cryptically: “It’s not for you to know times and seasons—but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses (martyrs, literally in Greek) in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And then He doesn’t even appear to His enemies, Herod, Pilate, etc. to show how wrong they were! Instead He leads the disciples out to Bethany, His favorite spot, and ascends into heaven. And I love the two angels who show up and look up in the sky with the 12 going: “What are we looking for? He’ll be back in the same manner in which you saw Him go…”
The weirdest thing of all is as soon as it happens, the disciples are happy. They return to Jerusalem worshiping Him with great joy, continually in the temple, praising God. What do they get that I don’t? I’ve pondered this for a long time… I guess, for one thing, they’ve learned by now that their idea of how things should go with Jesus is always wrong. So now, when Jesus does the opposite of what they would do, they go “Well, yeah! Of course! If our first impression is always wrong, then this will turn out splendidly!” And that’s faith for you. That’s how it starts, at least, when God does the opposite of what you think is good, it shows you that something divine is going on!
But still, I can’t help but think I’d be better off if He’s stuck around so I could see. But Jesus tells a story that perhaps answers the question. It’s a story about a rich man who died and went to hell. And the beggar, Lazarus (who always begged outside the rich man’s gate and never got anything) dies too and goes to heaven, gets a seat right next to Father Abraham, one of the best seats in the House. And the rich man says “Father Abraham! Send Lazarus back to earth to warn my brothers. If they see someone who’s risen from the dead, they will surely listen to him!” But Abraham goes “Uh, no, actually. No, they won’t. They have Moses and the Prophets and if they don’t hear them they won’t believe even if someone were to rise from the dead and appear to them!”
See, Jesus showed Himself, openly, to the world and… we killed Him! He rubbed most of us the wrong way with that whole forgiving thing and the faith thing and the losing your life in order to save it thing. Sometimes the subtle approach is best. Sometimes we need to be left alone with our thoughts and our doubts, need to get sick of the way we do things before we’re ready for His Way…
Maybe He ascends to heaven because it’s the only way to draw my thoughts, heart, soul up there? Maybe through His Word, Spirit, Sacraments and Church, Jesus is showing Himself to all in the Way that’s actually best, most likely to lead to Faith and Life with Him in His Kingdom Perhaps we think too much of earthly things and not enough of heaven, so Jesus Ascends to literally draw us up with Him, to show that a life wholly devoted and set on heaven is the best we can do on earth?
The Apostles’ faith kicks into high gear only when they don’t see anymore, when they have to believe, then they become exemplars of the Faith! From this point on they are set on heaven and just so they take the world by storm! Ascending into heaven, Jesus fills all things with His Presence in a real, but Mysterious fashion—which turns out to be the best Way for us to actually get Him and appreciate IT. And the seeing at the Last Day, when Christ returns in glory, visibly, will be more wonderful, more joyful, for us for whom it’ll be our first time to see; and the Peace surpassing understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.