Acts 1:6-14 (NRSV)
The Ascension of Jesus
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.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
As I think about Jesus being lifted up and his feet leaving the ground during the Ascension, I realise this is last time that God’s soles touched the same earth as mine. This is really, truly, the last time Jesus will be physically present, walking the earth. Understandably, his disciples are unwilling to accept this.
They had been through it emotionally and mentally once before, over Easter weekend when they believed him to be dead and gone. Having overcome an understandably huge dose of doubt to then accept the reality of the resurrection, I’m not surprised to see they were hoping and assuming Jesus would come back from this adventure too. For one, during his earlier ministry they had experienced, or at least heard about, the Transfiguration, which was another cloud-on-a-mountain miraculous experience Jesus had returned from, unscathed. By this point they must also have recalled with embarrassment, so many conversations with pre-death and resurrection Jesus where they completely missed his hints about the events to come. Now was their chance to make amends for their foolish and faithless behaviour in the past! This time they wouldn’t lose hope. This time they would await the glorious return of their saviour!
In a scene that is not included in The Life of Brian, but is certainly worthy of Monty Python, the moment this hapless band of disciples finally trusts him to turn up somewhere miraculously, is the very moment he has finally left them. To add insult to injury, classically obnoxious know-it-all angels* appear asking why on earth they are waiting around for him and helpfully telling them that when he does come back it’ll be the Armageddon, and not really a hill-walking kind of day.
What struck me this time round is that days pass between the moment Jesus’ feet leave the ground and the Pentecost moment when tongues of fire rest on the disciples’ heads. During the in-between time the disciples continue to live as God’s people, “of one accord and devoted to prayer”. I think that when we are telling the story of Jesus resurrection and then of the Pentecost event, we jump from one divine buoyancy aid to another too quickly. The world loses the God-man but it’s ok because the Holy Spirit is right on his heels to plug the gap. I mean, yes, that is true. I do believe we need the Holy Spirit in our lives, but what I have become interested in is the fact that there is a moment Jesus’ physical presence leaves this world and in that moment the Church as Christ’s body is formed. God doesn’t feel the need to make a big entrance in the form of the Spirit for a little while. It’s our moment to realise that it is only in that little group of disciples who are “of one accord and devoted to prayer” that the rest of the world can now feel the touch and healing of Christ. God will empower that ministry with his Spirit, but he chooses real, ordinary people to do it in partnership with him.
What a cataclysmic shift in mind-set for the disciples! Whatever about their capability of trusting in their friend Jesus to do miraculous things, how were they to comprehend that they were now his body in the world?
Do we understand that we are? Do we understand that together we are the opportunity for the wondering world to poke their fingers in Jesus’ wounds or for the hurting world to feel his healing? The Holy Spirit doesn’t save the day by cancelling out human weakness, he works in the world by giving the church’s humanity the vitality that the world needs. The space and time between Jesus’ last toe on earth and the first tongue of fire is enough space and time for us to realise God’s Spirit was coming to a body that He loves.
*I put these angels in the same category as the surly angels who ask Mary why she’s looking for Jesus’ body in the tomb, when, in fairness to Mary, he looked quite dead on the previous Friday.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.