“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when [Jesus] had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:8-9, ESV)
Today—Thursday, May 26, 2022—is a very important day on the liturgical calendar. This is Ascension Day, when the Church on earth turns its gaze heavenward—just like those eleven apostles did on that long-ago day on the outskirts of Bethany.
Can you picture it? With their heads tilted back, hands held to shade their eyes, they watch Jesus disappear into the clouds.
Then they begin to wonder: what’s next?
What’s next for them?
will become of their hopes and dreams? What about the future that Jesus had so vividly described for them—God’s fulfilled kingdom of peace and wholeness and grace and beauty?
Was this the end? Or was it a new beginning?
With his last words to them, Jesus spoke to the disciples about power from the Holy Spirit—and about a grand mission of witnessing “to the ends of the earth.”
But how would all this happen? Who would provide direction and leadership? How would they be protected against persecution and failure? Would they be protected against persecution and failure?
Eleven disciples standing on an empty hillside outside Bethany, staring at an empty place in the sky, wondering what would come next, until two angels appear to shake them from their reverie with the message of Jesus’ return.
“This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven,” they say, “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
But when? And in the meantime, what?
On Ascension Day, Christians look skyward and ask, “When will Jesus come again?” And in the meantime … what? The anniversary of the ascension of Jesus Christ has come ‘round now—year in and year out—for two millennia. The Body of Christ on earth has grown from eleven disciples to over two billion people spread through every nation of the world.
And down through the centuries, we who bear his name have suffered persecution—and, sadly, have also inflicted persecution.
From the beginning of Christianity under the weight of Roman intolerance; to the shame of the Crusades; to the rebirth of the Reformation; from Paul to Augustine to Hitler to Martin Luther King Jr. to Vladimir Putin; the name of the crucified, resurrected and ascended Christ has been invoked for great good—and for terrible evil!
Ascension Day is the anniversary of our commissioning. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus tells the first disciples. Their commission is our inheritance. Ascension Day is a time to pause and consider how we have done—and how we are doing—at being Jesus’ witnesses.
How are we doing at carrying on where Jesus and all the disciples before us have left off? Is Jesus’ ministry alive and growing in us and in our faith community?
How are we doing when it comes to living out the principles he taught us?
Are we living lives of compassion? Of justice? Of hope? Of forgiveness?
Have we welcomed the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to boldly speak the name of Jesus? Are we truly carrying on the work of those disciples in whose footsteps we follow?
On this day of the Church Year, we turn our gaze heavenward.
It would, in fact, be a good day to find a grassy hill somewhere, lie back and play that game some of us used to love when we were kids—of trying to find shapes and faces in the clouds.
For we Christians—when we look into the sky, when we gaze at the clouds floating over—we see things a little differently than other folks. Or at least, we ought to!
Why? Because Christ has ascended.
A bit later on in the Book of Acts—in chapter seven—Luke tells the story of Stephen, who “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
Even if our vision is less acute than Stephen’s was, we who look with eyes of faith can—in the clouds—discern the figure of our blessed Saviour.
When we gaze at the heavens—or when we consider the world around us—we do not look through rose-coloured glasses! But we do see with eyes of faith. And with eyes of faith, we see the hand of God still at work amongst us. We sense the wind of the Holy Spirit alive on the breeze.
We recognize—and we celebrate—moments of grace and hope as sure signs that Jesus remains among us—and that salvation will indeed, one day, be finally and fully complete for this world.
Oh, I know. We have not always lived up to our commissioning as disciples of Jesus Christ. We have not always been faithful to our high calling as witnesses to his coming Kingdom. Not always has the Church been a shining beacon of hope and healing in the world. Yet—by the grace of God—we have not been abandoned nor marooned upon this earth.
No. Far from it.
Just as he promised—through the power of the Holy Spirit—Jesus continues to work in our lives. And through us—imperfect as we are—he continues working:
On Ascension Day we turn our gaze heavenward—and we are once again reminded both of our calling and of Jesus’ promise to be present with us, and to bless our witness for him ... as we behold his Kingdom come ... in our lives.
Thanks be to God.