If you were to crack open your bible, you would see that right after the four Gospels – the four texts that tell the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – comes a book called The Acts of the Apostles. Sometimes we just call it the book of Acts, which is actually an appropriate short form since it really does retell the activities of the birth of the church.
We talk often about how there are different types of books contained in the bible, how it’s more a library of texts than a single book, and the books it contains can run from poetry to folk history to personal correspondence to folk history and back again. This book, the Book of Acts, is widely accepted as a work of ancient history. The events that it describes are corroborated in all kinds of other texts, like the letters of St. Paul, as well as lots of writings that aren’t in the bible. The author is trying to recount real events, and to tell the story of the building up of the church from a ragtag band of failed followers of the crucified Jesus into a worldwide movement that seeks peace, goodness, and the building up of the world as it was meant to be.
This book of ancient history begins in a strange way. The author says, essentially, ‘I just finished telling you about Jesus and what he did and taught up until the day he was taken up into heaven.’
And you’d think that the author would pause here, because people don’t get taken up into heaven on your average Friday afternoon.
But he doesn’t. He actually backtracks, and makes sure to mention all of the ways that Jesus actually appeared to people, and convinced even skeptical people that he really had risen from the dead.
And then, having died and risen again, Jesus refuses to give the disciples any particular insight into the way the future will unfold (they ask), but he instead promises that the disciples will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (apparently that’s supposed to be more than enough). And then, while they were watching, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Have you seen drawings of this event? Jesus, radiant with heavenly glory, rising up on a cloud as the disciples reach their heads and their hands up in wonder and amazement. And, of course, they did – what else could they have done? Heads and hands lifted high, witnessing something that we can only wonder at.
Heads and hands raised, entering into the glory of God with nothing more than themselves and their desire to bask in the glow of that moment. Freed, at least for a moment, of their fears and failings. Of their desires and accomplishments and aspirations. Empty-handed. As we contemplate the glory of the Ascension, we ought to wonder if there’s any other way to really enter into the glory of God but empty-handed.
And then, as they soak up the last few moments of this dazzling experience, some angels appear. And they essentially say – ‘hey guys! What are you looking up there for?’
Which is a ridiculous question, of course. Who on earth wouldn’t be looking up, lost in the moment?
But also, an important and formative question. Because, the angels say, Jesus is coming back the same way he went. Which is another way of saying, the action is here. There is work to do, and a world to change. Love to give. A Holy Spirit to receive.
Have you seen that Ascension Day meme that’s been going around? It’s a picture of Jesus ascending in glory, with a caption that says, ‘Ascension Day – when Jesus started working from home.’
I’ll admit to laughing the first time I saw it. Because it’s funny, especially when COVID leaves us needing to laugh from time to time. But it represents an awful, distorted understanding of God.
This kind of thinking – that ‘heaven’ is God’s home and earth is something to be escaped – is exactly why the Angels ask the disciples why they’re still looking up.
You see, Jesus ascends to enter the fullness of the glory of God, revealing in a definitive way who he is and how we should understand his ministry. Not because he has left us. His presence is with us now, as it has been with us through the ages. God loves this earth and everyone in it. Creation is good and holy, and the joy of its creator, and Jesus will return just the way he came.
And the author begins this history text this way for good reason. The whole of the development of the church is oriented by these truths – that Jesus ascended, and that the action is here. Heaven and earth, united. God with us.
So today, we’re invited to look up and catch a glimpse of the glory of God that leaves us awe-struck and empty-handed. And then we’re called to let our gaze return to the ground, where we might see the need around us and share the love of God with our neighbours.
Because our home is with God.
And that is right here.