When they were together for the last time they asked, "Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?"
He told them, "You don't get to know the time. Timing is the Father's business. What you'll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world."
These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, "You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left." -- Acts 1:6-11, The Message
The Ascension is an often-overlooked festival. Because it always falls on a Thursday, it doesn't make it onto many church worship cycles. And it is a puzzling story:
- Jesus' followers, to the end, are clueless -- now that you've been brought back to life, are you going to establish Israel's glory and make yourself king?
- Instead, Jesus rebukes them (that's not for you to know) and charges them with a task that is as confusing as it is overwhelming. Go to the ends of the earth? Why, we Jews can't visit Samaritans without becoming unclean, much less other heathen people!
- Then, instead of explaining, he simply disappears, shrouded in mystery. No wonder the disciples just stand there, jaws dropped, staring at the sky! But two angels appear and chide the followers about not getting it, again.
Indeed, why would Jesus, having conquered death and proved who he is, not establish his kingdom there and then? What's the point of leaving the disciples -- again?
This action takes place at the critical juncture between the two parts of Luke's witness, his gospel and the book of Acts. It's a transition between Luke, which delves deeply into Jesus' invitation to living a changed life in God's kingdom, and Acts, which shows the Holy Spirit guiding the fledgling Church out of its comfort zones (again and again) and empowering its people to do the improbable and sometimes impossible to bring God's kingdom about. (Theologian Justo Gonzalez goes so far as to say that we've got it wrong calling it The Acts of the Apostles; it should be The Acts of the Spirit, he says.)
Jesus' ascension isn't an end. It marks a new phase in God's plan, through which his people, the Church, with the Spirit's guiding and empowering, continue Jesus' work to bring about God's kingdom, which itself is a chapter of God's still-unfolding work of creation.
In other words, in this text Jesus is saying to his followers, then and now: God has established a kingdom that is very different -- and so much better -- than the social, economic and political orders of this world. I've poured out my life showing you how to live in God's kingdom; I've taught you, mentored you, coached you. I've set you free. Now, apprentices, its time for you to go out on your own! You're hired! You can continue my work, modeling the kingdom of God for all who will listen -- and you must. But you can only do it following me, through the Spirit.
You and I have are as frail and unseeing as this original band of followers. We are in many ways handicapped, not having known Jesus in the flesh and hearing his story encrusted with centuries of tradition and interpretation, not all of which is helpful to us today. Yet Jesus calls us to take up his work, to tell the world that the kingdom of God is at hand, and to live that kingdom. He calls us to be apprentices and to help others to learn from him. Are we willing to join him?
In what ways is God's Spirit stirring in you to help you live in the kingdom and share it with others? In what ways would you like the Spirit's power, direction and support to join Jesus' work? Ask Jesus for the help that you need.