“You are witnesses of these things.” The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts provides us with two descriptions of the ascension of Jesus. They are slightly different, although they do not conflict with one another. The Ascension was necessary because it was time for Jesus to return and become one with God again. He could not remain on earth in his post-resurrection state of being, which apparently was similar to how he appeared before the crucifixion, but not exactly the same. That brief post-resurrection time was critical to the survival of the early church. The empty tomb as proof of the resurrection was not enough. In the Book of Acts Luke tells us that “Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” The continuation of Christ’s mission to the world required eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus, and, one of the main concerns of Jesus, when he appeared to his followers, was to correctly interpret Scripture to them.
Although the post-resurrection time was not meant to last forever, Jesus could not just disappear while no one was watching. There had to be a dramatic event witnessed by his followers, so people would see, know and understand that not only was Jesus no longer going to be visible among them on earth, he was reuniting with God in heaven. The Ascension needed to make a powerful and lasting impression. Belief in the resurrected and ascended Christ cannot be argued or taught. Even Jesus did not try that method. He knew that the truth had to be seen, to be touched and to be experienced by his followers. On that day they became eyewitnesses to the glory of the Ascension. It was another part of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that they had to see and experience in order to carry out Christ’s great commission to the world.
Jesus had to be reunited with God in order to fulfill the reason for becoming incarnate in the first place. God had decided it was necessary to come to earth and become fully human in order to spread the message of grace, mercy and justice through the person of Jesus. But while he was here, he also experienced life as a human being for the first time. God is all-knowing, all-wise – as we say, omnipotent – yet God had never participated in the human experience before. God always had intentions, hopes and dreams for humankind, but had never actually walked the earth as one of us.
Hebrew scripture is full of examples of God being in relationship with human beings, but there is always a separation between the human and the divine. God sometimes dealt with human beings in the second person plural, as in the story of the Tower of Babel. “Come let us go down and confuse their language…” God is certainly loving and caring, sometimes judgmental and even capable of meting out devastating punishment. But in the Old Testament, God cannot truly empathize with the human condition because empathy requires sharing the same experiences.
In the Gospel narratives, God becomes fully aware of the human condition through the Incarnation, becoming fully human in the person of Jesus. It was clear to Jesus’ followers that he was a real human being who shared in their joys and sorrows, their failures and their triumphs. They had to come to the understanding that he was also divine. In the New Testament, even after Jesus ascended to be one with God again, there is a new empathy with the human condition. We can see this, for example, in the letters of Paul, who had never met Jesus, yet had no doubt that God fully understands and empathizes with all of humankind.
Because of the Ascension, God understands what it is like to be us. God in the person of Jesus learned what it is like for those who are poor, outcast, suffering and afraid. Jesus had friends and family whom he loved and he mourned the death of loved ones. He experienced betrayal. He knew both sorrow and joy. He showed us that God gave us life to live in abundance, not at the expense of others but rather enough to share with them. Jesus knew when it was important to be serious, and when appropriate he demonstrated righteous anger. But he also took great pleasure in being in relationship with people, in enjoying the natural world, and he really liked a good party. Most of all, through his genuine and authentic love of life and love of humankind, he showed us how to love one another.
Jesus is never gone from us. As Jesus blessed them and promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first disciples must have felt as though they were going to be left alone again. It had been a rollercoaster of emotions since they arrived in Jerusalem with Jesus. His arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection must have left their heads spinning. Then they got to spend time with him once again, which must have been immensely reassuring. Now he tells them, “I have to leave you again.”
The culmination of Jesus’ life on earth was the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrate on Pentecost. That was not a one-time-only event. We are given the gift of the Spirit in our baptism, which comforts, strengthens, and empowers us. We are able to fulfill his mission because we know that he fully understands what it is like to be us. Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead in a particular time and place, but he is not stuck there. He is the Jesus of everyone, everywhere. At our synod assembly, there was a wonderful display of portraits of Jesus by various artists. He was not just the Northern European Jesus that we are so familiar with, but the African, Asian, Eastern European, Latino and, yes, Middle Eastern Jesus which probably most closely resembles him. It was the perfect reminder that Jesus is God Incarnate for all people in all times and places.
After the Ascension, the first disciples did not just stand around “looking up in the air.” They were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ teaching, healing, Transfiguration, crucifixion, post-resurrection appearances and Ascension, and they weren’t afraid to tell that story in faraway places. Thanks to their courage and faith, the message of God’s mercy, justice and grace continues to be told today, over two centuries later. Their witness has been passed down to us, and through us, to the next generation. We are commissioned to talk about that power of the Spirit that breathes in us, that unites us in faith and in our quest to bring God’s justice, mercy and compassion to the world. Jesus is physically gone from us, but he is never gone. We are witnesses of these things! Amen.