Jesus’ Departure is a separation but not an abandonment of the world.
Ten days before Pentecost is Ascension Day. Even though the Lectionary readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (three days later) are not directly about the ascension, they still share the aura of this event at the climax of the Easter season. Thus the readings will be discussed against the background of this pre-Pentecost time of Jesus’ ascension.
The Ascension of Jesus is a second generation issue in early Christian awareness. The first generation of Jesus believers proclaimed the death, resurrection, and heavenly reign of Jesus at the right hand of God. (Thus it is in the epistles; for example, Romans 8:34; Philippians 2:8-9; I Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 4:14; and I Peter 3:22, not to mention much of the book of Revelation.) The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John have the Empty Tomb, viewed as evidence of the resurrection, but without any ascension event. Mark has no appearance of Jesus at all after the crucifixion (Mark 16:1-8). Matthew has Jesus appear to the disciples in Galilee and commission them for a world mission (28:18-20), and John has Jesus appear to the disciples in both Jerusalem (20:19-29) and Galilee (21:1-23), but neither time are we told of Jesus’ departure. None of these Gospel scenes tells of Jesus rising up to heaven in a final departure from earth. Only LUKE tells of the ascension as an event. And for good measure, Luke tells it twice – at the end of the Gospel (24:51) and, more fully, at the beginning of Acts (1:9-11).
Second generation Christians lived after the great crisis of the Jewish-Roman war, which lasted seven years and saw the complete destruction of Jerusalem and its temple (66-73 CE). Only a minority of Jews lived in the Holy Land, but the faithful in the rest of the Jewish communities from Babylon to Spain must have been traumatized by the destruction of the homeland. For Christians waiting for the return of Jesus in final judgment, that period of dread and anxiety looked like the signs of the end (the “wars and rumors of wars” warned of in Mark’s Gospel, signs which must come but which would not be the final judgment).
However, the end did not come. The Roman empire went on under the Emperor who had led the Roman army against the holy city. To Christians it became clear that they were going to stay in the world for considerably longer, and in their mature years the second generation presented new versions of the Christian mission in the world. Luke’s was one of these; the Gospel of John another.
The ascension is about departure. Given the increasing number of Jesus-appearances to disciples and others that were reported by the end of the first generation (Mark = 0; Matthew = 2; Luke = 3; John = 3; and many more in non-canonical writings of the following hundred years), a point was needed at which the post-resurrection appearances were ended. In the circle of churches reflected in Luke’s writings, the great event for the church was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The final departure of Jesus had to be after the resurrection appearances and before Pentecost. The ascension was that departure. It was the conclusion of the Jesus time. What followed it had been prepared by Jesus before hand, but the time of the church in the world is a time without Jesus present as he was in the past – and as he would be one final time at the end. Ascension is departure, an end of one thing, but the beginning of a new thing. That is the special innovation of Luke’s vision of Jesus’ departure!
The reading from Acts is a real action story. It shows how the church worked in the world – with a little divine assistance indeed, but mainly with a lot of faith and persistence.
In scene one, Paul and Silas heal a possessed slave girl, employed as a fortune-teller, who has been taunting them (though what she says is actually true, from the writer’s viewpoint, verse 17). Like other idolatrous men in Acts (19:23-27), her owners are greedy rather than religious, and Paul has ruined their hoax with the girl. They cause a riot in the market place (it is usually Jews who cause these riots, but there are few Jews in Philippi, see 16:13). The magistrates sentence Paul and Silas to servere beatings.
In scene two, Paul and Silas sing hymns in prison at night and an earthquake strikes, springing their manacles and the cell doors. The jailer is saved from suicide by Paul who declares that no one has escaped – though the doors were open. (This is the real miracle, rather than the earthquake!) The jailer and his family are converted to the new faith and become mainstays of the church in Philippi.
Paul and Silas appear to be isolated and defenseless here, to the extent of receiving cruel floggings in the market place. However, they endure and things work out for them, with the result that the community of faith is strengthened, starting from those in the dungeons. Jesus seems absent, but some greater power is working for the life of the spirited church.
The Ascension is about a departure from earth, but it is also an ascension to heaven. The heavenly destination is portrayed at length in the book of Revelation, a complex portrayal that is based on such ecstatic visions as this psalm.
It is standard lore that “clouds and thick darkness are all around” God (verse 2, NRSV). In the exodus tradition God is veiled in a pillar of cloud by day – a cloud which at night glows like a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-23). The psalm is declaring what could be seen if the cloud were not there – the inner secret of God’s explosive appearance. “Yahweh is king” or “has become king” (verse 1). This is such an amazing thing that cosmic phenomena break out in joy over it – fireworks, lightning, earthquakes, melting mountains (verses 3-5).
Our psalm becomes a celebration of the Acts narrative when it proclaims the folly of idolaters. “All worshipers of images are put to shame, / those who make their boast in worthless idols” (verse 7) – like the greedy ones of Philippi. “The Lord…guards the lives of his faithful; / he rescues them from the hand of the wicked” (verse 10), as happened in the prison holding Paul and Silas. The reign of God – and of God’s anointed – is a heavenly reality that appears mysteriously within the earthly scenes from which Jesus has departed.
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
The destination of the ascension, the heavenly presence of God where the Lamb receives authority over the forces that cause chaos on earth, is also the place from which the final return will come. This passage presents the last words of Jesus, the heavenly Lord, giving assurance that he is coming – that is, he is about to reverse the departure! That assurance is answered by the church’s prayer that he will indeed come.
“See, I am coming soon… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (verses 12-13, NRSV).
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (verses 17 and 20).
The departure of the ascension is not final. It will last during the time of the
servant and spirited church on earth.
The whole of John 13-17 has Jesus interpreting to the disciples his imminent departure. In the last chapter of this section, chapter 17, Jesus has finished instructing the disciples and turns to God in prayer.
The prayer is about the completion of his own mission (verses 1-5), about the disciples who have been prepared but are now being left behind (verses 6-19), and about the later generations who will believe because of the testimony of the disciples (verses 20-26, or at least verses 20-21). Our reading is this final section —the believers of the future who will not know Jesus directly but only through the communion with the disciples.
After Jesus’ departure, the believers will share a mystic communion with God, Jesus, and each other.
I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples present at the supper], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (verses 20-21, NRSV).
This communion is manifested in the world as love (agape), which binds the unity of the faithful.
Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them (verses 25-26).
At his departure Jesus leaves behind the model and the command to love one another, and in such loving the believers will experience the truth and reality of the righteous God.