We’ve all lived those moments: the train leaves the station; the bus pulls away from the curb; the person we love starts the car, backs out of the driveway, and we watch for the kiss we hope they’ll blow. Times have changed, but I can still remember the days when we walked to the edge of the tarmac and watch my daddy climb the stairs to a Piedmont jet. I would wave and wave, trusting he would turn around one last time.
In the movies, we see romantic farewell embraces at the train station; we watch the lover follow the train down the platform. It’s such a common image, it’s been spoofed in movies from “Young Frankenstein” to “Airplane.” When the love interest doesn’t want her hair mussed by a kiss, or runs alongside a plane instead of a train, we know something is hilariously wrong.
Goodbyes are supposed to be meaningful and memorable.
When I deliver my older children to airports, or to bus and train stations, I bid them farewell expecting a return or a reunion. We do this so regularly, it feels normal. I remind the college students to text on arrival. In between visits, we connect via Skype or Facetime to keep up with what’s going on at home and in their other worlds. To his amazement, our college boy discovered he could send his mother flowers via the Internet. As he put it, “Crazy, right?”
Wherever we are, we are part of each other.
For Jesus’ friends on that long ago day, it was a different kind of farewell. Their loved one moved out of sight on the Great Cloud Elevator that some believe will return him to us. It was not normal, unusual even for scripture, the first supernatural departure since the whirlwind lifted Elijah. If he waved, scripture does not record it.
If they ran behind him, or leapt to reach out for him, the author is kind enough not to expose them.
Jesus’ farewell is the beginning of a new story, the Acts of the Apostles. These Acts are an Epic Adventure! Lives will be lost along the way, and the world will be changed. For the adventure to begin, the leader needs to depart. And so we begin the book of Acts with our heroes grieving. They are stricken. They stand slack-jawed staring up into the sky. An amazing and wondrous and super-natural event occurred, right in front of them, but it also bereaved them, for the second time. How will they go on?
Like Luke, Acts begins with angels confirming a message from God. The two figures in white robes redirect the disciples just as the two men in dazzling clothes redirected the women at the tomb. Why do you look for the living among the dead? Why do you stand looking up into heaven?
In the first case, they explain something that is part of our understanding, reminding the disciples what Jesus said about his fate, that he would be tried and crucified and would rise again. We observe and remember these things each year with established rituals. We tell the stories. We share the Lord’s Supper. We strip the altar. We light candles, then extinguish them to symbolize the way Jesus’ friends deserted him. We pause and wait in the silence of death and the tomb. We bring flowers and trumpets into the church to celebrate the triumph of new life. We expect to do these things.
We do not have similar rituals for Ascension.
The second part of the speech of the men in the white robes does not feel so familiar. We do not grab this text out and use it for Children’s Sunday, building elevators we will re-use from year to year like a manger, lifting some child dressed as Jesus to the ceiling on a paper-decorated platform.
We do not go outside and stand in a field and look at the sky every Ascension Day, lighting candles and keeping vigil.
Now, let’s be clear. Perfectly faithful Christians, who agree on many other things, can and will disagree about what may have happened to the body of Jesus Christ after his death and resurrection. But even the most dubious of us can get behind the idea that life returns in the spring and with it a reminder that God gives us new life in unexpected ways, often when we have given up hope.
Ascension is trickier. It promises something we have not yet seen. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11b, NRSV) It remains a mystery. We don’t even mention it every year. Those of us who don’t hold tight to the notion that Jesus will come again are okay with that. We might like other versions of Jesus better. In Mark’s gospel, for instance, he tells us plainly, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Get to it right now. No need for a second coming; no need to see him resurrected, either. His arrival is the story. The presence of God right here and right now is the story.
The author of Luke and Acts takes parts of Mark’s simple story and elaborates it for a Greek audience. The Great Cloud Elevator seems like a device from Greek theatre, the deus ex machina. That’s
“a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object… (In Greek drama) a crane (mechane) was used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage.”[i]
Here the crane, or the cloud, carries Jesus off-stage. For first-century people, it symbolized their cosmology. The divine place was above, and Jesus had to get there somehow. Life was a stage, with God in the fly space. We may think we know better, but it’s still hard to reckon exactly where God is. Among the stars? In our hearts? Somewhere in between? Crazy, right?
Practical people may not like this story. We like the apostles forming the first church community, naming Deacons and getting their mission program together for widows and orphans. We can picture them in up-close relationship with other people, helping the way we do when we contribute to New Hope, or work in the Community Garden, or visit the sick. We live in the now doing our best for Christ’s sake, not waiting for the Great Cloud Elevator to descend in glory.
Practical people may not like this story. We like our Jesus in the flesh, teaching in the synagogue, stirring up trouble, walking dusty roads with his friends, healing the sick, or sitting thirsty beside a well. We may not get to sit with him, but we can picture him, can’t we? We can picture him in up-close relationship with other people. Yet it’s a truth of our faith that his location is undisclosed, for now.
Christ’s farewell to the disciples, his trip on the Great Cloud Elevator, began our long-distance relationship with God’s right-hand man. History is full of such relationships. I remember being fascinated by the phrase “epistolary romance,” a relationship conducted by the writing of letters. We call it snail mail now. We expect more instant communication. Even email is too slow for the Smartphone set; they prefer text.
Before I married and moved here to Mechanicsburg, my own long-distance relationship relied on cards in the mail, but also on “Friends and Family” cell phone minutes and unlimited text messages and Google chats and conversations on Skype. Somehow, most of the time, we felt connected. But what we really wanted was to be in the same place.
How can we connect with Jesus? We can’t pick him up at the airport. We can’t send him a Facebook message. We can’t text him and expect a quick response. We must employ more old-fashioned forms of communication to reach him. We read about him in scripture. We pray to him with words and in silent intensity. We worship, singing songs that express our feelings. Most importantly, we live in community together as his body. Christ is the guiding head. We are his hands and feet in the world. He is part of us; we are part of him. We are far apart, but we are intimate.
Jesus assured the disciples, in his last words to them, that understanding the details about his body and God’s timing doesn’t matter so much. Go out and be witnesses, he says, fueled by the power of the coming Spirit. Go out and have the Epic Adventure of being Christ’s Church. Live into the wonder of a long-distance relationship that commands new connections in the here and now, connections that show God’s love not just in word but in action.
Don’t stand around staring up at the clouds. Get out there and show the Good News of God’s love. Make some up-close relationships, in Christ’s name. Amen.