"6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers."
Now that we know that up past the clouds are more clouds, and then the atmosphere, and then outer space, and then more outer space - where does Jesus go?
Does he just keep going up and up and up forever? Where is heaven? How long did it take him to get there? Lightyears? Can Jesus travel the speed of light? The speed of sound? Where does Jesus go?
For me, and my perpetual doubting self, the Ascension is rough. This is harder than the virgin birth, harder than the incarnation, harder than the resurrection.
Not only do we have to come to grips with some strange, mythical, theological concept of Jesus being raised into the clouds, but we have to do it after Copernicus, after Galileo, after the Scientific Method and the Age of Reason.
Where does Jesus GO?
It’s hard enough to wrap our heads around “God with us,” but how do we do that when he’s been sucked up into the clouds, and according to the art depicting him, often without shoes, in these glowing robes, and angels all around. (Why doesn’t he need his shoes?)
I guess there aren’t any rusty nails or hookworms in heaven, so maybe you just don’t need your shoes?
Is that where Jesus goes? This place called “heaven”?
Where does Jesus go?
And. Why does he leave us?
I mean, the disciples just got him back, for heaven’s sake. They’d gone through the worst day of their lives, they’d buried their best friend, their only hope for the redemption of Israel, heck, their only hope for their very salvation. They’d seen the sky go black and the curtain rent in two. They’d carried his broken body while the Roman officials laughed in their faces. They’d laid him in a cold, hard tomb.
But, hooray! That’s not the end of the story! Jesus comes back! Full in the flesh. All eating and drinking and laughing. The same ol’ Jesus who tells stories and catches fish and speaks in strange metaphors.
Finally. Our hope is restored. “Jesus!” they ask, “are you finally going to do what we’ve wanted you to do all along? Are you finally going to restore Israel? And give us back our land? And give us back our fortunes? And give us back our power? Do we finally get what’s coming to us? Do we finally get what we deserve?!”
Ha. The disciples still don’t get it. Not after all they’ve been through. Not after all they’ve learned from Jesus about the last being first and the first being last and the putting away of swords and the sheep and the goats and all that.
Nope. Jesus is about a different sort of kingdom. A different sort of heaven.
Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us, Jesus says, “nope, that’s not what I’m about” and then he’s gone, whoosh, vanish, thwoop. Jesus is now the rabbit back in the magician’s hat, the ghost writer, the professor emeritus. Jesus has left the building.
Where does Jesus Go? And why does he have to leave us?
He’s promised to leave us the Advocate. To give us power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us.
But the disciples are in this in-between space. Jesus is gone. The Holy Spirit is coming. We’ve got a layover. We’re stuck at the train station. We’re sandwiched between what has been and what is yet to come.
Where does Jesus Go? Why does he have to leave us? And why the wait ‘til the Holy Spirit comes to give us some purpose, some direction, some guidance? Why the wait ‘til the plane is ready, ‘til the train is at the station, ‘til the table is set and the food is prepared?
So often, we find ourselves staring up at the clouds, at the place where the bottoms of Jesus’ soles used to be, looking for Jesus to come back down the same way he was sucked up.
But the two angels ask, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Because it’d be so much easier if we could get sucked up too.
It’d be so much simpler if we could just think about what it takes to get to heaven and leave it at that. It’d be so much better for us if we could just believe the right things and pray the right prayer and then wipe our hands on our pants and leave all this behind.
It’d be so much easier if I didn’t have to listen to the complaints of a homeless guy we’ll call “Mike.” He comes to The Table - our free community meal - every Tuesday and Thursday and, often before I can even get into the door, produces a list of needs for me to fill.
He needs dental floss. He needs multi-vitamins and trash bags. He needs toothpaste, but not the whitening kind because he read a study that whitening agents cause cancer. He needs socks and size 9 1/2 dark blue running shoes with a combination last and high arches.
But he rarely stays for the food.
He’s a vegetarian, he says. And it’s only when he is absolutely destitute and has no other option that he condescends to eat here with us.
Well, gee. Thanks.
And then just this Thursday he hands me a note, wadded up tightly, with the strict instructions “not to read it until after he has left.”
I’m hoping it’s a thank you note. Maybe a note of encouragement, since that’s what I’ve been trying to get this congregation to embrace lately.
But nope. It says, “Why I don’t eat here: Mike Smith’s 95 Theses”: “ You use aluminum pans, sheets, cookware etc. Aluminum is poisonous to every cell in the human body - reacts with acids, especially when heated. This leaches aluminum into the food. Aluminum has been linked to Alzheimer’s, arthritis and general decrepitude.”
Why do we stand looking up toward heaven? Because otherwise, we might get so jaded that we shut our doors. Because we might have to see this man as a manipulator and someone who just works the system. Maybe because looking into Mike’s eyes as he demands and manipulates and criticizes just makes us want to pack up our pots and pans and potato salad and spend our evenings watching Law and Order reruns. Because we might have to accept that this guy may never change. He may live under a bridge and criticize all the good around him and be lonely and afraid of death for the rest of his life.
On Wednesday a woman came to the meal at Brookline with her beautiful one year old daughter. This little girl had adorable brown curls and an easy smile, and followed her momma wherever she went. And it’s a good thing, too, because momma was twitching and bouncing and rocking and talking fast and slurring her words. She was chain smoking and the cigarette was bouncing between her fingers as she paced up and down the sidewalk.
Why do we stand looking up towards heaven? Because otherwise, we might see that little baby get hurt. We might have to watch this woman destroy her life on drugs. We might have to accept that there isn’t much we can do for either of them. We might have to feel helpless.
Just last week we had an elderly couple, or at least, I thought they were elderly come to dinner. Sharon and Phil came in, both with canes, both with bloodshot eyes and unsteady knees. Sharon made it to a seat. But Phil wasn’t so capable. He was ready to collapse right on the floor mats in front of the church entrance. And three others came up to him and grabbed his arms and caught him before he fell. And we set him in a chair, right there, right on the floor mat, certainly in the way of anyone else who might want to come in, certainly a fire hazard.
But this time, I didn’t look up toward heaven. I looked into the yellowing eyes of Jack, who pulled up a chair next to Phil and talked to him in a quiet voice. Who grabbed Phil’s meal and fed him lasagna by the spoonful and told him he was ok, and reminded him to sit up before he passed out in his meatballs and knocked over his iced tea. Who went into the kitchen to wet a cloth so he could gently clean the man’s hands and face.
If we always stand looking up towards heaven, we are gonna miss the face of Christ right here, right in front of us. In the midst of the drug addicts and the paranoia and the criticism and the fear and the men so drunk they wet themselves and fall on floor mats right in front of the church entrance.
The Holy Spirit, the very Presence of Christ, enables us to look in the yellowed tired eyes and the precocious one year olds with addicted mothers and the homeless drunks who stack the chairs and clean the tables, and see the face of Christ.
This gift, this Advocate, this dove and flame and wind, could even help us see the face of Christ in this privileged white girl with too many master’s degrees, in the hands of the wealthy Republican who ladles out the soup, in the liberal millennial covered in tattoos who washes the dishes, and in the autistic and deaf thirteen year old who comes to help, but often spills more than he delivers, and his caretaker who isn’t even sure if she believes in God.
Where does Jesus go?
I really don’t think that Jesus goes up towards heaven - not in the literal, physical, temporal way that we think.
I think Jesus goes into the eyes of the kind drunk who stays after the meal to help clean up. I think Jesus goes into the hands of the paramedics we had to call after Phil fell in the parking lot and couldn’t get up. I think Jesus goes into the heart of the woman who wrapped piles and piles of leftovers in tin-foil and packed it in the woman-with-the-baby’s bag.
Men and Women of Galilee. Men and Women of Pittsburgh and Portland and St. Louis and Detroit. Men and Women of Somalia and Syria and Ukraine and Nigeria. Men and Women of Emsworth and Homewood and Upper Saint Clair and Brookline and The Southside. Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
You are the hands and feet of Christ now. You are the eyes of Christ. You are what God is doing in the world.
It’s terrifying. And lonely. And sometimes we just want to look away. We want to Look out. Look beyond towards some kind of “heaven” that we’ve made up for ourselves.
But Jesus, Jesus, God with us, God here in the flesh with us, Jesus who represents the fullest connection between God and this world, keeps calling us to the messiness of this world, to the flesh and the bone and the alcohol on the breath and the bouncing knees of the drug addicted. To the hungry and the tired and the malnourished and the paranoid and to those of us who think we’ve got it all together. He keeps calling us to this because that’s where Jesus is. That’s where Jesus goes when he gets sucked up to heaven and seems to be so far from us and leaves us feeling alone and abandoned and lost. He’s in those eyes we’ve been looking at all along.
Thanks be to God