There is much pathos and longing in the story of the ascension which these readings give us twice. The story contains on the one hand the theme of the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, as we have preserved it in the creeds – the theme of the indication of Jesus and of all he stood for and all he taught. But the story contains, on the other hand, the sending of the followers of Jesus to continue his mission, to be his presence in the world. That is why there is a gentle irony in the question raised by the assembled disciples in Acts I. Is this the time at which Jesus will establish his Kingdom, restore sovereignty to Israel? It seems that they who are sent have by no means grasped even now what is the nature of Christ’s kingdom and what is the nature of the hope that is offered to them.
The Ascension story really raises all the important questions about the nature of that hope not only for the disciples of those five years, but or all of us even in our own times. The Ascension means that there is no magic answer to the troubles of the world – no answer that can bypass or dispense with true conversion and transformation of our human society with all its distorted values and inauthentic relationships. The Ascension challenges us to realize that the grace of God does not work above or alongside of our own freedom but within it, and to know that what is accomplished within the human freedom of Jesus cannot substitute for our own conversion but must yet come to include it.
Even the apparently simple imagery of the Ascension story is important. Jesus has gathered his disciples about him one last time, giving final instructions and encouragement. Then he was “lifted up” and enveloped in a cloud. It is an image that recalls the presence of God with Israel in the form of a cloud. It also recalls the passing of Elijah (who was expected to return at the end-time) in a fiery chariot. And the two white clad figures are like those at the tomb, exhorting the disciples not to look here into the past, but out to the community and the future, knowing what is the hope in which they live and reach out to others.
The mission of the apostles was a simple one. It was to teach others all that he had taught them. Just as he asked his disciples to obey him, they were to ask that others obey his directions and instructions also. This is like when a doctor puts you on a course of antibiotics. The original sin was a lie. The Spirit is a spirit of truth. One of the rules connected with taking antibiotics is that it is essential to complete the course. Some people begin to feel well after a few days, and they discontinue taking the medicine and, of course, their condition gets worse. The program of redemption and salvation must continue from generation to generation, until the end of time. With all the changes in the church and in society, the two things that have not changed are Jesus himself, and every word of his message. The Message and the Messenger have never, and never will change. People who are bothered about changes in the church today should be reminded that the only two things that matter have not changed at all.
“You write a new page of the gospel each day, through the things that you do and the words that you say. People will read what you write, whether faithful or true. What is the gospel according to you?” Even sharing with another something you heard here today that you find helpful is to give witness. It must seem obvious to anyone who wishes to see, that the evidence of someone who is trying to live the sort of life that Jesus has taught us to live, must be a powerful witness, indeed.