The story of the Ascension in Acts alerts us to the task of faithfully waiting and witnessing.
The story of the Ascension in Acts alerts us to the task of faithfully waiting and witnessing.
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.
There is a story about a young man in Japan who wanted to be the greatest martial artist of the land. He thought that to reach this goal, he must study with the best instructor, who lived quite far away. So he left home to go study with this great Zen teacher.
After travelling for several days, he arrived at the school. As he was invited to speak with the teacher, the master asked, “What do you wish to learn from me?” The young man answered quickly, “I want you to teach me your art, and help me become the best martial artist in the country. I know this is what I am meant to be.” The master didn’t speak, so the young man pushed ahead: “How long must I study?” “Ten years at least,” the master answered.
The man thought, ten years is a lot of time. I want to be done sooner than that. Certainly if I try harder I can complete this task more quickly. So he asked the master, “What if I studied twice as hard as everyone else? How long would it take then?” “Then it would take twenty years,” replied the master.
He thought, That’s even longer! I don’t want to spend twenty years. I’ve got other things to do with my life. Certainly I could learn it much more quickly if I tried really hard. So the student asked again, “What if I practiced day and night with all my effort, then how long would it take?” “Thirty years,” was the master’s response.
The young student wondered why the master kept telling him it would take longer even though he was willing to work day and night. Beyond confused, he became impatient and annoyed: “How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?” The master responded, “The answer is simple. With one eye focused on your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way.”
When you ask people about Christ’s Ascension, their reaction is often close to that of the young man in my story: confusion and impatience. Ascension Day is a feast day many people in our congregations don’t know what to do with. Even though some churches offer Ascension Day services this Thursday, not many people will attend; thus the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter include the story from Acts Chapter 1. It’s hard enough for most people to figure out how to relate the Easter confession of “Christ is risen” to the grit of “real life” (the infamous disconnect between Sunday and Monday), and the ascension story only seems to add to the confusion.
After forty days of walking with the eleven disciples, Jesus leads them to Bethany, a village on the Mount of Olives not far from Jerusalem, where he instructs them to remain in Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit and blesses them. Then he ascends, returning to God, and leaving them staring into the sky until two angels tear them away from their bewilderment (verse 11: “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”). They then return to Jerusalem.
In the Apostles’ Creed we confess that “…he ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” In Christian art, the earliest depictions show Christ striding up a mountain, at times the Hand of God reaching from within the clouds to assist him. A few hundred years later, typically Christ is lifted towards Heaven surrounded by angels. In Romanesque depictions sometimes just the feet of Christ are shown as he disappears up into the clouds; this depiction became very popular in Northern Europe, and I am familiar with one such painting from St. Clemens Church in Büsum, a small town near my hometown in Germany.
Perhaps guided by the art, preachers often have added to the bewilderment of their congregations by focusing on the “what” and the “how” of the actual departure of Jesus. Some dwell on the fact that the ascension story is incompatible with modern cosmology; others go to great pains to employ “easy” metaphors by stating, for example, that just like water can become invisible when you boil it and it becomes steam, Christ is “still around”, just not in visible form.
Returning to my Zen story for a moment (“With one eye focused on your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way”), I suggest that the theme of the ascension story is focused waiting. When we read verse 4 (“While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father”), the key word is the Greek word is periménō, meaning ‘to stay around, wait around.’
Like the rest of us, the disciples do not like to wait:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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”.
The Hebrew verb qavah (the Old Testament equivalent of periménō often used in the psalms) means “to wait for,” but initially stood for “twist,” or “stretch,” or “endure”, and is a close relative of an Arabic word that describes the silky material spiders use to build a web. Waiting is “being tough like spider silk,” a material that according to engineers is stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar. In the Hebrew language, waiting is never static, but always dynamic.
Think of sitting in your doctor’s waiting room, and of the fact that time seems to stand still when there’s nothing to do but read the old magazines and listen to fellow patients reciting the endless list of their complaints. When there is nothing to do but wait, we get antsy. When people wait for a long time, they often feel abandoned, paralyzed, anxious, depressed, or angry. “Waiting” in the Bible is an activity; waiting requires the tenacity of spider silk, which is able to stretch and even recovers when damaged.
In order to be led by the promise of the Father, the disciples are ordered to pause and to linger. They are not to take their own initiative or to imagine they are on their own. The purpose of this wait is in order to receive the gift of God’s Spirit: “You will receive power” (verse 8). And such empowerment given in a season of waiting prepares them for their mission to be witnesses “in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The end result of such witnessing is what the early Christian community thought about itself, who they were, and what motivated them. It was a radical new beginning wrought by the freedom of God, and the Jews of Thessalonica summarized it by saying: “These people have been turning the world upside down”. (Acts 17:6). As the early church boldly proclaimed the lordship of Christ, they indeed turned the world upside down.
The old hymn in Philippians can be seen as a reflection on Christ’s ascension: “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2: 9-11)
Sometime in the middle of the last century, the state assembly of a Midwestern state was in session when a hurricane turned the sky completely dark. A few politicians suggested to postpone the session and to get out while it was time, but the speaker stopped them, saying, “Either the world doesn’t end today, and the Lord doesn’t return: then there’s no reason to stop. Or this is the end of the world and the Lord returns; in that case the Lord should find us busy doing our work.”
Let’s resolve to stay busy in our witness and work,
in bringing love and joy to those around us,
in showing them where real life is,
in turning the world upside down!
O God, form the minds of your faithful people into your one will. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.