The Ascension of Jesus: Acts 1:1-11

Reflection by Josh Olds

When I was 17, my parents left to join the Penguin Police. They were not going to join a task force that investigated crimes committed by penguins, as the name might suggest. The Penguin Police, as they were known, were a group of people who worked on cruise ships that traveled to Antarctica, their job was to ensure that tourists did not disturb the nesting penguins as they got off the ship – to protect and serve! My parents were lucky enough to have a good friend who was well-connected in the cruise industry and managed to get them onto the Penguin Police for one of these Antarctic cruises. It meant that they would be away for 6 weeks, leaving me at home to fend for myself – although as a 17-year-old, I saw it more as them getting out of my way! In the lead-up to their trip, they stressed all of the different responsibilities I would have, they showed me how to work the washing machine and change the bags in the vacuum, and they printed out a few simple recipes that I could make on the stove. They were quite optimistic – in reality, a 17-year-old can easily go 6 weeks without vacuuming, washing any clothes, and relying solely on the microwave. At the time I remember thinking they were being quite over the top, it wasn’t going to be a big deal once they were gone, I could figure it all out. Until I had my first night in the house alone… All of a sudden I was struck by my parent’s absence. The confidence and carefree attitude I had known the day before melted away into uncertainty and doubt. I became acutely aware of how much my sense of security was connected to my parent’s presence.

This morning we are reflecting on Jesus’ ascension, his physical departure from the world. It’s been a whirlwind time for those close to Jesus – they have come through the rollercoaster of the events of Easter, encountered and spent time with the risen Jesus a number of times, and now they are faced with his leaving. I wonder how they felt, I don’t want to compare how I felt when my parents left to join the Penguin Police with how Jesus’ friends felt at his ascension, but I do wonder if those feelings of uncertainty and doubt were there. They were left to grapple with Jesus’ absence, they were left to figure out what it meant to live as followers of Jesus without his physical presence with them. This was obviously a significant transition for the disciples, one in which they were being invited, called we might say, to move from being the mostly passive spectators that they had been up until this point to being active witnesses of Jesus in the world. The mantle of revealing the good news of God’s way in the world was being passed to them, as Jesus essentially transfers his authority to them.

In the tradition of the great prophets in the Old Testament, the transferring of authority from prophet to successor often included a granting of their spirit. When Elisha succeeds Elijah we’re told Elijah’s spirit comes to rest upon Elisha (2 Kings 2:15). As Joshua succeeds Moses, he becomes “filled with the spirit of wisdom” after Moses lays his hands on him (Deut. 34:9). Interestingly, some biblical commentators suggest that the two mysterious men dressed in white in verse 10 of our passage are in fact Moses and Elijah.[1] In the same way here Jesus speaks of granting his spirit in the coming the Holy Spirit. This was part of the passage that Dan reflected on for us last week from John 14, Jesus promises to his disciples that they wouldn’t be left alone, or orphaned as the passage put it, but that the Spirit would come to be with them. Here, Jesus expands on that, the Holy Spirit’s coming was not just for the sake of company, or comfort, but also to empower the followers of Jesus to take up this mantle of being witnesses, of being invited to play a part in revealing God’s good and restorative way in the world. Now, with the advantage of hindsight we know that Pentecost wasn’t far away for Jesus’ friends, we know that just as Jesus said the Holy Spirit would show up and would empower this community of Jesus’ followers to take up this mantle. But I imagine that at the time they felt a mix of things, and had lots of questions as they were faced with having to come to terms with life without the physical presence of Jesus.

Our context is quite different from that early community of Jesus’ followers, but in some ways, we find ourselves with similar questions. What does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus without his physical presence? What does it look like to play a part in revealing God’s good and restorative way in our place? How do we engage with the Holy Spirit and hear where we’re being invited to participate? We might feel quite disconnected from the events of our passage, given how different the world now seems to be, but this is our heritage, this is our story, this is part of the ‘Big Story’ of the bible that we find ourselves in.

During my theology studies, I was introduced to a book called “The Drama of Scripture.” The subtitle of the book is “Finding our place in the biblical story.” The book is about the overarching narrative of scripture, of how everything within the bible fits together to form a unified and coherent narrative – or ‘Big Story’ of the bible. It’s written from the perspective that if we want to understand how to interpret the scriptures, we first need to understand the wider story that they’re situated within. Taking a metaphor of scripture first made by theologian Tom Wright, the book imagines the bible as a lost Shakespearean play that has been discovered. The play is comprised of 6 acts that fit together to tell the biblical story – Act 1 is Creation, Act 2 is Fall, Act 3 is Israel – Redemption Initiated, Act 4 is Jesus – Redemption Accomplished, Act 5 is the Church, and Act 6 is Christ’s return – Redemption Completed. However, as the analogy imagines, when the script for the play is discovered there’s a large chunk missing from the fifth act – the story of the Church. The first scene of Act 5 is intact which tells of the church’s beginnings, but the rest of the script is missing up until the beginning of the final act, Act 6 – Christ’s return and the completion of redemption. The idea is that the play is then given to Shakespearean actors who, in being familiar with the play’s author, and with an understanding of the first four and a bit acts, and how the final act unfolds, are left to perform the remainder of the fifth act themselves.[2] I’m sure you get the picture, the story of God’s redemption up until this point has been told, the completion of the story has been foretold, and we’re invited to play a part in the story moving forward toward its completion in Christ’s return and the fulfillment of God’s restoration.

Now the analogy of course has its limits, but I think it does a good job of helping us in the here and now understand our place in the story. Because it is connected to this early community of Jesus’ followers. They were the first ones faced with learning what it meant to be followers of Jesus without his physical presence, but with the presence of the Holy Spirit, a question we now face too. There’s a delicate balance here, or perhaps we might say a tension between recognising our part to play as Christ’s witnesses and recognising the sovereignty of God. At one end, it is important that we don’t lose sight of who the author of the story is. As Jesus prepares to leave, we see the disciples’ interest being in their political freedom, and in the kingdom being restored to Israel. They look forward to experiencing God’s restorative story in a way that makes sense to them. However, Jesus responds by insisting that God’s redemptive plan doesn’t necessarily operate on human timetables or paradigms and that ultimately God is the author of the story and the one who moves it forward. But at the other end, it is also important that we don’t lose sight of our role in the story. As Jesus does depart, the disciples stand around staring into the sky. Probably struggling to comprehend all that had just taken place. They have to be called away from their gaze and brought to attention again by the two figures dressed in white. The disciples are reminded that Christ will come again, some interpret this as foreshadowing Christ’s eventual return, and some see it as pointing to the Spirit’s impending coming at Pentecost. Either way, the message to the disciples is – the story continues and you have a role to play. Yes, the author of this story is God, but right since the very beginning of it, God has chosen to outwork it in partnership with people. There is a Latin term that encapsulates this idea – Missio Dei, which means Mission of God. The story of restoration that the biblical narrative tells, is a story about God’s mission in the world, a story about how God works out his mission through human participation. The bodily presence of Jesus ascended, and the presence of Jesus’ Holy Spirit descended, to move the story on. Not in spite of us though, but in partnership with us. That early community of Jesus followers had to engage with the Spirit to determine what it meant to be Christ’s witnesses in their context, the same is true of us. How do we encounter the Spirit? Where is the Spirit at work around us, and inviting our participation? What does it mean to be Christ’s witness in our context? These are good questions for us to consider, and next week, as we come to Pentecost, we will have an opportunity to share our thoughts and experiences around this with one another. May we all know the pre

[1] Ruiz, Gilberto. Ascension of Our Lord: Commentary on Acts 1:1-11. Working Preacher.

[2] Bartholomew, Craig G., Goheen, Michael W. The Drama of Scripture. SPCK 2014.