We celebrated the Ascension of Our Lord last Sunday, which we haven’t regularly done here before. As far as I remember, I’d never preached on the proper texts for it, though before my suburban captivity I was reliable in observing it at some church or other. It’s easy to get hung up on visualizing the stories of Jesus being lifted up, or perhaps vanishing, and I don’t want to simply ignore the difficulties of understanding that can result from doing so. But that’s not where my mind went as I read the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.
Instead I thought about grief. We’ve come up with a number of answers to the problem of the real absence of Christ–the church’s ministers as Christ’s proxy, thick sacramental theologies, enthusiastic personal piety–and taken them seriously enough that the question of why we don’t see Jesus face to face can be sincerely dismissed as an impertinence, or at least as missing the point. But I wonder if there’s not grief in all of these attempts to convert a bewildering, aching absence into a solid, reliable presence.
In any case, what struck me as I pondered the story is the rejoicing of the disciples. Rather than feeling abandoned and forlorn, confused or thrown back on their own resources, mourning or lamenting, they return to the Temple to praise God (apparently no theologians yet existed to explain to them that the Temple had been superseded and abolished). That surely has something to do with Jesus’s promise to return at the end of the age, and with his promise that the Holy Spirit will come to them to lead and guide them. It can help to bear in mind that the New Testament is much more urgently eschatological in mood than the magisterial theology that eventually derived from it.
But more than that, the rejoicing seems apt and profound in light of the specific charges Jesus leaves them:
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
Jesus will remain present to them and with them in their work of proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations, and in their role as witnesses. Unlike the dead who are mourned, Jesus will not recede from them as they move into new times and circumstances, but he will accompany them in their words and in their own witnessing bodies.
This is such a pure, even naïve, charge to leave them with: proclaim and witness. I would add, looking slightly back at the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels, and at the breadth of meaning in the Greek term we translate as “witness,” that they are also charged to suffer.
I find this passage, and others in which Jesus charges his disciples, to be humbling. Perhaps devastatingly so, considering how little I or many of us seem to be doing the things Jesus specifically says to do. And it’s at the heart of my resistance to the enthusiasm among some dissatisfied post-liberal Christians for an imagined return to a sacred social order, supervised and guaranteed by the power of the Church. You will search the New Testament in vain for any indication that the Church is to rule or govern the world in this age–whether directly, as a theocracy, or indirectly, as a “spiritual power” overseeing a “temporal power” ordered to eternal purposes. No shadow of a hint of such a thing is given by Jesus; Boniface VIII was driven to the absurd exigency of making the “two swords” in the story of Christ’s arrest an allegory for these forms of power.
But this, too, can be understood as a form of grief–of compensating for, or coping with, the real and undeniable absence of the Jesus we would love and serve. It is hard to be satisfied with proclamation and witness. They get ignored or laughed at or even met with hostility. They don’t “work.” When the opportunity arises to leverage some other source of power or influence–to make good on the promise that may not feel quite sufficient to life’s day–it is hard to turn it down. Maybe all our experiments, whether devising some freshly pious version of right-wing authoritarianism or replacing church with mindfulness exercises, are just a belated acknowledgment that we aren’t really up to doing what we’ve been told to do, and would rather find a more practical outlet for our efforts.
Alas, there’s no other way. If we are bound to accept that Jesus was not unkind to leave his disciples as he did, we are likewise bound to accept that he did not needlessly withhold any command or task that would rightly occupy us until his return. Proclaim, witness, suffer: that’s the whole story. Everything else comes from someone other than Jesus.