I’m always struck on Ascension Sunday by the somewhat comic moment in which the apostles are standing, staring up at the sky into which Jesus has ascended, when two angels remark to them, “why are you standing there, looking at the sky?” (Acts 1:11). As is usual, the apostles are a little bit clueless—faithful, devoted, but a little clueless—and the angels come to put some sense into them. The apostles ask Jesus when Jesus is going to restore the kingdom, and Jesus essentially says only the Father knows the answer to that question, but that they will receive the Holy Spirit. They are hoping for the fulfillment of the kingdom, including the restoration of Israel’s political power, but instead Jesus tells them to focus on a mission of healing and spreading the good news of God’s love. It makes clearer to me why Jesus had to ascend: if he did not, the apostles may well have continued to ask Jesus to do all the work of bringing God’s kingdom into the world. But Jesus knows that God did not want that.
Not only is it a mystery as to when God’s kingdom will be brought to fulfillment, or when Jesus will return; it’s also a bit of a mystery as to why God thought that the best way to bring about the kingdom was to include us in the process, to make the Spirit working through us so much a part of the process. After all, only very recently the apostles had shown themselves to make many grievous mistakes —many of them flee from Jesus during his suffering and even betray him. But these are the same folks that Jesus missions in the forty days following his resurrection.
We, too, in our day, make all kinds of mistakes in trying to live out our lives of Christian discipleship. Some of these are sins, but others are simply consequences of human fallibility and weakness, or not knowing how to bring about the good that we desire for the world. For example, we might look at conflict in wars around the world, or in interpersonal relationships, and really not know quite how to proceed toward peace. Why would God want us in all our human poverty to be so central to this process of the world’s redemption? Why didn’t God simply do the divine equivalent of “snapping God’s fingers” to bring about the kingdom on earth?
I would not pretend to know the answer to this question. However, we see throughout the course of Acts a deepening of the relationship Christian disciples have with God as they undertake God’s mission.God empowers them with the Holy Spirit so that God works in and through these human beings. Their relationship to Jesus moves from follower to friend. We participate in the bringing of the kingdom at least in part because the act of doing so changes and transforms who we are, and sharing in this work as God’s friends deepens and matures our relationship with God.
From Pentecost forward, Peter is not quite the same as he was back in the Gospel accounts. While in the Gospel accounts, he betrays Jesus and refuses to identify himself even as in association with Jesus for fear of his life, eventually Peter willingly dies for the faith. He is crucified. In quite a different manner, Paul is converted from being a persecutor of Christians to becoming an apostle to the Gentiles through a sensible, lived experience of God followed by a clear mission. The lived experience of the Resurrection changes something fundamental for Jesus’ followers, emboldening and encouraging them, but also making them gentler, and capable of bringing healing and compassion to those in need. While they are not necessarily wiser human beings than before, they do have the Spirit to guide them forward, step by step in the simplicity of their daily work.
On this day celebrating the Ascension, we can also reflect on how God invites us into friendship with God through sharing in the mission. We might also look back at where partaking of that mission in the past has deepened our friendship with God, and look forward to where God invites us to a deeper relationship with God and with one another through our work to bring about God’s peace, justice, and love in the world.