Today's readings give us two versions of what happened on the day we remember today - the Ascension of the Lord. Luke's gospel gives us the briefer story: Jesus took his disciples to Bethany, blessed them and told them, “Behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.” Then he was taken up to heaven and the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”
But Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, fills in the story a little more in the first reading. The two books, Luke and Acts, work together in partnership, and today's readings, the ending of Luke and the beginning of Acts, mark the transition both in Luke's story and in this early Christian movement.
In the gospel, Jesus blesses his disciples, but tells them to wait in the city “until you are clothed in power from on high.” But that time of waiting is over by the time we read it in Acts. There, just before he is “lifted up,” Jesus tells them they will receive the Holy Spirit and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He is sending them on their -- and our -- mission.
We watch with the disciples as Jesus is lifted up, and we are left still staring at the sky. As if to add urgency to the message, two angels break our dazed contemplation. They say, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” It is as if Jesus wanted to waken us from our dream-state and go to the mission he is sending us on - to be witnesses for him on this earth. We may want to cling to the “old, familiar” Jesus of the gospels, but this is the mission we are given - not to cling but to embrace. We are being sent out into the world to care for the people Jesus would have embraced - the poor, the marginal, those who are rejected by society, those who are weak or mentally ill.
It's easier for us to be Christians standing on a hillside gazing at the sky, but our mission is to move off that hill, to stop staring open-mouthed at the miracle of Jesus in our lives and act on it - to witness, to serve as Christ's representative here on earth.
It is then that we will really understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ and we, too, can “return to Jerusalem with great joy.”
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