One of my favorite passages in the New Testament comes in the first chapter of Acts upon Jesus’ ascension into heaven. As Luke describes the scene, he notes that two angelic beings arrive and speak to those watching the ascension, saying:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Clearly this is a passage from which I draw much comfort; there are many days I need the assurance that the same Jesus who came proclaiming liberty for the captive, sight for the blind, and hope for the hopeless will indeed return just as he left and that he will stay true to his promise of not leaving his children here as orphans.
In addition to such comfort, though, I am also somewhat amused by the scenario. I imagine those in attendance staring as a child would stare at a lost balloon, sharpening their gaze on the departing object and continuing to focus on it long after it has become a speck in the distance. I’ve often wondered if God had the angelic prompting as a planned agenda item or if he just thought his followers needed a prodding lest they stand and stare forever.
Lately, though, I’ve been particularly drawn to the actions that follow this scene. The departure of Jesus as accounted by the same author in the Gospel of Luke as well as the Acts of the Apostles is such a climactic scene, it feels as though nothing can follow it. To read the account calls to mind the end of such epic films such as The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. I recall leaving that particular film with a certain measure of sadness, not because it ended badly though; it is a happily resolved ending. The sadness had to do with the departure of characters I’d come to love over the course of time. Beyond this, I’d never encounter further tales of Frodo, or Gandalf, or Aragorn again.
And in my humanity, I feel that were I one of the disciples watching him go, such a sadness would have been my response as Jesus left, having given no indication of when he might return. I have some kind of inner hunch I would have been sad and downcast knowing that on this side of eternity, I’d never have the chance to physically observe him as he drew in the masses with his teaching, watch in awe as he bent the natural order by raising the dead and healing the sick, laugh with him, shed tears with him…just sit with him.
But that’s not how Luke accounts for the actions of the disciples. In the last chapter of Luke, he describes the disciples as joyous. According to Luke, “they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
And in my gut, I am certain that part of the joy described there stems from the fact that among the eleven remaining disciples, there was no longer any doubt that what they had been, were, and would continue to be a part of was something very, very real. Jesus was not a celebrity who had lived, died, and would be forgotten. No, even in his physical absence, his name was real and powerful enough to turn the world upside down. He had not been one of the many personalities in that day that had arisen and built a following only to fade into obscurity (Acts 5:35-37). The disciples, awaiting in faith the promise of the Spirit coming upon them in power, were joyous in the certainty that they were not simply advancing a countercultural movement, but rather were participating in the ultimate reality: Jesus was God in the flesh, murdered in innocence to pay the price of sin, raised to claim victory over death, reigning over the creation he came to reclaim, awaiting the order from the Father to finish the redemption of all things.
There are days when we need to remember this. Churches, what we are doing is not merely celebrating a bunch of moral platitudes that might make us more functional, happy people. We do not come together as a corporate body to find a Phoebe, Joey, Ross, Rachel, Chandler, and Monica with whom we can live out our Friends fantasy. We do not come together to “play house” with people who are generally like us. What we’re doing is much more real than that.
And the sooner we buy into that reality, the sooner we’ll experience the kind of joy that makes a beginning out of what looks like an ending.