I remember my high school graduation. I was sitting on the bleachers at the football field at Central High School in St. Joseph, at the end of May in 1995. The same night, R.E.M. was playing at Sandstone, a concert many of my classmates would have liked to go to. If you don’t know who R.E.M. is, they were a popular rock band in the late 80s and 90s. One of their bigger hits was called “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)”, and that was certainly true for many of us! The commencement speaker referenced this in his speech, as he talked about the new chapter we were embarking on in our lives, off to college or to the responsibilities of adulthood, entering what was for us uncharted territory.
I’ve attended several graduations since then, and while each one is unique, the common thread that runs between them all is this sense of transition – the closing of one chapter, and the beginning of the next. Graduations are that in-between time when hope and excitement and sadness and fear all rush together, to contribute to this sense of achievement, of mastery of the things you were supposed to master, combined with this feeling that you don’t quite know what’s coming next. Oh, you may have a plan, but no matter how prepared you are, you don’t really know what it will be like, how it will work.
And then you come home from your graduation festivities, and you wait for the time to come for the next chapter to start.
After my high school graduation, I went back to the pizza shop I worked at in high school.And I wondered what it would be like to be away at college, and who my roommate would be, and what my professors would be like, and how quickly I would make friends.
But I had to wait until the appointed time to start writing the new chapter in my life. In the meantime, I had three months to wrap up my high school life, saying goodbye to friends that were headed to other schools and starting to feel my way into this newfound adulthood that I felt my high school diploma had conferred on me, but that I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for. In many ways, it was the end of the world as I knew it.
Jesus’ story is all about transitions this week. He was crucified and had risen. He returned to his apostles, because he had unfinished business with them. He needed them to clearly understand that he truly was the Messiah, and so he appeared before them, eating and drinking and walking with them, and opening to them the mysteries of his unity with God the Creator. Then the time came for him to ascend to heaven.
We struggle with this concept sometimes, because we have a very different understanding of the universe than the ancients did. We know what lies just hundreds of miles above us in the sky, to say nothing of what lies billions and billions of miles away. We know that “heaven” is not a physical place that exists just above the clouds,
where Jesus sits on a throne at the right hand of God. Because of this, we sometimes have trouble swallowing this story of a Jesus who is physically raised up into the clouds and disappears.
But the ascension was a significant event in the ministry of Jesus, and it is something to mark and remember. We do not measure Jesus’ ascension in miles, and have not done so at least since the days of Galileo. Instead, Jesus’ journey is one measured in distance from God: from humanity, with all of the distractions and separation from God that entails, no matter how holy one is – to the cross and for three days into hell,
where death and evil hold sway and God’s presence is only a shadow – and back to his closest companions, where he was finally able to clearly communicate to them the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. In this time of straddling the boundary between death and life, the veil between this world and the next had grown so thin that finally, Jesus fully embodied his divinity and his humanity in a way the disciples could truly see and understand.
In the story of his ascension that we read in Luke and Acts, he was finally closing the book of his days as a human person and was ready to resume writing the book of his eternity as one Person of the Triune God. His ministry was being transformed: from ministering to those who are within a few days’ walking distance, the scope of his ministry was now expanding to include all of creation.
The apostles were facing a similar transition. For the past three years, they had been they traveling with Jesus, watching and listening to him, and learning from him. They had been learning from him how to do his ministry: how to teach, how to heal, how to love as he loves. He sent them out in his name, and he shared his joys and his sorrows with them. They questioned him, and he responded with patience and wisdom. They learned by experience what it is to have faith in the face of overwhelming doubt: they watched him raise people from the dead, and then they doubted when he himself was killed. They saw the empty tomb and heard the testimony of the women, but did not believe until they saw the wounds in his hands and feet, and ate a meal with him. But now, for the disciples, graduation day had come. It was the end of the world as they knew it.
We see this very clearly in the parallel versions of this ascension day story. Luke, which tells the story of Jesus and his ministry, presents this story from his perspective. Acts, which tells the story of the apostles being infused with the Spirit and carrying on Jesus’ ministry, presents the story from their perspective. The story of Jesus’ ascension is quite literally the closing of one book and the opening of another.
But it was also a time of waiting, of preparation, much like the time between high school graduation and the start of college. The apostles had learned from Jesus. They had endured his death and wondered at his resurrection. They had rejoiced in his return, treasuring the time they spent with him in those last days and seeing him with clearer vision, recognizing and honoring his divinity even as they ate and drank with him and touched the wounds in his hands and feet. They heard his final words to them,
a sort of commencement address in which he reminded them of where they had come from, pulling together the threads of their experiences to weave a fabric of connection between all the things they had learned from him, linking their ministry experience to God’s mission in the world. And then he talked about what would come next for them:
they would be clothed in the Spirit’s presence and sent out from Jerusalem to proclaim the good news to the world.
But not yet. They were entering a time of preparation. The rest of the first chapter in Acts tells us about the apostles’ return to Jerusalem, where they spent time together with Jesus’ mother and brothers, as well as other followers of Jesus including the women, and devoted themselves to prayer. This was their time of anticipating what changes this new chapter would bring, of preparing themselves to be witnesses, those who have seen and heard, those who have been mindful. They chose Matthias, who had not been one of the twelve but who had been with them since Jesus’ baptism,
seeing and hearing all of his ministry, to replace Judas. They continued to meet with the followers of Christ who were in Jerusalem. And they awaited the Spirit who would accompany them.
In this time of preparation, of straddling the border between what had been and what was to come, they were perhaps trying on what it was like to be independent in their faith, preparing their hearts and their minds for this new adventure that Jesus was sending them on, and waiting to be equipped for the journey. They were both closely tied to and physically apart from Christ, accustoming themselves to their new reality.
Waiting for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to them that the Spirit, the very essence of the ever-present God, would come to them.
In the ascension, Jesus is raised not into a heaven that hovers just overhead, but to the Kingdom of God – this Kingdom that was made a reality with his resurrection, this Kingdom that awaits us after our lives have ended, this Kingdom that surrounds us every day, bumping up against us and intersecting with our world. We know what it is to live in this already but not yet, this straddling the border between what is and what will be. We experience this overlapping of the earthly kingdom and God’s Kingdom
whenever we are witnesses to God’s grace in this world: when we are mindful, when we ourselves see and hear evidence of Jesus’ love in the world. When we bear witness to the fight against injustice, speaking up for those whose voices are silenced and bringing hope to the hopeless; when we advocate for the powerless, calling for reform of broken or abusive power structures; when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, share our resources with the poor – we help to bring about the end of the world as we know it, in both big and small ways. We help to create a new world, a world in which we experience God’s Kingdom fully realized, in and around us.
As Christians, this is where we live. We received the gift of the Holy Spirit at our baptisms, and because of that, we know that God is ever-present with us. We are not left waiting in Jerusalem for the time to come. We are sent out now to proclaim the good news of the radically transformative love that is Jesus Christ.