Thanks to the cyclical nature of the lectionary, we have again reached a passage which I have preached on before. This week's sermon is similar to one from May 2007, and so that manuscript is reposted here. The link to the scripture passage above is here.
Probably one of the questions that has dogged the church since - well, since the passage we read here, I imagine – is why Jesus ascended. Why did he return to be with God after the Resurrection, instead of staying with us and continuing to teach?
After all, Luke says, Jesus gave his apostles “many convincing proofs” he was alive, not as a ghost, but as a human being. Why not remain and offer the rest of the world those same kind of convincing proofs? Why not demonstrate how God had proved the truth of his words with this resurrection?
The crowds that had heard him teach and watched him heal had been huge – but imagine what they would be like now. The multitudes that hailed him as the Son of David when he entered Jerusalem would be small in comparison, and this time, they wouldn’t turn on him five days later.
Everyone who heard the gospel message about the coming Kingdom of God could have living proof right in front of them. Either Jesus would set himself up at the Temple (no need for whips to drive out the moneychangers this time – they’d bail on sight), or he might simply appear to whomever accepted the message, as proof they chose wisely. It all would have been so much easier, so why leave at all?
The church has done God’s work, but people have done things in Jesus’ name that probably wouldn’t have been approved if he’d been managing things in person. Could there have been any division within the body of Christ if Christ himself had been present to arbitrate the disputes? Sure, the disciples bickered about which one of them was the greatest, but that was pre-Resurrection. We’d have the resurrected Christ, and everyone would know which one was the greatest of all.
Jesus himself tells us why he ascended, and the way the disciples act here demonstrates why his reason’s a good one.
Many times during his ministry, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, and often he describes how it will work among us after he has gone. Luke shows us the Spirit’s hand at work in what happens before Jesus is born as well as what happens during his earthly ministry. People see, do and say things because they are “moved by the Spirit” or “led by the Spirit.”
Obviously, my idea about how things would be if Jesus didn’t ascend is speculation. We don’t really know what that life would be like. But we do know that Jesus suggests the Holy Spirit will not fully work within people when Jesus is actually present. It comes on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus leaves.
Is there a turf war? God draws some kind of line down the center of the human heart so Jesus and the Spirit don’t get in each other’s way? Well, that doesn’t make much sense if we really believe that God is a Trinity, one God in three persons. We claim it’s a perfect union, not subject to disagreement.
When I look at the stories of God dealing with people, it seems God limits himself not because he has to, but because people need him to. Moses can only see his reflected glory. He stoops down low to see the “mighty tower” that the people at Babel have made. He limits his direct presence to one inner room of the Temple. He comes as a human baby.
And it’s all because we’re limited.
We need to grow, but we’re limited in how fast we can do that. When we’re kids, we want to be grown up right now, to have the privileges we see in adulthood. But unless we take the whole long weary slog up that hill, we’ll never really understand how responsibilities accompany those privileges, or learn how to handle them.
If Jesus was always present, the way he was present to the disciples following his resurrection, then could they have grown? How about if all we ever needed to do to prove his message was real was say, “Well, buy a plane ticket to Jerusalem and meet him if you don’t believe me. Or better yet, I’ll give him a call and he’ll be right over.” Would we ever grow?
Maybe some of us would, but I don’t know about the majority, to be honest with you. I don’t know if I would.
I expect I’d be quite a bit like those disciples, staring into the sky after he’d passed beyond the clouds, still looking up until someone spoke up. Jesus told them what would happen: How they’d receive the Spirit, and how they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But they’re standing on a hill looking at clouds.
The Spirit comes to help us slog our way up the hill of our spiritual journey, growing in faith so that we can do more than just stand around and stare at where Jesus has been. We too can take our part in this work, and share with people the same good news we have received.