This is one of those gospel stories that's pretty straightforward in its telling but which doesn't have much for us today on its surface. After all, we have not followed Jesus, eating and drinking with him, we haven't seen him killed or met him risen, and we haven't seen him ascend to his Father. Just what exactly could we learn from reading about those who had?
Well, one or two things, when we look at what Jesus said to them and at what they did after the ascension itself.
First, we note how the angels told them they shouldn't stand around gaping at the sky. When the time was right, Jesus would return and meanwhile, they should get cracking on that whole witnesses unto the ends of the earth thing, which was a much bigger job than they believed it to be given that they and everyone else around them had no knowledge of about half the earth's surface.
Their desire to stand around looking at the last place they'd seen Jesus connects pretty well with real human experience. Each of us probably has had a time where we believe we've really felt God's presence, and our natural human desire is to keep hold of that. Nobody wants good things to end. But just as no one else would have known about Jesus' message if the disciples decided to stay up on that mountaintop, no one will know the meaning of our experiences with God if we stay where they happened.
This is a problem we face in church. Church may be a reminder of our God-experiences, but if we don't ever go outside of the church with those experiences we're the only ones who know about them. Churches in American don't meet in secret caves or at unannounced times -- we're not hiding anything from anyone. But our whole way of doing things is a lot more like a group that meets in a certain place, has a great time there, and figures it's done all the invitation it needs to do because it left the door open and will welcome anyone who happens to stroll by.
So one message from the Ascension story to us is clear: Go! And, when we look at it, the second message becomes clear too: Stay!
That's not as contradictory as it sounds. Physically, the disciples will now go into the world and proclaim the gospel. Spiritually, however, they will stay with Jesus, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. They stay on the mountaintop for awhile partly to try to maintain their feelings of Jesus' presence as long as they can, sure. But I think it was also partly because, even though they knew Jesus was unlikely to ascend to heaven and then turn around and come right back, there may have been a part of them that thought he would and they wanted to be ready for that as well.
At the ordination service Tuesday night, Bishop Hayes talked about taking his son fishing when he was a little boy, not yet tall enough to cast the line on his own. As soon as his dad cast the line into the pond and handed him the rod, the little boy's excitement could not be contained. He was going to pull Moby Dick out of that pond, and declared so in a loud voice. The bishop said his son stood on tiptoe because he was so excited and the anticipation was so great. Even though they ended that trip without any fish -- or great white whales -- his son was not discouraged. "He's still in there!" the boy said. "We'll get him next time!"
The bishop asked the people being ordained if they could keep themselves "on tiptoe" in their ministry, anticipating what God would do. And I ask that of myself, and of you too: Can we go out as Jesus commanded, while staying at his side anticipating the amazing things we will see?
That's how the disciples returned to Jerusalem, after all, rejoicing. Sure, joyful enthusiasm isn't cool, but neither is it engaged with the world around us. James Dean's slouch and Kurt Cobain's moody stare through his uncombed bangs may be cool, but they show disdain for the world around them, not the connection to it we Christians should display.
Although the Bishop didn't say, I imagine he and his son went fishing again. Would they have done so if his son responded to the experience with a shrug and "Whatever" instead of tiptoe-standing anticipation and excitement? What do you think?
Will the people we meet want to know about the Christ we claim to follow based on how we approach them, and how we approach life, and how we approach the world's needs that we're supposed to meet?
You tell me.