Biblical scholars believe that the same person who wrote the Gospel we call Luke also wrote The Acts of the Apostles. So it is interesting that, as we celebrate Jesus’s Ascension, we read the closing verses of Luke and the opening verses of Acts—which recount the same event. Luke closes with Jesus opening the apostles’ minds to the meaning and fulfillment of the scriptures, his final blessing upon them, and, in the midst of that blessing, his ascension to heaven.
Acts records with the same event—only with different details. In Acts, two angels appear after Jesus ascends. They bring the apostles back to earth, so to speak, with a forthright question: “Why are you standing around, staring up at heaven?”And, they are right: we tend to focus on the image of Jesus flying up to heaven rather than consider about what his leave-taking means.
The scene has been depicted in art thousands of times over the centuries, by everyone from Donatello (the sculptor, not the teenage mutant ninja turtle) to Salvador Dali, in icons, and paintings, and reliefs and stained-glass windows. One of the strangest ways the scene is depicted the scene shows Christ’s feet dangling at the top edge of the scene, as if he were performing an Olympic high dive in the wrong direction.
Yet, the angels remind us that focusing upward is pointless, a hindrance to getting about the holy charge that Christ left with us, that of witnessing to truth in the world. It’s an awesome responsibility and an honor. It is a sign of how very much Jesus loves us – and every bit as breathtaking as his laying down his life for us on the cross. Jesus loves us so much that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he commissions each and every one of his followers to carry on his holy work of redemption, reconciliation, and healing into the world: to carry him and bear his image within ourselves for the sake of the world.
It is so easy, I know, to think heaven will solve all of our problems. We will especially hear about people talking about “thoughts and prayers” this week as people of conscience are rocked with grief at another horrific school shooting, this time in Uvalde, Texas. Every single time, we hear politicians with a financial and partisan interest in the status quo murmur about praying to heaven, and then shrug off any responsibility to actually work for the common good.
There is a reason Luke tells this story twice, with this different emphasis. The Gospels are about Jesus’s ministry on Earth. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is about the apostles, disciples, and us taking up our own ministries, which is the work of the Church. Jesus’s ascension is NOT about Jesus abandoning us to go back to heaven.
The story told in Acts is meant to build up our courage so that we may joyfully take up the mission he loves us enough to entrust to us: to take up our call not as observers but as disciples; to actively proclaim Jesus’s gospel of love and reconciliation in the world.
It is about hearing that question directed at us: “Why are you standing there, looking up at heaven?”
The question is posed in love and in encouragement. With Jesus’s ascension, WE are Christ’s Body in the world. It is up to us to literally embody Jesus’s gospel in our lives, our attitudes, our words, and our actions.
Being a Christian is NOT a spectator sport. Being a Christian calls us to not only transform OUR own lives, but to make visible to the world the possibility of its transformation and restoration. Being a Christian is a social and political act, and act of hope, bravery, and enduring willingness to see the potential and the beauty within this Earth and within every inhabitant of it.
Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.