On one level the Ascension of Jesus is the perfect end to Luke’s story. After witnessing to the life of Jesus, recounting his great deeds and the wonders he performed. Seeing the way he healed the sick, bound up the wounded, cared for the needy, and how he made the demons shudder and the controlled the forces of nature with but a word. After witnessing how he took the lonely road to Golgotha, suffered and died a cruel death but was vindicated and raised to life three days later, this seems like the perfect way to end. What better way to end the story than Jesus gloriously returning to the Father to take his rightful place beside the throne of God. To reclaim the place he had held since the beginning, and will now hold again until the very end, from everlasting to everlasting.
At the same time the Ascension of Jesus is the perfect way to begin Luke’s story. When Luke sits down to write his second volume, to explain to Theophilus what happens next and how the gospel message spreads from a tiny band in Jerusalem to the farthest reaches of the Roman empire in just over a generations time, he begins with an interesting story, he recounts the Ascension. Of all the stories to recount this seems like an odd one. He could have recounted one of the miracles or even the cross and empty tomb. But Luke decides that the Ascension of Jesus best frames the beginning of the story.
The disciples had been on an emotional roller coaster. Just two months before they had marched into Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna and people laying down palm branches for the King to arrive. It seemed like the time was right for the prophecies to be fulfilled, and they would take their place as leaders in the new kingdom of the Messiah. Yet things quickly fell apart. In less than a week’s time, Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified. The excitement of Sunday was replaced by the tragedy of Friday. However, the next Sunday brought hope as the tomb was empty, death was defeated, and Jesus lived. Imagine the joy and excitement, as the disciples began to comprehend just what it meant to be Messiah and live into the mission of God.
Forty days later, they stood on the hill awaiting the inevitable. They knew this was the end for Jesus, but what did it mean for them. Finally, someone asked. “Jesus, is this the time you are going to restore the Kingdom.” Jesus responded by telling them, that’s not your concern. Your task is to be my witnesses and spread the good news about me to the entire world.
Then Jesus was gone. Carried up to Heaven like Elijah to take his rightful place beside the throne of God. It was eerily similar to what the Romans believed happened when their emperors died.The Romans thought that after their emperors died they would rise up into Heaven and take their place among the gods. But this was different. The Roman emperors were dead, Jesus was alive. The Roman emperors weren’t really gods, but if the resurrection hadn’t proven it this did, Jesus was God incarnate, come in the flesh and now returning to heaven to reign on high for all eternity. Then the angles told them to head back to Jerusalem and become witnesses.
So the moment that seems like the ending became the beginning, as the disciples headed back to Jerusalem and started sharing the good news, that in Jesus God was making all things new. That Jesus was the focal part of the story that God had been working from the beginning of time, and that through Jesus God was redeeming and restoring all things. The disciples shared that message, first at Pentecost, but then throughout the entire area, even to the ends of the earth. The disciples took up their role as witnesses and shared the good news.
I wonder, is any less asked of us. As we are confronted with the story of the Ascension we are reminded that Jesus is alive and reigning on high for all eternity. And our task, as followers of Jesus, as those who have been buried and raised in the waters of baptism, is to be his witnesses and share his story. We can’t cower in fear afraid to speak or make a sound. We must summon the strength and the courage to tell the story over and over again. To tell the story when we wake up in the morning and when we go to bed at night. To tell the story to our coworkers and our boss. To tell the story to the waitress and the cook at the restaurant. To tell the story at the barber shop and the beauty salon; at the coffee shop and the library. To tell the story that Jesus reigns on High. That he has ascended to the right hand of God, and that he is the true emperor of the world.