Today isn’t about Jesus going up. It’s about you and I being sent out. Let me say it again: today isn’t about Jesus going up. It’s about us being sent out. But pastor, it’s Ascension Sunday—doesn’t that imply something about going up? I’ll concede that passages like this one from the gospel of Luke, scattered throughout the bible have led our imagination to place God somewhere above us, in the sky.
Locating God in the heavens is widespread in our culture. I think of the baseball player, stomping the plate after a home run or a soccer player after scoring a goal, looking up and pointing to the heavens. Or depictions of God on the big screen, a booming voice coming from the clouds. Or even when we pray with arms outstretched, in a gesture that suggests lifting our prayers “up” to God.
However, science and technology now tell us that it’s not God that lives in the sky, but a vast and infinite universe made of stars and galaxies. So contrary to centuries of human tradition and muscle memory, today isn’t about Jesus going up. This isn’t like in that movie when the cuddly space alien who makes bicycles fly leaves earth in his spaceship, leaving his human friend behind. Today isn’t about a vertical plane. It’s about a horizontal one.
The disciples were caught watching the sky, too. It’s how the book of Acts begins. Two mysterious men in white robes interrupt their gaze with a question that implies that they’re looking in the wrong place for Jesus.
You see, today is about going out. This is a story about being sent.
In both the readings from Luke and Acts, we hear a clear invitation from Jesus to go out from Jerusalem. In Luke, Jesus says “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.” In Acts, Jesus reiterates: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Today isn’t about Jesus going up. Today is about us being sent out to proclaim the good news of God’s love and Jesus’ presence among us right here in our own communities. Today is about naming all the ways and all the places that Jesus’ presence permeates and fills. Places like this sanctuary as our voices blend together in song and as we gather around a table. Or the home of someone going through a rough time, as they’re greeted by a neighbor with a meal. Or as we take part in efforts to advocate and speak out for the rights and concerns of the marginalized in our community. Or as we do our very best at work or at school to be a voice of love and respect; to listen to the suffering of our neighbor. Or in Knox county, KY as youth volunteer and give up some of their summer to make someone else’s life just a little bit easier. Or in Tanzania as we support Dr. Stephen Swanson in his mission to bring better care and medical technology to mommies and their babies.
In other words, Jesus’ presence fills all in all. His message to “go out” and proclaim God’s love and forgiveness is for every time, every place, every people. Jesus rose from the tomb in order to fill all the cosmos; every planet, every body, every cell.
And Jesus hand-selected you and me for this work. “You are witnesses of these things,” he tells us. We are witnesses of Jesus’ reconciling, death-defying, love-dispersing work to the very ends of the earth. This is the hope to which he has called us.
As we are sent out, Jesus blesses us. Each week as we gather, we become that ragtag group of disciples that Jesus leads out to Bethany to bless and commission as his hands and feet in Jerusalem, in Riverside, and beyond. Accompanied by that blessing is a promise—a promise that we touch as we dip our fingers into the font; a promise that we taste as we meet at the table. We become Christ’s body. And the Holy Spirit comes to us—the one who comes as promised, our advocate, the energy that animates us and moves us to call, bring together, inspire and make holy; the one who transforms us to be witnesses proclaiming the greatness and power of God’s love.
Today isn’t about Jesus going up. It’s about us being sent out. It’s about the ways in which the risen Jesus blesses us for that sending. Today is about a promise that wherever we’re sent and wherever we go, God’s spirit leads the way. Today is about how we receive power to be witnesses to the very ends of the earth; how we receive wisdom and revelation as we come to know God. Today, we know what hope looks like. Even as his body disappears from sight, we are Christ body, raised up for the world.