Ascension Sunday

Don’t you find Ascension to be a puzzle, a mystery? Just as Eastertime is ending it pulls us up short with a reminder of just how deep the mystery of Easter is and how shocked we ought to be by Resurrection.
This is still Eastertime, Christ is still risen, but the strangeness of that is rubbed in once more today. Christ is not dead, Easter proclaims, Christ is alive and is with us. Christ is here … among us. But how? Each of the gospel writers struggles to give a glimpse of how the risen Jesus is present to his people, to his friends, to us. All the resurrection stories are strange — the risen Jesus walks through walls but eats cooked fish; the risen Jesus is alive and happy but bears still the wounds of his cruel death; the Risen Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread but is hardly recognisable to the eye. Is he real or isn’t he? Is he here or isn’t he? The answer: a resounding yes and no. A yes and no that reflects the messy situation of the Christian communities these guys were writing to. They had clear memory and honoured witness that Jesus had not only risen from the dead but had shown himself to people they knew, had spoken perplexing certainties to the doubting, brought a disturbing peace to the troubled, unaccountable comfort to the grieving, a calm courage to the trembling. But they knew, as well, that things weren’t quite the same for them. The Risen Jesus once present in flesh was now only present in memory. Where had the risen Jesus gone? Why did God bother raising Jesus up from the gates of hell if only to take him away from us once more? What kind of consolation is it for us, to know that the one we love is alive but that we can never see him again, can never touch him, can never say all that remains to be said?
This is what Luke is wrangling with. And he deepens the mystery before he releases it. In the Ascension we see the final goodbye: Jesus lifted up and taken from human sight. Another loss. To have lost him once through treachery and death; to get him back only to have him leave of his own accord.
So there they stand, friends and family, on a hilltop outside the city, straining their eyes to see where he had gone, hanging on to the after-image. Are they left alone? Left to their own devices? Yes and no. As the after-image fades, they have the usual overbearing angels pointing their gaze in a different direction: down the hill, into the city toward the habitat of the human heart. And they also have a promise. “I am going,” says Jesus, “but my Spirit is coming—a spirit that will drench you like a downpour, a spirit of power who will make you my witnesses.” All the gospels explain the absent presence of Jesus in terms of the same exchange: we lose his body but we gain his spirit. Is it a fair exchange?
Well, that all depends. We have to answer that question for ourselves. Is the spirit among us? Is that spirit better than having Jesus present in the flesh? Or are we living for an after-image?
It’s not an easy question to answer. By Mark’s measure in the gospel today you might wonder if the spirit is even here this morning. No snakes being handled, no drinking of deadly poison, no speaking in tongues, no demons being driven out. Mark loves to exaggerate but what’s clear is that expects his community to see some real signs that the Spirit of Jesus is alive among them. And so do we. We need to see the unmistakable signs of Spirit among us. Is that Spirit here this morning? Where can we point to confirm our message, who will be our witnesses?
I want to leave that question open. We have a week. Pentecost is coming. We have our own angels asking us “Why do you stand here looking up to the skies?” Asking us to look for Jesus somewhere else, down the hill, where people live. And we have Jesus, himself, promising us that his own Spirit has soaked us and is waiting to drench us once again.
So do we want that? Are we going to beg for that this week? Has the exchange of body for spirit been worthwhile? What are we waiting for?