Implications of Christ’s Ascension—Part II

June 3, 2014

We left off yesterday in the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection, pre-ascension period with just a glimpse of the magnitude of the commission he was imparting to his disciples. The Savior, loved and followed, was patiently instructing them on the basics of his identity, his purpose in coming, the relational implications of his crucifixion (redemption and forgiveness), and the importance of making him known throughout the world. Peter in particular was singled out to “feed my sheep,” (John 21:15-19), but all were sent to become “fishers of [people]” (Matthew 4:19). Regardless of the particulars, the disciples heard their commission as a beyond-the-imagination undertaking, so it was a good thing that Jesus promised power to get it done.

And then he left.

“He was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).

Now wait. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, in their previous way of thinking. The clouds were to open and the Son of Man was to descend from the heavens to reign over all (Daniel 7:13-14). One can imagine them just looking at each other and rehearsing in their minds, “What did he say again?” They had another ten days to think about it, waiting in the Upper Room to which they soon retired (Acts 1:12f). “He wants us to do what?”

It reminds me of the heart-rending scene in Gravity [spoiler alert]. Mission commander Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) points to a distant space station and directs mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) to navigate there, enter the station, and get herself home. And then Kowalski floats away to be of no help at all (or so we think). Stone’s panic, grief, and frustration are palpable. But clearly, she was commissioned to persevere and to do what was necessary to give witness to what had transpired. She had to summon every piece of training, every instruction so far given, and be fully present in the moment in order to survive.

Sounds a lot like some ministry days I have known: completely in over my head.

One time I pulled a fast one on my staff, coming down with a serious bout of food poisoning (campylobacter) just 36 hours before we were all to depart for a weekend session-staff retreat. It became clear I had a significant infection (I would be sick for almost a week) and I was not going to be able to go with the team or speak at the retreat. So I called them to a meeting by speaker phone and let them know: “I’m not going to be with you for this….you’re going to have to lead it yourselves….there’s no backup . . . here’s what you need to tell them . . . remember everything I’ve been telling you the last few weeks . . . etc. etc.” They told me later they were looking at each other wide-eyed, like deer in the headlights.

But what do you do under such circumstances? You begin to follow very carefully the instructions you’ve been given. The disciples returned to Jerusalem and met in the Upper Room. They were joined, by the way, by dozens more close friends and followers of Jesus. They waited, as instructed; they took care of administrative business in the meantime (Presbyterians are good at this). But they knew, at some point, they were going to be off on some kind of adventure that would be laid out for them soon enough.

If Jesus had not disappeared from their sight, the disciples no doubt would have hung on his every word, stayed right by his side both to protect and be protected, and otherwise keep his fellowship to themselves. They probably would not have gained too much more ground in the ministry-skills department either. I mean, when you have Jesus right there to pray over bread and fish, why do you have to go to Costco to buy provisions (or actually learn how to cook!) for a crowd on Homeless Ministry night?

You get the idea. Jesus’ goal for his followers was nothing less than to become his agents, fully empowered and equipped to make the Kingdom of God known, visible, and effective. He had taught them enough. He had demonstrated skills enough. He had given them enough practice sessions. He had given them feedback enough. Now it was time for them to stand on their own two feet (upon the wings of the Spirit, I have to add) and fully cooperate with the “program” Jesus had laid out.

Did they feel ready? Probably not. Was there anything they lacked to do the work? Only the Spirit, who was coming soon. As the Apostle Peter wrote later in his second letter:

3His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. 5For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-8).

Next post: What other implications does the Ascension of Jesus hold for his disciples?

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