by L. Cuttino Alexander
There is something liturgical about saying goodbye—to send someone off on a journey. It really is a ritual. There’s a procession, the call and response, prayers, silences.
You know what it’s like—even when it’s farewell for just a short period of time. There’s the tepid stroll down the driveway. A hug. Some words. A tear or two. Another hug. And we stand there at the threshold, clinging tightly to the moment, hoping to make it last just a little bit longer. But eventually the whistle blows or the flight is called or the clock starts ticking. And we’re left there alone at the threshold, at the end of the driveway, craning our necks, holding onto the sight of that person for as long as we can. We’ve all stood there.
This ritual of goodbye is on my mind as we read the story of Jesus’ ascension. Now, it’s not the first time that we’ve read this, of course. Luke closed his Gospel with the image of Jesus being lifted up, disappearing among the clouds. It’s a poetic ending to a poetic gospel: the scorned and broken prophet of Galilee is raised from the tomb and then raised from the bonds of Earth itself. The King of Glory crowned and ascended… and he sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Jesus has gone up. Amen. And yet, my dear Theophili, Luke sees it fit to begin his story of the church by retelling Jesus’ farewell.
It’s not hard to put ourselves in the disciples shoe’s here. Jesus is their beloved teacher, a friend and a leader. From the moment they dropped their nets and answered his call, Jesus completely and utterly transformed their lives. People were healed, a boy raised from the dead. Meals were shared, fellowship renewed. And even in the darkest moment, even in the face of betrayal and torture and death, they were witnesses to the ultimate demonstration of God’s astonishing and powerful love.
But on that hill, as Jesus gave his final instructions, did they know what would happen next? We can’t really tell. But we can imagine the urgency of a farewell: The tepid stroll up the hill, and the tears, the hugs, the wistful silences. A promise and a charge from the teacher. But the disciples aren’t quite ready: “Just a few more questions before you go, teacher.” “Just one more thing…”
Eventually the time would come and Jesus would slip away from them. And they would be left, mouths gaping open, craning their necks, straining their eyes, and holding onto the sight of him for as long as they can. Jesus has gone up.
But, Theophili, this story is just getting started. Two men stand before them (in dazzling clothes, perhaps?). The men question the disciples: “Guys, what are you looking at? Jesus isn’t there anymore. But he’s coming back in the same way he left.”
Forgive me for a minute as I speak for the disciples, but what are those two talking about? “Jesus has gone up, but he’ll come in the same way you saw him go.” What does that even mean?!
It’s tempting to take these words a little too literally: If Jesus blasted off into space, then we can only expect him to shoot back down like a meteorite, still smoking from reentry. Or maybe he’ll come the Charles Wesley route: “Lo he comes with clouds descending . . . robed in dreadful majesty!”
But let’s not forget the story that Luke has already told us…how this savior already came to us: it’s the story of a fragile lamb, born in a dirty stable. The story of a prophet who was welcomed home by an angry mob, waiting to throw him off a cliff. The story of a king who held court amongst prostitutes and junkies and weirdoes—whose crown was a ring of thorns. The story of a messiah who was first lifted up nailed to a cross.
Jesus has gone up, robed in majesty, yeah sure. But Jesus is also going up bearing the scars of his passion.
Back on Earth, the disciples were probably a bit stunned at the interruption of these two strange visitors. A little dazed, flooded with emotions, they staggered back to Jerusalem as instructed.
It would be one thing if this was the end, if Jesus was up there in the clouds somewhere, looking down on us from his lofty throne. But we know: this story is just getting started. In a few days time, we’ll celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the moment when the Holy Spirit will come flooding in to recharge their lives. This is the promise that Jesus made on that hill just before he went up: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;” he tells them. “And you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.”
That march down the hill and back to Jerusalem is the beginning of something bigger than the individual disciples. This is the beginning of a movement, of the church. These individuals, gathered by Jesus will be sealed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit to become the body of Christ to the world. Jesus, through his disciples and through the power of the Holy Spirit continues to act in the world.
In other words, Jesus has gone up, but Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. Jesus was present in that upper room in Jerusalem as the disciples’ tongues caught fire with the power of the Spirit. And Jesus was on that Damascus Road as a Roman agent was blinded by the Truth. Jesus was in the prison cells and the banquet halls; he was in the healings and the proclamations at the far edges of the Empire. Jesus has gone up, but Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere.
And Jesus is present with us now. He is present as we bathe the new sojourners of our fellowship and he is present as we bid farewell to those completing their journey. Jesus is present in the breaking of the bread wherever that may be—here in this chapel or in some vast cathedral or gathered around a modest table. Jesus continues to hold court in the soup kitchens and hospital rooms and, yes, on the cold, dark streets of this city. And even as he is lifted up in glory, he bears the scars of our pain and our misery and our torment. Jesus has gone up, but Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. He is right here—standing alongside us and within us and above us.
Like the disciples, we will soon be standing on a threshold, saying our goodbye liturgies. Some time ago, we left our nets at home and answered the call of Jesus. We came here to study and learn—to become more effective and educated disciples. And we leave this place completely and utterly transformed. In just a few weeks, we will be scattering across the country and across the globe.
Some of us will be making a not-so-tepid march down the aisle of St. Thomas to claim our diplomas. Some of us will be embarking on the challenge of CPE or Internship. Others will simply be starting a period of well-earned rest.
But wherever we go next and whatever we do next, we carry Jesus’ promise: “You received power when the Holy Spirit came down upon you.” And baptized by water and the Spirit, we are shaped by Jesus’ charge: “You will be my witnesses in Chicago and in America and to the ends of the earth.”
Dear Theophili, his story—our story—is just getting started.