From And Their Eyes Are Opened
So when they [the disciples] had come together, they asked him [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward Heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into Heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into Heaven.” (Acts 1:6-11)
This story fascinates me. It has every excitement of a drama, every fascination of mythology, and every challenge to my faith and theology as a Christian. How do I explain the story to myself, to my children, to worshipers in the pew at the Ascension Day worship service, to those of you in my theology class, and to you all in the chapel today? And how do I recount the story to those who are not Christian? I have a suspicion that the story would be more appealing to avid readers in Asia of stories about immortals and supernatural beings than to those of us Christians proud to be members of this scientific and technological world of ours.
First a Story Told by Saint Francis
But the story has nothing to do with immortals and supernatural beings. It has to do with a person of flesh and blood. It speaks to the minds and hearts of women and men disheartened, bewildered, and disoriented. Before taking you with me on a descent from Heaven to Earth, from fantasy to actuality, from the unreal to the real, from skepticism to faith, I would like first to tell you a story.
“Listen, my child,” says Saint Francis to a young novice called Antonio,
Each year at Easter I used to watch Christ’s resurrection. All the faithful would gather round his tomb and weep, weep inconsolably, beating on the ground to make it open. And behold! In the midst of our lamentations the tombstone crumbled to pieces and Christ sprang from the Earth and ascended to Heaven, smiling at us and waving a white banner. There was only one year I did not see him resurrected. That year a theologian of consequence, a graduate of the University of Bologna, came to us. He mounted the pulpit in church and began to elucidate the resurrection for hours on end. He explained and explained until our heads began to swim; and that year the tombstone did not crumble, and I swear to you, no one saw the resurrection.
How distressing! How sad! No one saw the resurrection on that particular Easter Sunday. I do not know what profound things the important theologian preached to the members of the congregation. The story does not say. But, is it that difficult to guess? Perhaps not. And if we are honest to ourselves, we may have to admit that our Easter sermon, after much sweat on the brow, has rarely caused the tombstone to crumble and fill the sanctuary and the hearts of worshipers with the presence of the risen Jesus.
If our Easter sermon usually does not cause the tombstone to crumble, how much less our Ascension sermon could cause the risen Jesus to ascend to Heaven on a cloud! I know my Ascension sermon could not do it. But why did I choose to do chapel in this Ascension week? As a matter of fact, I did not choose it. When I signed up for chapel, this was the only week left vacant. I had no choice but to take it. Perhaps my colleagues are wiser than I am. Or is this punishment for my sin of procrastination?
Crucifixion and Ascension
My problem, and it must be yours also if you find yourself in the same dilemma, is that at first I could make little sense of the story of Jesus’s ascension as Luke’s Gospel told it. Did Luke himself know what he was telling Theophilus, whom he addressed as “most excellent Theophilus,” and to whom he dedicated both his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles? I wonder. This is not his eyewitness account. He did not see it happen. It was hearsay. He could not tell the story like a TV reporter reporting from the scene of what is happening: “This is Luke, reporting for CNN from Bethany, near Jerusalem,” for example.
Was Luke a credulous person? I do not know. But he was a physician. He would perhaps not tell something that has no modicum of truth in it. He was also something of a historian, and a quite down-to-earth one at that. Then, why did he conclude his gospel with a story such as Jesus’s ascension, and again begin his Acts of the Apostles with it? The story must have meant a lot to him. He must have wanted to disclose an important message through the story. He was doing story theology! What is then the theology he was doing through this story? What is the message he tried to communicate to “most excellent Theophilus,” to his readers, all his contemporaries, and to us today?
A story usually has more than one meaning, especially a story of this nature. The story of Jesus’s ascension, in my view, has to be closely related to the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. This must be the first thing Luke, the storyteller, tries to drive home to his readers. He uses expressions such as Jesus “was taken up to Heaven,” “was lifted up,” “has been taken up from you into Heaven.” Such expressions remind me of how people in Taiwan and China often refer to someone’s passing away as “returning to Heaven.” Buddhists would say, “returning to Western Heaven.”
But Luke is engaged here in more than a euphemism of death. Jesus lives. This is a fact. Jesus inaugurated the reign of God. This was his message and his ministry. Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to death. Eyewitness accounts told how he suffered at the hands of his opponents. Finally, he was executed. He died a painful death on the cross. He died. He is dead. He has been taken up to Heaven, euphemistically speaking. We have to accept Jesus’s death. Our faith, our life – as individuals, as a community, as a nation – Luke seems to be saying, must begin with the acceptance of Jesus’s death. Anything else is illusion. For how can we build a community of faith and a new life for our nation on an illusion?
Not Illusion But Faith
This is important for Luke, the evangelist. Why? As far as he knows, most of Jesus’s disciples and followers are living under the illusion that Jesus is not dead, in a false expectation that Jesus is hiding somewhere, biding his time to lead his people against Roman rule. In his story of Jesus’s ascension Luke has his disciples ask the risen Christ, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” A national dream dies hard. Misguided patriotism does more harm than good. This kind of patriotism is dangerous, Luke realized. It would undermine Jesus’s ministry of God’s reign. It would reduce Jesus to be no more than one of the national heroes. It would confuse God’s salvation with national salvation. The God Jesus did his utmost to help people understand is the God of all nations and peoples. However, this misguided patriotism would make this God of Jesus once again a tribal God, a sectarian God, a fanatical God in the minds of his followers.
Are we Christians today better than Jesus’s disciples and followers Luke had to address in his day? Do we really accept the fact that Jesus died, that he is dead? Are we not often too impatient to move from Good Friday to Easter Sunday? We are uneasy about the silence that intervenes. It is merely three days. But it seems endless. It seems ages. We can hardly wait for the arrival of Easter Sunday to sing, “Alleluia, Christ is risen.” “Victory over the power of sin and darkness!” “Triumph over despair and death!” With all Christians, I enjoy Easter Sunday. Of course I do. But the Easter Sunday that overshadows Good Friday, the empty tomb that turns Jesus’s death into a farce, the victory that renders Jesus’s defeat on the cross a sham – I seem to see in this one of the root causes of Christian triumphalism. This triumphalism reveals our inability to accept our more humble place in the world of many cultures and many religions, the unwillingness on the part of many Christians even today to recognize God’s saving activity among men, women, and children who are not Christian. To us as well as to his contemporaries, Luke is saying, Jesus “has been taken up from us into Heaven,” that Jesus is dead and buried.
If Luke wants us to accept Jesus’s death that took place in the past, he also directs us to grasp the future that the death of Jesus brings. This must be the reason why Luke refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit. I wonder whether it has puzzled you, but it has always puzzled me: Why does Pentecost have to follow the Ascension? Why does Jesus have to ascend to Heaven for the Spirit to descend form Heaven? Is this to say that we are left without the Spirit between the Ascension and Pentecost? Does this lead us to believe that the world is devoid of the Spirit in this between-time? But we are told that “a wind from God [the Spirit of God] swept over the face of the waters” in the beginning when God created heavens and the Earth. Did not God raise men and women to be prophets and fill them with God’s Spirit? And is not Jesus reported to have said to Nicodemus, a Jewish rabbi: “The wind [the Spirit] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born from the Spirit.” This is long before the Ascension and Pentecost.
Is not Luke, then, misleading us here? Has he become a Pentecostalist before Pentecostalism? Is he saying that the Spirit to come is different from the Creator-Spirit and the Redeemer-Spirit? Is he intimating that with the ascension of Jesus we have to begin all over again with the Holy Spirit? Questions such as these prompt me to read the story of Jesus’s ascension more closely – with a “magnifying glass,” as it were. I was struck by what Luke reports at this critical point in the story: “For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Eureka! I almost shouted out loud. John the Baptizer! This is the clue. Strange, is it not? John the Baptizer, no more than a harbinger of Jesus, a lone voice in the wilderness, beheaded by that notorious Herod the tetrarch a long time ago!
How strange! Luke resurrected this John to play a crucial role in his story of Jesus’s ascension. But it is not that strange after all. Do you remember what Luke has John the Baptizer say to the people in the early part of the gospel? “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. baptism with the Holy Spirit is not complete without baptism with fire. This was Jesus’s own baptism. This was his own ministry. And that baptism with the Spirit and fire culminated in his death on the cross. The cross was Jesus’s baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Was Luke reflecting all this when he sat down to write the story of the beginning of the Christian church? Maybe. Or, was he very much aware of the Roman Empire that was becoming increasingly hostile to Jesus’s followers? Maybe also. Surely he knew of the burning of Rome and the persecution of Christians there in the year 64 C.E. Peter and Paul probably met their martyred deaths in that imperial city around the year 67. And the destruction of Jerusalem took place in 70, that tragedy of tragedies and that trauma of traumas in the religious history of Jewish people. The lives of the followers are going to be under the fire of persecution.
All this could have been utmost in Luke’s mind when he began writing his story of the Christian beginning. O come, Holy Spirit! This was his prayer. This was the cry of his fellow Christians. Their prayer and their cry developed into the faith in the powerful presence of Jesus – Jesus present with them in the Spirit, the Creator-Spirit, the Redeemer-Spirit, the Spirit to empower them for the ordeals they had to face.
Luke is very agitated. The situation is critical. It calls for faith, and it demands action. But most of Jesus’s disciples and followers seem to be oblivious to all this. They are not facing what is going to happen to them. They cannot see what is coming. All they are doing is gazing toward Heaven, staring at the vacant space, living in the cloud of their dreams and illusions. Luke feels, to use a Chinese expression, like “an ant on a hot pan,” extremely anxious. The situation is grave; the time is urgent. With a master stroke of a story teller, Luke pours out all his fear, his frustration, his passion, and his faith in the question that jolted the disciples and followers of Jesus from their complacency: “[People] of Galilee,” he calls to them, “why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”
These are magic words. These words bring them back to reality. These are words of inspiration. These words inspire them to be filled with the living presence of Jesus dead and gone. These are empowering words. These words empower them to “be my [Jesus’s] witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth,” including that imperial city of Rome. The sky-gazing is over. The standstill is broken. The stalemate is overcome. The story of Jesus is to be told and retold by generations of women and men. It is to echo in the world, both in East and in West, in North and in South. And it is to be part of the stories of people everywhere – stories of the struggle for meaning in this life and in the life to come.
Has “the tombstone crumbled to pieces, and Christ sprung from the Earth and ascended to Heaven, smiling at you and waving a white banner”? Most probably not. But I hope at least that we have stopped looking up toward Heaven to find Jesus in our hearts and in our community, working with him who teaches us to pray: “May your rule come, O God, your will be done on Earth, as in Heaven.”