I can’t tell you how much I admire the restraint of Jesus in this final earthly meeting with his apostles. Of course, the Eleven don’t know that their Master is about to vanish from their sight. If they had known that this would be their final conversation with Jesus in the flesh, they might have chosen a different topic. Or, maybe not. Their question is exasperatingly familiar: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” We might expect the Lord to say, “Friends, really? After we’ve been together so long, after you’ve witnessed God’s power raise me from death, do you still think the kingdom is only about Israel?” But there is no rebuke or impatience in Jesus’ reply. He simply states that it is not for them to know the times and periods—the chronos and the kairos—that the Father has set by his own authority.
The disciples have argued loudly and frequently about who among them was the greatest. They have dreamed of places of power at the right & left of King Jesus’ throne. They have never quite grasped that the kingdom that has drawn near in Christ is utterly different from the kingdoms of this world. Jesus is not perturbed about this. He knows that the Spirit of truth will be an effective teacher in the lives of his followers. And that Spirit is coming soon. The disciples are interested in power and they’re about to receive it. But the power that the Holy Spirit will bring is not the power of a political regime. Rather, it will be power to bear witness to Christ, starting at home, in Jerusalem and Judea, and extending outward to Samaria and the ends of the earth.
The first disciples’ confusion about the nature of the kingdom is repeated often in the history of the church, right down to the present day. In every age, we need to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. The Spirit, like the wind, “blows where it chooses,” said Jesus. The Spirit comes to liberate us from false understandings that would confine God’s saving activity to our places, our people, our polity. Left to ourselves, we sabotage the Spirit’s work by our parochialism, denominationalism, nationalism or any “ism” that lifts human agency above God’s power. But “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor. 3:17) No wonder Jesus told his disciples not to make a move until they had received the Holy Spirit. Someone has said that the Book of Acts is the account of the church trying to catch up with the Holy Spirit as the Spirit compels the disciples to cross racial, religious and national boundaries to be Christ’s faithful witnesses. It will be a wild and adventurous ride.
And, then, Jesus is gone . . . taken up into a cloud, not to be seen again. After forty days of “present[ing] himself alive to them by many convincing proofs,” the Lord is suddenly lifted from their presence. The scene has a touch of humor, as the eleven apostles, craning their necks and squinting into the sun, are startled by the voices of two white-robed men, who ask them why they’re staring at the sky. “This Jesus,” they explain, “who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way.” The disciples have already learned that the resurrected Jesus has the unsettling ability to appear and disappear. This dramatic exit, along with the message of the angels, was, for the disciples, a distinct and necessary break between the bodily presence of Jesus and the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The event of the ascension defies physical description. But the theological meaning is clear, as enshrined in the creeds of the church. The ascension is understood as a continuation of the exaltation of the Son of God that began with his resurrection from the grave. As described in the Kenosis Hymn of Philippians 2, in obedience Jesus descended from heaven to earth, died a humiliating death on the cross and continued all the way down to the grave. But, God exalted the Son by raising him from the dead, receiving him back into heaven and seating him at the right hand of the Father. As Peter so powerfully proclaimed on the day the Spirit was poured out: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33)
Acts 1:14 tells us that the group of Christ-followers waiting in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit included not only the apostles, but also “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.” After all that has happened, Mary is numbered among the faithful few who will carry forward the work of her son.
We met her when she was only a teenager, receiving Gabriel’s astonishing announcement that she would be the mother of the Messiah. “How can this be?” she had asked. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” was the angel’s incomprehensible reply. Now, at the time of Christ’s ascension, Mary is around fifty years of age. Her journey has been unique in history—from mother of her infant son, Jesus, to disciple of the crucified & risen Son. When Mary hears the words, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” she’s on familiar ground. The words echo a message she heard long ago, foretelling the birth of the Savior. This new announcement signals another birth—that of the Spirit-empowered church. Mary prepares herself once again to be caught up into the gracious work of her loving God. As we join our parishioners in looking ahead to Pentecost Sunday, the example of Mary inspires us to wait in prayerful expectation of the Spirit’s life-giving power.