By The Rev. J.C. Austin
This story about Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven is a strange one on many levels. First, it’s objectively strange: as a rule, people aren’t generally swept up into the sky, seemingly by invisible hands, never to been seen again. Second, it’s strange that somehow this story feels stranger than Easter, which doesn’t really make sense; if anything in the Bible is strange, out of the ordinary, it’s Jesus being resurrected after three days of being dead and buried.
But the strangeness of the resurrection, of course, is part of the whole point: it is a complete upending of how the world is supposed to work, a defeat of death itself so that those who live in Christ can follow him into abundant and eternal life. So what’s the point of Jesus’ ascension, then? Because from a casual read of the story, it seems like the point is just a particularly dramatic ending, with Jesus almost literally saying, “Peace; I’m out!” as he blesses them while withdrawing and being carried up into heaven.
But even with all that in mind, I feel like the strangest part is not what happens with Jesus at all; it’s how the disciples respond. Some of them have been with him since the very beginning of his public ministry in Galilee right up through the devastating events of Good Friday and the wondrous events of Easter. And having been with him through all of that, after weeping bitter tears of grief at his death and sweet tears of wondrous joy at his resurrection, Jesus basically says, “I told you it would all be ok. Peace; I’m out!” and leaves them staring up at him as he is carried away into heaven, wondering what they are supposed to do next as followers of Jesus when they quite clearly cannot follow him any further in his journey.
Yet they respond not with not just joy but “great joy,” Luke says. That feels quite strange, because while the story of Jesus’ life on earth may end here, the story of the disciples is still very much unfolding, and it is not in a good place right here, with the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem who were so threatened by Jesus that they arrested, framed, tortured, and killed him are still very much on the hunt for his followers, determined to stomp out the weed of his movement before it can spread any further. Joy would be the last thing I would expect them to be feeling under those circumstances.
Recently, my son Liam and I have been watching Band of Brothers, the HBO limited series about a U.S. airborne infantry company in World War II. One of the crucial themes of the series is what makes a good leader or a bad one, exemplified in the series of commanding officers who come and go at the head of the company throughout the war. The two best leaders shared a common philosophy of leadership that could be summed up in the two-word phrase, “follow me.” In other words, they were both characterized by their courage and their competence, deftly leading their troops into danger from the front rather than directing them forward into danger while lagging safely behind.
The worst commander, Lieutenant Norman Dike, was very different. Though there is a debate over how accurate this depiction is of the real Norman Dike, in the show he quickly acquires the nickname “Foxhole Norman” from his soldiers because he was often found hiding in his foxhole instead of actively leading the company during battle, when he could be found at all; he would disappear for hours at a time either without telling anyone or offering dubious rationales for his absence.
In one particularly dramatic example, when the company has just received a particularly withering barrage of artillery fire during the Battle of the Bulge. Now, an artillery barrage is one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable in itself, but these soldiers had been enduring weeks of struggling just to endure the snow and subzero temperatures with no winter clothing and little food, shelter, medical treatment, or ammunition, and no hope to be resupplied or reinforced because the U.S. troops were surrounded by the enemy.
And as the smoke begins to clear from this latest attack, Lieutenant Dike crawls over to the company’s First Sergeant and tells him, “you get things organized here; I’m going to go for help,” despite both men knowing there is no help that could be found, and then he flees the battlefield, abandoning his soldiers and leaving the sergeant to do his job for him right when they are in their greatest need. And joy is definitely not the description of what the First Sergeant is clearly feeling when this happens: he grimaces in resignation, both disgusted and unsurprised by this act of abandonment by his commanding officer as he watches him disappear.
So why don’t the disciples seem to feel any sense of abandonment in their time of great need? Why are the disciples instead filled with “great joy” as they watch Jesus disappear into the heavens, having just said that he’s going for help with a vague promise of sending what God has promised, which will clothe them with power from on high? Well, for one thing, Jesus is not Norman Dike. He has a proven track record of courage, competence, and faithfulness. He’s just reminded them that, before his arrest and execution and resurrection, the Scriptures had foretold that all of that would happen to him, and it did, just has he had said.
So given that, perhaps they’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that there is actually help to be found that he can go get and send to them. But still: the benefit of the doubt is a long way from great joy. And they must be exhausted and overwhelmed by everything that has been happening with them, to them, around them, don’t you think? If I were them, I think I might be thinking at that point, “how come he gets to fly away and I don’t get to follow? Because I’m really tired; I want to just fly away from all this, too.”
I mean, be honest with yourself: aren’t you tired? No, we haven’t been enduring artillery barrages for weeks in subzero temperatures with no food; but still: aren’t you tired? No, we haven’t seen a beloved teacher and friend falsely condemned, publicly humiliated, and brutally killed, only to be raised from the dead; but still: aren’t you tired?
Aren’t you tired of living under the constant threat of the pandemic all around us, of the senseless controversies over wearing masks and the baseless resistance to getting vaccinated that are impeding an end to all this, and causing far more lives to be lost than ever needed to be? Tired of disruption being about the only thing that has been predictable for over fourteen months now, and tired of trying to keep up with the guidance about protocols and risk factors that feels like it changes on a daily basis? Aren’t you tired? Haven’t you thought, in one way or another, at one time or another, “I just wish I could fly away from all of this to somewhere safe and calm and happy and beautiful, where I could just get a little peace?”
There’s an old gospel song called “I’ll Fly Away” that reassures us that, as followers of Christ, we will be able to do exactly that. The third verse sums it up succinctly: “Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away; to a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away (oh, Glory!), I’ll fly away (in the morning!); when I die, hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.”
The song is an embodiment of a whole stream of Christianity that leads us in that direction, emphasizing that the pain and hardship of this life is temporary and, as followers of Christ, we can be comforted by that fact and by the promise that we can leave this life and this world behind for an eternity in heaven with God that is the most safe and calm and happy and beautiful place imaginable, where we can have all the peace that there is to be had.
It is one of the most popular songs in the whole catalogue of gospel music, even showing up as a standard tune for largely secular bluegrass bands, both because it’s so catchy and because everyone, regardless of faith, can relate at some point in their lives to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the burdens of this life and a desire to be delivered from that to a reality defined by joy and peace.
But despite all that, it’s ironic that the gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” has so little in common with the actual gospel of Jesus Christ, and the strange story of Christ’s ascension is one of the best ways we can recognize that and hear the actual good news to us. Because the story of Christ’s ascension doesn’t promise us that we can fly away in joy and leave the troubles of this world behind us any more than it tells us that Jesus is flying off in peace and abandoning us to languish in this world exhausted and overwhelmed by its problems. No, it promises us something much better than an escape, and escape is a mighty appealing thing sometimes.
I was looking for a bit of an escape a little while back, so I decided to watch the show Ted Lasso on Apple TV. As it turned out, though, the show is not just a funny comedy, which it is, but also contains real insight, surprising subtlety in both its humor and its pathos, and more than a few downright moving scenes. The basic plot of the show is the story of a quintessentially American football coach, full of boundless optimism and homespun stories and sayings, who is improbably hired by an English premier league football club (what we would call soccer here in the States).
The team that Ted Lasso coaches is spectacularly mediocre, and spends much of the season teetering on the edge of being demoted to a lesser league. The captain of the team is a player named Roy Kent, who is one of the greatest players in league history but is essentially washed-up as a player, to the point that the most distinctive aspect of his playing is how slow he runs. Yet in a key match late in the season, he becomes an unlikely hero when, out of almost sheer force of will, he runs down a young rising star who has broken away with the ball and is about to score a decisive goal against them, and slide tackles him at the last moment, knocking the ball away right before the shot.
In doing so, he is badly injured and lays writhing in pain on the field. His teammates rush to his side, but instead of pulling him to his feet, they hold him on the ground. “What are you doing?” he asks them irritably, but they point to the crowd, which, despite the mediocrity of the team and the fact that they are playing to avoid total humiliation at this point rather than to win a championship, has broken into an enthusiastic chant of celebration and gratitude not just for what Kent has done, but who he is as a player that is renowned for his relentless competitive spirit: “Roy Kent! Roy Kent! He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere!”
Being English football fans, the full chant is a little more colorful, but you get the point: over and over again for unbroken minutes on end, they clap and chant and cheer and sing, in the stadium and at home and in the pubs, “He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere!” The announcer notes that the chant has echoed through the league for more than a decade to recognize and celebrate Kent’s uncanny ability to be in just the right place when he’s needed the most to change to the direction of a game, no matter how unexpected his sudden appearance might be: he seems to be here, there, everywhere he is needed.
That’s the true meaning and promise of Jesus’ ascension into heaven; that’s why the disciples themselves, on their return to Jerusalem, are filled with great joy, clapping and chanting and cheering and singing as they worship Jesus in gratitude and celebration for not just what he has done, but who he is and what he has promised. Because in ascending into heaven and promising to send help by clothing them “with power from on high,” Jesus not only secures his ultimate victory over death, but through the Spirit is able to be truly here, there, everywhere he is needed in a way that a physical body never could be.
And that means we and all of his followers will never be abandoned or alone, no matter where we find ourselves, no matter how exhausted or overwhelmed or grateful or joyous we may feel. And that is a reason to celebrate and be thankful, and be filled with great joy.