A minister called Greg Crawford, who is part of a preaching discussion list on the internet which I am part of made a comment recently about Bible reading which I thought was so good that I pinched it. He said "In a way, I don’t think we can really hear a book of the Bible addressing us until we first realise it is not addressing us."
I think this is especially important when it comes to the story of the Ascension, because it is terribly difficult for us to swallow. It assumes that heaven is up there in the sky for a start, and we know it isn’t. But it was written for people who inhabited a completely different thought world, so while we are stymied from the outset, it wouldn’t have troubled them at all, and they would have cut straight to the meaning of this story.
So what we need to do tonight is try to forget the twenty-first century, and hear what the Bible has to say as if we were hearing it through their first century ears.
The first thing we need to know is that they didn’t have one story of those final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, they had five – four in the Gospels and one in the Acts of the Apostles. Only two of those accounts mention the Ascension, and they were both written by the same person. Luke, who also wrote Acts, is the only one of the Gospel writers to tell us that Jesus was taken up into heaven. Matthew, Mark and John not only don’t tell this story, they don’t tell any story of how Jesus came to be gone, so to speak. Matthew and John have some resurrection appearances and final words– Mark doesn’t even have these – but they say nothing about what happened next. Jesus could have just wandered off into the crowd for all we know from their versions.
A bit like the birth stories, which are just as patchy and inconsistent, that tells us that the detail wasn’t really important to the early Christians. What did matter was the message that they drew from the stories they told of those final days.
And that message was that though Jesus obviously wasn’t physically present with them anymore, that didn’t mean they were abandoned. Jesus’ absence isn’t a mistake, but a part of the plan. Whatever shape these final stories take they are full of peace and a strange sort of confidence. Of course this odd assortment of people – fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes – can go out and change the world. Why ever shouldn’t they be able to? That’s the message.They have what they need – or they soon will have when the Spirit comes. They don’t need to cling to the apron strings of Jesus. He is in them, with them where it matters. They don’t need all the answers, to have it all spelled out. They are safe in God’s hands, just as Jesus is safe.
Luke underlines it for the community he is writing for in the words of those angels – “why are you looking into heaven?” They ask. “There’s work to be done, and you are the ones who will do it.” He underlines it too with what to us is a singularly unhelpful image of Jesus being carried up into heaven, but which to his hearers would have been a reminder of the stories of Elijah and Enoch, whose bodily ascent to heaven was taken as a sign that they had been blessed and honoured by God. Perhaps Luke’s community particularly needed that to strengthen them in the face of persecution – we don’t know - but it’s not the detail of the story that matters, so much as the message it communicates.
So to go back to Greg’s point, that we can’t really hear the Bible addressing us until we realise that it isn’t addressing us, what is it of the voice of God that we can hear in this story? Actually it is precisely the same message that those first Christians heard. God is with us. We don’t need to stand rooted to the spot waiting like robots for instructions to be fed to us. We have what we need to face the challenges – personal, national, global – of our own age. I may have blown out our Paschal Candle this evening, but the light hasn’t gone out. Quite the opposite. It has gone in, into our hearts, into our lives, where we really need it.