Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
Movie Sequels and Television Cliffhangers
As a kid, one of my favorite television re-runs to watch in the afternoons was the 1960’s version of Batman and Robin starring Adam West and Burt Ward. In each episode, the two “Caped Crusaders” faced a new villain, who toward the end of the show, captured the two heroes and placed them in a death trap involving either a saw, a laser beam or some other outlandish weapon of torture. The show always ended with Batman and Robin on the brink of their demise and we the viewers were left, with the anxiety of not knowing until the next week, how and if our heroes would escape.
Entertainment writers utilize a production style called the “cliffhanger,” used to keep us on the edge of our seats, keep us interested, and to heighten the desire to hear the rest of the story. The “cliffhanger” was most prominently used in the old TV drama “Dallas” in the early 1980’s, and you might have joined the millions of fans who spent an entire summer wandering, “Who shot JR.” Many of our favorite binge-worthy television series thrive because of the weekly cliffhanger plots.
Movie writers use this style as well, and they keep the story going through cliffhangers that lead to the next “movie sequel.” Terri and I watched Star Wars “The Last Jedi” a few nights ago, and we could not wait to watch its sequel “The Rise of Skywalker” the next night. If you have seen these movies, you will recall that at the end of the last movie, Rey, the orphaned Jedi warrior buried the late Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia’s lightsabers on some remote planet. She also in an interesting twist in the same scene, mysteriously took the last name Skywalker as her own. Hang on Star Wars fans, because a sequel will be out soon to keep the drama of the Last Jedi going and many of we fans will wait impatiently for that movie to arrive. So, you may ask, “Fr. Eric, what do cliffhangers and movie sequels have to do with the Ascension?” What if Jesus’ Ascension is a spiritual cliffhanger or a discipleship sequel of sorts?
The Ascension – Spiritual Cliffhanger and Discipleship Sequel
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear, “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Sadly, the church does not spend a great deal of time teaching about the ascension, but each week this important event in the life of the church has a special place in our liturgy, especially in the Nicene Creed when we say, “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
Theologian Gregory Shaw once wrote, the ascension reveals Christ’s “divinity, but more importantly . . . the ascension of Christ also signaled the beginning of a messianic kingdom and the empowerment of Christ’s followers, by virtue of their identification with him through the rite of baptism.” (1)
The Ascension of Christ is important for us as Christians for a couple of reasons. First, it serves as a visible sign that humanity is by Jesus’ life, ministry, death, resurrection and his ascension, fully accepted by God. Jesus said, “that they may be one as you and I are one.” Through Christ’s ascension, humanity is taken into heaven and into the inner life of God. Imagine the mystery of the resurrected body of Christ integrated with the inner life of the Trinity; humanity and divinity united. “That they may be one as we are one.”
The Ascension of Christ also serves as a reminder that the story of salvation continues beyond this particular event. The Ascension is the hinge point between Jesus’ resurrection, and the narrative of the ongoing ministry of Christ through the ministry of the church, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Ascension is the “cliffhanger,” that dramatic moment in the story that tells us that there is a sequel in the ongoing story of salvation. The Ascension of Christ tell us that there is much more to come, and more importantly, we the church play a major part in that ongoing drama.
Ascension and Mission
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all (men) to myself.” (John 12:32) Jesus sends out his baptized followers into the world to continue his ministry of reconciliation, restoration, and grace, which means that Jesus also sends us out with the same commission. He sends us out with the presence of the Holy Spirit, who empowers and strengthens us to do that which we have been called to do.
The Ascension is not the end of the story of Jesus’ ministry, but it is the beginning of the ongoing drama that challenges us, to anticipate and engage in the sequel, the next chapter of how others will come to know Christ and his reconciliation and restoration. Jesus commissions us, the Church, and our calling is to go and create the sequel, by telling the story as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Book of Common prayer tells us that the Holy Spirit is, “God at work in the world and in the Church even now.” (2). As disciples of Jesus today, we are allowed and invited to the write the sequel, with the help of a holy comforter and director; the Holy Spirit.
After the Ascension, the disciples were standing looking up into the sky and two white robed men (we believe to be Angels) said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It is as if these messengers were telling the apostles, “Ok, let’s get moving here, there is work to be done, this is not the end of the story, now you all are up on stage, and it’s your turn.” The apostle’s awe, amazement and reluctance to get on with their ministry in that moment, may be difficult for us to understand.
It would be like you just finished watching “Rise of Skywalker” and although you are intrigued by the ending of the movie you say, well the story ended here and that is that. However, you forget that the story has not ended, because you are left wondering about the significance of the buried lightsabers. You know that there is more to the story to come and so, you wait for the next movie.
The Ascension for Jesus followers is not merely a sign that the story has come to an end and we just sit around, doing nothing, waiting for Jesus to return. The Ascension tells us that there is work to be done and Jesus gives us our marching orders. Today, the church is called to move forward in the mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. We work now, to bring about the Kingdom of God, now. Yes, we are to look forward with anticipation to the Kingdom to come, but we must work now, to bring it into the present day and age. We wait and yet, we work. We hope, and yet we minister.
How do we do move forward in anticipation and working in the kingdom? I found on someone’s Facebook wall the other day, these words, “Good Morning, This Is God! I will be Handling all Your Problems Today. I Will Not Need Your Help — So Have a Good Day. I Love You.” Trusting that God’s got this, that God has all our problems in hand, and that God will handle it all, also reminds us that the story is not over, and the sequel of the salvation story is already showing on the movie screen of our lives.
Jesus said, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Even today, when this community stands at the “cliffhanger” of change, you can rest in the assurance that the Spirit will guide you, that the Spirit will lead you, and that the Spirit will strengthen you for the mission of love and service, in the next sequel you are writing right now. Your mission sequel is to remain as one, working together to bring all the players into the drama, so they might come to the knowledge and love of Christ. So, grab your popcorn and Junior Mints, the lights are darkening, the previews are over, and the sequel is playing on the big screen. Now is the time to move your gaze from the skies and take up your part in the mission of bringing about the Kingdom of God emerging all around you. This is your mission now, and it will be your mission in the decades to come.
(1) Oxford Companion to the Bible, Oxford University Press, Gregory Shaw, New York,p. 61
(2) The Book of Common Prayer p. 852