“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.”
This seems like a completely different world to the one we’re in, one where the hypocritical shambles of the PM’s advisor, the breach of the instructions given, and the government’s defence of him has Twitter all aflame.
Jesus’ ascent into heaven looks like the epitome of social (or physical) distancing. His ascent, according to Paul, was way above the highest heaven – far above what humans could ever consider attaining though any spirituality. Jesus’ ascent wasn’t to put distance between him and us – there had been enough of that, with the God of the Old Testament. The angels standing with the men explain that to them, while they gaze at the sky. He will come again in the same way. The disciples lived in the now and the not yet – the ‘in-between times.’
But there’s a paradox in his ascent, because although he ascended to (what was understood as) heaven, which in first century thinking was above the clouds, he’s also present with us. Jesus isn’t found only in heaven. He’s here on earth, in the nitty and the gritty, in our homes, in our lives and the overwhelming sadness and grief that so many are experiencing during lockdown.
Lockdown is also a paradox because it is in love, and our compassion on others, that the disciplined decision was reached to help shield people from this virus. The churches are not shut to maintain distance but to keep you safe, yet our hearts break when we cannot meet in person. We live in the now and the not yet – the ‘in-between times.’
Yet through all of this, Jesus remains with us, while also being with his Father. The Bible is full of paradoxes, and this is no different. Jesus’ ascent points the way to Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes like a rushing wind. From that was the birth of the Church.
Back in the first century when the disciples were still gazing upward long after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, perhaps they wondered if they had to get to heaven to meet with Jesus and the Father. It’s not so much as about waiting to get to heaven, it’s about understanding that Jesus and God are present here and now as we go into the world and witness to God’s love. Our lives before death are as meaningful as life is after death – it’s not just about salvation. God is here, in our brokenness, in the ‘in-between times.’
Pentecost doesn’t come immediately. Perhaps that’s what the disciples were waiting for. Perhaps we would like something similar? To come out of lockdown with no fear for our lives and just return to what was our normality. But the longer we wait, we realise there’s a dawning realisation that we won’t be returning to the old ‘normal.’ That, like Jesus’ ascension, has passed. We have to learn, like the first disciples, to let the ‘old normal’ go, let Jesus go, let our favoured ways of doing and being church go. We simply cannot hold on to Jesus or possess him, or appropriate him for our own means. He showed us that. And the Church, the body of Christ, has to change too.
In the ‘in-between times,’ as the disciples waited in Jerusalem, I’m sure they asked ‘What now?’ We’re no different. Lockdown has brought us and our ways to almost a complete standstill. Between Ascension and Pentecost there’s a wait. We don’t know how long the first disciples had to wait, and we have to wait alongside them. What is God trying to teach us in these ‘in-between times?’
Pentecost will come. The tongues of fire will land on the people, and their hearts will set aflame with the love of God. Better this, than Twitter aflame with judgement. Because judgement is not love. And we have the discipline of love, as disciples of Christ. Love in the face of danger under lockdown was to help shield the vulnerable, the weak, the poor and the frightened.
Love is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the being of God, and the meaning of humanity. This is why we gather to encourage each other and help the community around us. This love is our witness in everything we do and the source of our compassion. This love is outpoured on us at Pentecost and enables the whole community to witness to each other and share the love of God.
In these in-between times, we wonder what the future holds for our country, our economy, our society and the Church. But we do know with certainty that Pentecost will come. It happened then, and it will come for us. We know that we are asked to be adventurous, to be creative and bold. We will probably make mistakes along the way, but the trick is to learn from our mistakes and head ever into the future, without looking back.
Ascensiontide – the in-between times between Ascension and Pentecost – asks us if we are up for the adventure before we know what’s coming.