It’s not uncommon for television shows to begin each episode with scenes from the previous episode. They’ve got a name for this. It’s called a “recap sequence.” It may be familiar: A narrator’s voice intones, “Previously on...” and then the editors have carefully pieced together about 45 seconds of “scenes” from previous episodes that re-ground the viewer in the story line, just as the story is getting ready to take off again. Masterpiece Theater does it – you may recognize it in Laura Linney’s voice “Previously on Masterpiece...” – Downton Abbey, All Creatures Great and Small – so too, do Scandal and Mad Men and Game of Thrones. The recap sequence is a narrative device that helps carry forward a complex plot across the breathing space between episodes. It connects the conclusion of one episode to the start of the next, holding and reminding the viewer of what was most important, so that they/we can fully engage the story that is about to unfold.
It says: Pay attention; Remember; now – Here we go.
The Book of Acts begins with a recap of the final scene in the Gospel of Luke. The writer of both Luke and Acts begins each book, addressing them to Dear Theophilus. This Theophilus may be a specific person – some think it may have been a patron of Luke’s – or it may be a general address. “Theophilus” in Greek means “Friend of God” or “God lover.” The writer is telling this story to someone.
· In the Gospel of Luke: Dear Theophilus many people have told the story of Jesus, but I wanted to sit down and write you an orderly account, here it is – the life of Jesus, all he taught and did, through his Crucifixion, and Resurrection, all the way up to the Ascension of the Risen Christ into heaven.
· And then, the first words of the Book of Acts: Dear Theophilus, you may remember that story I told you about Jesus – how he suffered and then was raised from the dead on the third day – do you remember how we left off with the Ascension?
Luke’s recap underscores the Ascension – Jesus blessing his disciples and being taken up into heaven as they watched. The Ascension sits in this hinge point between Luke and Acts. It is the last word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the first word of the Acts of the Apostles. It is a story twice-told in the Scriptures. The writer of Luke and Acts wants us to pay attention.
So let’s do that. Let’s pay attention. Let’s look around. See what we notice. And let’s start with that final scene in the Gospel. Throughout the season of Easter, we’ve been hearing the stories of how Jesus’ followers experienced the Risen Christ. In Luke, the women go to the empty tomb and are told: “He is not here he is risen.” Peter also sees the empty tomb. Jesus comes alongside two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and is made known to them in the breaking of the bread. And then the Risen Christ appears to all the disciples, shows them his wounds, and eats a piece of broiled fish with them. When he is getting ready to leave, the Risen Christ leads them out to Bethany, and he blesses them. And while he’s blessing them, he’s taken up into heaven. The Gospel ends saying that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they stayed there, continually praising God.
The Acts of the Apostles picks the story up there. And first, it recaps all that – Dear Theophilus – in my first book, I told you all that Jesus did and taught until he was taken up to heaven – how he suffered and died and then showed himself alive. He stayed with the disciples for 40 days. Toward the end of that time, Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the gift that was promised to them – a baptism of Holy Spirit.
So when they were all together they asked him, “Is this it? Is this the time that you are going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” But Jesus said, “It’s not for you to know the time. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all through Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And after Jesus said this – do you remember the story? – he was taken up into a cloud before their very eyes. Just left them there – looking intently up into the sky. Until two men in white robes appeared and asked them, “Why are you standing here looking into the sky? The same Jesus who you’ve seen taken into heaven will return to you in the same way.”
You may know of the Ascension more from what you’ve seen in art museums than what you’ve heard in a Presbyterian church. Too often, I think, the Ascension gets lost somewhere between Easter and Pentecost. But the Ascension was a favorite subject of Medieval and Renaissance artists. I wanted to show you a few. The Renaissance works tend to be lush and glowing – Jesus’ return to heaven – showing forth his divinity.
Here’s a more recent work – by a graffiti artist from the UK –the emphasis is still on Christ's divinity – he is rising, surrounded by this bright luminous yellow – but this one remembers that Jesus wasn’t white.
Now, I thought this was interesting: A number of works that portray the Ascension focus on Jesus’ feet – that’s all they show of Jesus – just his feet, being taken up into a cloud – with the disciples on the ground below – emphasizing the departure of his body, and the disciples who remain.
As we stand here with the disciples, looking up into the sky, I want to notice three things about this Ascension scene in Scripture, and then maybe unpack them a bit.
First, this Ascension is a second good-bye. This is the second time that the disciples experience the loss of Jesus. But it’s quite different from the first. The first loss was brutal. The disciples – who loved and lived with Jesus – they lived through Holy Week and Crucifixion – Jesus was taken from them through the violence of Empire and power-over – he was killed -- executed – a sudden and traumatic loss. And they have been reeling.
But this second time, it’s different. They have 40 days with the Risen Christ. In the Bible, 40 days is a period of preparation. The Risen Christ takes his time with them – explaining all that they have experienced – just as he had told them – now they know it in their bones. And when the time is right, the Risen Christ ascends as he blesses them. Departing, not in violence, but in blessing. With a promise: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And with an assignment: You will be my witnesses, starting in Jerusalem, and then all the way to the ends of the earth. Jesus leaves them not vanquished, but a victor. Not in violence, but in blessing. Not with death, but with life.
And the second thing: Notice how the topography changes with the Ascension. Remember last week, we talked about topography as “how we locate ourselves and move around in space and place, both virtual and real.” In this story of the Ascension, consider the bodies – where they are in space and place – and how they move around each other.
After the terror of Holy Week, Jesus’ body is crucified, dead, and buried, utterly cut off from those who had followed him. His disciples take their bodies, and they run – they scatter – and then they gather again in fear in locked rooms. The topography is closed and somber and bewildering.
Easter morning dawns with spacious good news – the stone rolled away from the tomb – death, opened into life. The body of the Risen Christ appears to them – and draws the disciples out of their cramped cowering – they are together again. And then, Ascension draws them out even further, into the expanse of open space looking up into a big sky, as Jesus’ body disappears into a cloud.
And then third: Notice that Jesus leaves them in a liminal space – an in-between space. In between Easter and Pentecost. In between their experience of Jesus in the Risen Christ, and the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has been crucified, resurrected, and now ascended into heaven. And he tells them to wait – in between the now and the not yet. As I’ve heard someone say, the past that they’ve known is already gone, but the longed-for future – the new reality – is not yet here. It’s not an easy place to be.
That sense of liminal, in-between space resonates with me in this season of emerging from pandemic. We could think of the whole of pandemic as liminal space. The way the world used to be is gone. Jeff told me that he’s heard folks refer to that as “the before days” – the days before pandemic. We’ve been living in this strange world of sheltering and distancing for more than a year – and we’re not yet through this experience of pandemic.
And then even in these hope-filled days emerging from pandemic, we may not be in the depths of pandemic that we’ve experienced, but we’re not yet out, we’re not quite there yet. And we don’t yet know what there looks like. How will we and the world be changed? Will we have learned anything? All these things we have created – the deeper connections we have nurtured? How will we sustain them? The Ascension leaves them standing there together, looking up to the sky, in the midst of both the now and the not yet.
Jesus’ Ascension is a second good-bye. The topography of their world continues to shift and change. And here they are, in the midst of the now and the not yet.
But now, take a closer look.
They may indeed be in the midst of the now and the not yet. But Jesus very clearly focuses them on the now. When he promises that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes – they get excited – “Is this it? Is this when you re-establish your kingdom?” But he shuts that down: “It’s not for you to know when. You will receive power. You will be my witnesses. Wait here in this now. You have work to do.”
In Resurrection, the not-yet is certain and assured and on the way. God in the Risen Christ has conquered every power, even death, and even now is at work making all things whole. But Jesus tells them it’s not for them to know or worry about the when – when all this will be made complete. What is before them is now. Even in a world that feels like a liminal space, there is a vibrant now that is calling us to engage and to live it and to actively shape the future that is already on the way.
The topography of their world may have indeed changed, but the change is not merely that the Risen Christ has left the scene. The change in topography is that the Risen Christ has ascended into heaven, and now can be more fully present on earth, by the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit alive in us.
One writer sums up the importance of the Ascension like this: The Ascension signifies
· “the completion of God’s saving work in the body of Jesus of Nazareth;
· the raising up of the whole of creation;
· the embrace of the human experience at the very heart of God; and
· the liberation of the Risen Christ from the constraints of time and space.”
As another writer puts it, the locus of Christ’s work and ministry shifts from Jesus himself to those who follow him. Or, as I might put it, the topography of Christ’s loving, saving, healing work, is now us.
When those artists focus on Jesus’ feet ascending into heaven – the feet that remain on earth are ours. We are God’s feet on the ground. As a prayer by St Teresa of Avila says:
God of love, help us to remember
that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
no hands but ours, no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.
Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.
Ours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good.
When we see the Ascension like that, it starts to become clear that the Ascension is not really a good-bye at all. Did you notice that no one is sad in these Ascension stories? They rejoice, and they pray, and they worship, and they wait. As Jesus promises the Spirit, blesses the disciples, tells them they will be witnesses, and ascends into heaven, he’s not so much saying Good-bye, as “Here we go!”
You know that’s one of my favorite Janie Spahr sayings – “Here we go!” I’ve travelled a lot with Janie, and I know I mention her often. She’s a friend of this congregation – a Presbyterian minister who long has worked for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people and our families in the life of the church – doing that work in community. Janie has two very simple things that she says that impart such profound encouragement and power.
At those times when we have gathered together – for worship, or for protest, or just to laugh and enjoy each other’s company – Janie often says, “Well, here we are!” She announces that in our bodies – community has come to life – and the room fills with joy. “Well, here we are!”
And then, at those moments when we are about to set out on a journey – it could be a trip to go preach and teach – or it could be as we enter a trial where the denomination is accusing Janie of spreading Jesus’ love a bit too broadly – or I’ve seen it when we are about to enter a church sanctuary, expecting our denomination to rebuke her loving ministry – Janie says this: “Well, here we go!” And we move into that uncertain moment – together – with the joy of community in Jesus Christ that no power on earth can take away. Here we go!
In those days following Resurrection, the Risen Christ keeps appearing to the disciples, breaking bread with them, teaching them, preparing them. And on that day of Ascension, the Risen Christ blesses them – and points them toward Pentecost. You will receive power when the promised Holy Spirit comes. You will be my witnesses on out from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, all the way to the ends of the earth.
As he ascends, as they stand there looking at the heavens,
it’s as if he says to them:
Well. Here we go!
© 2021 Scott Clark
 See https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/02/previously-on-in-praise-of-the-television-recap/385036/  This background draws from Commentaries by A Katherine Grieb and Jeffrey D. Peterson Davis in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pp.502-507; and Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. x (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002).  See Grier, p.505.  Art featuring the Ascension abounds. These examples are drawn from a thoughtful curated selection found here: https://revdocgeek.com/2013/05/12/sermon-ascension-its-not-about-hovering-feet/  Grier, p.511  See https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/where-love-abides-1-john-4-7-21-sixth-sunday-of-easter  Summary of theological implications of the Ascension identified by liturgical theologian Laurence Hull Stookey, see David Gambrell, Commentary in Connections, Year B, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), Kindle loc. 9013.