A few years ago I had the joy of being present for the production of "The Passion Play" that is offered in a beautiful, outdoor drama in the Ozark Mountains. The life of Christ is shared with a dramatic flair that keeps you on the edge of your seat even though you know the story by heart. But I remember wondering how on earth, literally, they would depict the Ascension.
Luke tells us the risen Lord leads his disciples out to Bethany, where he raised his hands and blessed them. The actor portraying Jesus did just that, standing in the bright beam of a huge floodlight. Luke continues. As he was doing this, he left and was taken up into heaven. I held my breath and waited in great anticipation. Slowly, ever so slowly, the actor began to rise and move backwards, up the hill, with the floodlight still bathing his body with light. Oh, I thought, this is really the only way we human beings could have portrayed a moment in time when even Luke could not find adequate words to finish the script. He just left and was taken up into heaven.
In the Passion Play there in the Ozark Mountains, the actor is lifted up on a small platform that looks like a rock, and when it reaches the top of the hill, he disappears on the other side. The floodlight is turned off and the play has ended. Not according to Luke, however. Luke has an epilogue, or a stage call if you will. In this chapter 24, verse 52, he says, "After his disciples had worshipped him, they returned to Jerusalem and they were very happy." They spent their time in the temple praising God. The final curtain on the Passion Play has never come down for the disciples of Jesus to this very day; they are still worshipping him and trying to live lives of praise.
Yet for us moderns living in this year of our Lord 2002, ascensions are not in our realm of experience. As a pastor, I've been present for hundreds of funerals, and I always assure the loved ones we are only burying the body. Your husband, your wife, child, parent, friend, is still alive. God has received back their spirit. Even Job understood this when he listened to Elihu affirm, "If God took back the breath that he breathed into us, we humans would die and return to dust." We are created in God's image, and God breathes into us the life that we experience on this earth, and we have known for thousands of years that the body dies and is buried. But the soul-this breath of God-returns to the creator. So why the Ascension?
Leslie Weatherhead has helped me more than any other writer that I have experienced to understand this question. In his book A Plain Man Looks at The Cross, written in 1955, Dr. Weatherhead throws a floodlight on the Passion Play that has enabled me to move from the limitations of a drama production to the reality of what God did on the hillside that day 2,000 years ago. Weatherhead takes us to the Garden of Prayer where Jesus and his father are talking. "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." Notice he never says, "Let this death pass from me." A cup is a receptacle. That's what a cup is used for. You fill it up; you pour it out. You fill it up; you pour it out. Leslie Weatherhead shares his insights and feelings. Here is a homesick son talking with his father: "I can die this death, Abba, but must I forever pour myself out for these people? Can I just come on home?" And God whispers back to his beloved Son, "No, I need for you to be alive forever and to be the Savior of the world."
And there you have the heart of the matter. It isn't death that changes Jesus from the man of Nazareth to the Savior of the world. It's his willingness to be spiritually alive forever--Spirit set free from physical limitations. That's what he meant when he prayed, "Not my will but thine be done." God was not willing that awful crucifixion on his beloved Son. God was willing the salvation of all of his other children through the saving presence of Jesus Christ for all time and in all places.
Now, at Pentecost, all of time -- all of human history -- flips over. When my parents died, we buried their bodies and commended their souls to God, but at Pentecost, the body of Jesus returns to God, and like a rush of mighty wind, his Spirit returns to us, to all of us. He kept his promise. He told his disciples, "Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age." The new contemporary translation says "to the end of the world." Earlier he had promised, "I won't leave you like orphans. I will come back to you. In a little while, the people of this world won't be able to see me, but you will see me and because I live, you will live."
As Paul so beautifully put it, "he pours himself out for us." And as Richard Blanchard expresses in his hymn, "Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up, Lord, come and quench this thirsting of my soul. Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more. Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole." And so he will.
Our responsibility as we experience the Ascension and as we anticipate Pentecost is to lift our cups in preparation for his Spirit to fill the empty places in our lives where we need to be made whole. Those first disciples were so full of his Spirit that they could not keep from worshipping him and they could not hide their happiness.
Ponder this question as you think about your cup:
How have I received his Holy Spirit and the Spirit of God?
Am I waiting for the Second Coming or do I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He comes to me every moment of every day when I receive the fullness of his presence?
Now ponder this question:
What kind of love would cause a human being to be willing to become a living Spirit, alive forever in a sinner like me? What on earth could have convinced him to become the symbolic cup that he was discussing with God in the garden that night?
"Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." He was human and divine. So are you. So am I. Why? Because God created us human and Jesus fills us with the divine--his Spirit--set free from the body that ascended into heaven, alive forever, filling our cups and making us whole.
Join me now in prayer.
Gracious God, long ago when you created human life, you breathed into us the breath, your Spirit. We were created human because you thought of it. We became divine because you gave us yourself, your breath. And then your only begotten Son made the decision to be forever alive in us and so here we are, 2,000 years later, still aware that we are human beings, but we carry within us the divinity of Christ, his Spirit, that Holy Spirit. Bless us as we look forward to the experience of Ascension, the experience of Pentecost, the experience of being so happy with the things that fill our lives with joy because of his presence that we will forever be the people who understand what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Amen.