"How the Story Doesn't End" by Claire Helton
In my earlier account, Theophilus, I dealt with everything that Jesus had done and taught, 2 from the beginning until the day he was taken up, after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After the Passion, Jesus appeared alive to the apostles—confirmed through many convincing proofs—over the course of forty days, and spoke to them about the reign of God.
4 On one occasion, Jesus told them not to leave Jerusalem. “Wait, rather, for what God has promised, of which you have heard me speak,” Jesus said. 5 “John baptized with water, but within a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 While meeting together they asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?”
7 Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that Abba God has decided. 8 You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”
9 Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight. 10 They were still gazing up into the heavens when two messengers dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “You Galileans—why are you standing here looking up at the skies?” they asked. “Jesus, who has been taken from you—this same Jesus will return, in the same way you watched him go into heaven.”
This is one of our sacred stories,
Thanks be to God.
As Jesus’ disciples gathered with him on the mountaintop, forty days after the resurrection, surely at least one of them made note of the date. Forty days since the resurrection – forty was a significant number in the stories they held sacred, and Jesus sure did have a knack for presenting himself as a kind of fulfillment of those old, sacred stories. Just think of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness echoing down into Jesus’ forty days of fasting in that same wilderness land. As the disciples reached the meadow on the mountain’s peak, was that a flicker of fear flashing across their faces as they began to wonder what Jesus had in store? After all, everyone who had ever encountered God on the mountaintop had come back down a different person than they had been on the way up. That is, if they ever came down at all.
If the disciples had been so inclined, they might have even chosen to take this opportunity on the mountain’s peak to tell the mountaintop stories of their people. And if they had, I bet I know where they would have begun.
It was Moses who had first encountered God on the mountain. Moses, who had lived a long and full life. Moses, who had made difficult choices; who had drawn closer than anyone to what was really real, usually on one mountaintop or another; Moses, who had liberated his people and led them through their wandering, until finally, they had made it here to the brink of the promised land. And now here, at the end, he stood on yet another mountaintop overlooking the land that lay waiting for his people. He felt as if he could see the future that lay before the people of Israel with his own two eyes, and it was a future as textured and complex as the landscape before him, a future of mountainous highs on either side of the depths of the valley of fear. But God would be with them, and Moses had no fear. He knew his time had come. If there was one thing he had learned coming face to face with the divine, it was this: The story would not end when he did. And when Moses, the great leader who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, had breathed his last, they say it was God’s own hand that buried his bones in the ground; his final resting place a secret that God alone knows. It was an ending…that didn’t feel like an ending. Almost like the spirit of Moses could still be in our midst.
Perhaps, if they were still in a storytelling mood, that literal mountaintop story would have led them to a figurative one from centuries later: the story of Elijah, walking along the river’s edge with his apprentice, imparting a few last words of wisdom. Elijah had a feeling that his work here had been accomplished, that his time was drawing near. His apprentice, Elisha, made one last request, asking for a guarantee that the spirit that had animated Elijah would live on in his own ministry, that he would be, truly, a son of Elijah. The great prophet knew enough to know that this wasn’t a guarantee he could offer, because so much depended on the choices his young apprentice would make himself. But he was not troubled by not knowing what would become of his legacy, because if there was one thing he had learned in coming so close to the divine, it was this: The story would not end when he did. And when his time had come, they say he was whisked away, gone in an instant, not dead – even – just gone, carried away on something like a chariot ablaze with the glory of the God he had served. It was an ending…that didn’t feel like an ending. Almost like the spirit of Elijah could still be in our midst.
And maybe after telling the stories of these faithful ones who had loomed so large in life but had, nevertheless, eventually exited the scene…the disciples might have had an inkling of the turn their story was about to take.
Because then there’s Jesus. Not just coming back from the grave, but coming back never to enter it again. Here he stood before them, forty days after that fateful Easter morning, on a mountaintop: the new Moses, approaching the end of his time on earth, gazing out on the future of his people, of all people, with hope; here stood Jesus, the new Elijah, imparting a few last words of wisdom to those who would carry on his legacy, and disappearing in just as mysterious a fashion.
One might begin to think the people of God have some kind of fear of death, the way they go so far out of their way to tell the stories of their heroes as stories of people who never really died. It certainly doesn’t make for a “do as I do” kind of faith.
But Luke has already invited us to hold the story of Jesus up against the stories of Moses and Elijah when he includes the earlier story of Jesus’ transfiguration, which takes place on a mountaintop, joined by the miraculous, otherworldly appearances of none other than Moses and Elijah. And when we hold these three figures and the endings-that-aren’t-quite-endings of their stories up next to each other it does seem that a theme emerges. After all, Jesus’ story ends – at least on paper – with his ascension, and yet it doesn’t really feel like an ending. In some ways – in so many ways – it’s as if the spirit of Christ is somehow still in our midst.
These stories are significant because they’re stories of biblical heroes discovering, and helping us discover, that the story God is telling is not a story that could ever end with the loss of any one leader, that this isn’t a story that gives death the last word – they’re stories that provide anchor points in scripture for this central line of truth that we hear from the lips of Jesus himself – this truth that the kingdom is here in our midst.
In the gospel of Luke, written by the same author as the story of the ascension we read today, there comes a passage toward the end of Jesus’ ministry when he speaks in parables about the kingdom of God. It’s like a mustard seed, he says. You plant the tiniest seed and up comes not just the mustard bush you’d expect but a tree so full of life and generous of shade that birds make their nests in it and the people find rest at its base. That’s what the kingdom is like.
Or in another way, he goes on, it’s like the smallest measure of yeast. You drop in just a pinch and then watch as it causes the whole ball of dough to rise. That’s what the kingdom is like.
In this passage, the conversation goes on for a while and then the Pharisees step up with a question. They want to know when this reign of God will begin. Or, more likely, they want to get Jesus on record proclaiming a date so they can use it later to discredit him.
But you’re missing the point! Jesus tells them. The reign of God doesn’t come in a visible way. You can’t say, ‘See, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ No – look, he says, gesturing to the open space between them: the reign of God is already here in our midst.
It wasn’t a new idea when Jesus said it.
It’s the same lesson the patriarch Jacob learned when he had just started out on the journey that would lead him to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. In need of a safe place to rest, in fear of retribution from those who wished him harm, running away from the only home where he had ever known God to reside, he fell asleep and dreamed of angels and a ladder, and became acquainted with this truth: that God cannot be contained. And so he proclaimed, “Surely God is in the midst of this place, and I did not know it.”
It’s the same lesson the tribes of Israel would learn through difficulty and sorrow, when centuries later they were carried into exile, leaving behind them the temple, the only place they had ever known God to reside. With the full expanse of a desert between their new home and the one they had built for God, the nation of Israel in exile learned to settle in, and to come to terms with the truth that somehow, the death of their nation hadn’t been the last word; God was still here in the midst of them.
It's the same lesson Jesus taught over and over in word and in deed throughout his ministry: proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God, giving himself fully to that truth in his willingness to love beyond respectable boundaries, and then, even, to die – for he, too, like Moses and Elijah, knew in his bones that this story would not end with his death.
And when it didn’t, when even he didn’t end with his own death, but when his days on earth were coming to a close, he gathered his disciples to him, here on the mountaintop. He gave them a few last words, and as they looked on, he rose for a second time, and this time, disappeared before their very eyes. They stood there, staring into the heavens, and suddenly, two passersby walked up behind them, shielding their eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of what had everyone’s attention fixed on the sky.
Only, they weren’t just passing through, they were messengers of the God who can’t be contained, and they came to ask a simple question. Why are you looking at the sky?
It’s a question that ought to ring in our ears every time we find ourselves waiting on God to intervene. Why spend your time gazing into the clouds when, in truth, the spirit of Christ and the kingdom he proclaimed are both right here, as close as your next breath? As real as your next-door neighbor? Why, on earth, are we looking at the sky?
Friends, what is it you’re looking for from God? Maybe it’s a physical need you long to have met, or maybe your spirit is uneasy in this season. Whatever your longing leads you to pray for, I’m not saying don’t pray about it – but be vigilant, lest you start cloud gazing. We can look to the skies, friends, but the clouds will keep rolling by, for the kingdom of God is already here, all around us. It is here, right here, in our midst. In the love that we share. In the justice we seek. In the mercy we grant to one another, and to ourselves. The kingdom of God is within us. Alleluia, alleluia. Amen.