Ascension Sunday is the point in Luke’s gospel narrative where we see Jesus float up to heaven as if he is being beamed up to the mothership. Nevertheless, it is not the first time we see the resurrected Jesus acting rather un-human. In Luke 24, Jesus is resurrected from the dead. Skepticism and doubt are rampant. The woman's story of the empty tomb is met with criticism: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11). Presumably that skepticism leads two disciples to apostasy as they leave the community and return to their hometown. Jesus (although they don’t know it is him) appears walking alongside them. Later he disappears from a meal with the two the moment they realize it is him. Quickly, they return via a risky seven mile night trip back to Jerusalem to tell the other skeptical disciples what they had encountered on the road. Sure enough, as they are telling their ghost story, poof, Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you.” I can hear one of the road-worn disciples cry out, “Goddamnit, Jesus. You gotta stop sneaking up on us like that.” Jesus shows them his hands and feet that still bear the scars of his torture and then asks to eat with them; make a note that resurrected Jesus is always hungry. As with the two apostate disciples on the road, Jesus offers enlightenment about the mission of God in the world and their place in it. They are to proclaim to all nations repentance and forgiveness of sins, but not to move an inch until they are “clothed with power from on high.” But first he leads them on a trip to Bethany, offers them a blessing, and is raised into the air until they can no longer see him. The story ends much different than the first time they had lost Jesus; it says, “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
My favorite verse in the Easter hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” goes: “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia! / Following our exalted Head, Alleluia! / Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia! / Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!” This time, as I read the ascension story in context of all the wildness that happens in the wake of Christ’s death, I see something I have not seen before. I see Jesus raise the disciples back to life.
As Jesus “descends to the dead” on that first Good Friday, the disciples descend into their own hell. Their worst nightmare had come true. Their hope turned to ashes as God’s coming kingdom was silenced by wood and steel. This is the kind of despair that turns humans into monsters, priests into molesters, lovers into murders. Do not mistake this for some figurative hell, this is the real deal and the disciples descend into the midst of it. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angel asks. But as the resurrected Jesus pops in and out of their walking-dead-lives, he is raising them from the pit of hell with his very presence. It reminds me of the scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Aslan breathes onto the people turned into stone statues and they are reanimated to life. Jesus breathes his friends back from death through his presence and divine hospitality. He breaks bread with his apostate disciples in Emmaus and then finishes the meal when they are returned to fellowship in Jerusalem. Both resurrected, Jesus and disciples are reunited on the other side of death and they feast! But Jesus is not meant to stay, he must go to his father and thus he blesses and ascends. Given new life, Jesus’ ascension is the final victory over death. He entered the world as every other human, but did not leave via death. He ascends into heaven and the disciples know that although he is gone, death is defeated and they will soon soar where Christ has led. But until then, there are nations full of dead people that need the breath of Christ’s life, and they head back to Jerusalem in the joy of that holy calling.
Christ is risen and has raised you to life. Christ ascended to heaven, death is defeated, his resurrection life is in you. Breathe in knowing that you breathe the very breath of God, breathe out knowing that you exhale Christ’s breath that brings dead people to life. In the power of Christ, go raise the dead.