Jesus didn’t say, ‘Beam me up’
We are all familiar with depictions of people coming and going. Many will recall in the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” how Glinda, the good witch, descends upon Dorothy and the Munchkins in a bubble, and after delivering a message and explaining the mystery of the ruby slippers, departs in the same way. And no one who has watched even one “Star Trek” episode can have missed Captain Kirk or his crew being beamed up by a transporter beam.
So, that is just like the Ascension, right?
Wrong. The Ascension of Jesus is not a device to get him back into heaven from whence he came. The Ascension is an account of how Jesus, having finished his work on earth, blazes a trail over which we one day shall travel, a trail to eternal life that continues our relationship with the risen Jesus and God, our creator and redeemer. While other religions have their divine ascension narratives, with other worthy ones ascending with them, Jesus departs alone, leaving his disciples behind, staring into empty space, as a cloud takes him out of their sight.
And why does that matter?
Because our work is not done on earth. We learn more about that work from Jesus’ prayer for his disciples – and us – in the gospel reading for today: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” This farewell prayer is said, not just for the small band of family and followers, but also for each of us. The good news here is that Jesus prays openly for us, for our protection and our unity so that we might be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus also tells us, shortly before his Ascension, what eternal life means for us: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The Ascension makes Jesus accessible to all people, not just his disciples in a particular historic moment. He prays for all people, and all may call upon him. There is no limit to accessing him, no request too small.
Recently a woman called her church office in distress because her husband had just received a bad diagnosis. She did not know what to do. As she talked with her pastor, her voice became calmer and she began to voice her fear about what might happen. Then she said, “Will the church pray for us?”
“Of course,” her pastor replied, “and I am praying for you both right now.”
“I know,” she said. “I can feel it.”
The risen and ascended Lord entered into her time of need with a calming presence through her plea for help and her pastor’s prayer. That is how a relationship with Jesus is supposed to work: immediately accessible, even when we cannot say the words because of our grief or distress. People are constantly learning how the living Lord works on their behalf. Jesus’ Ascension paves the way for this work, and we are the beneficiaries of it.
In the Easter season, we are continually drawn to stories about Jesus’ pastoral care for us. He walks to Emmaus with the troubled disciples who had hoped he would redeem Israel, and then helps them see his risen life and the power it holds for them as they begin to share the Good News with others. He cooks breakfast for his friends on the shore of the lake, and they know through this simple act of hospitality how deeply he cares for them, and we know how deeply he cares for all of us.
When was the last time you asked God for something? When was the last time you knelt in a church or in your living room and asked Jesus for a specific need? When was the last time you prayed for yourself or a friend to be healed?
For whom will you pray today? For whom will you offer prayer this week? These prayers are dialogues with Jesus, and he wants us to speak to him. He wants to give us good things, the things we deeply desire and need to lead lives of hope. That is what he does for the disciples in today’s gospel reading, and that is what he will do for you.
Conversion and transformation are the steps the risen one takes with us. Few people have the dramatic experience recorded by the apostle Paul on the Damascus road, but many have moments when life and their place in it begin to come together. That is the conversion experience, when the pieces of the puzzle of life begin to fit together. The conversion leads to transformation, a new life centered in the risen, ascended Lord. It is no longer all about you or me.
Many of us have a favorite person whom we admire for their ability to go through a crisis or meet difficult challenges head on. One young man works for the Veteran’s Administration and sees vets from many different wars. He says the ones who teach him the most are the ones who can articulate their faith, the conviction that God loves them and cares for them, even with lost limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses. “They are,” he says, “the people who have found peace in the midst of strife. They know Jesus and see him as their friend.”
Jesus does not come and go on a transporter beam. His presence abides in the church and in a personal and unique relationship with each of us. That is what we celebrate in the Great Fifty Days of Easter.
Today, whether you are joyful about something or sad and grieving over what might have been, remember you are connected to the risen Christ, through the community of faith and directly with him. Pray for specific things you need. Ask for the things he wants to give you, and always remember it is his risen and ascended life that makes him accessible. He wants to walk with you. Will you take his hand?
— Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas