In 1967 prolific song writer Jimmy Webb was inspired to write a song when his friend William F Williams flew a promotional hot air balloon for the radio station KMEN. The plan was for this song to used in a documentary about hot air ballooning but the documentary never came to fruition. Over that year a couple groups recorded versions of the song but when it was arranged and recorded by the 5th Dimension the song took flight. It swept the 1968 Grammy’s taking record of the year, song of the year, best contemporary song of the year and 3 others. Now I’m going to be honest and say that listening to the song now it sounds a bit dated. According to wikipedia it is a prime example of “sunshine pop” music, a genre of music popular with tv jingles. I’m also going to be honest and say that the first time I heard the song I definitely thought it was a veiled reference to drug use but further exploration revealed that it is literally a song about hot air ballooning. If you know the song, and I know for a fact that there are some of you out there who know this song, be warned, I’m about to butcher it. “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon/Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon/ We could float among the stars together, you and I. For we can flllllllyyyyyy. Up, up and away in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon.” I pity all of you who are watching this right now. But the thing is, this song, which is entitled, “Up, up and Away” has been in my head on repeat since I cracked open the Bible to this version of the Ascension. Jesus does this wild “superhero” move and floats up, up and away- but not in a beautiful balloon. And let’s be clear, Jesus does NOT float away never to be involved in the life of his disciples again, rather Jesus’ ascension forges a deep connection between Christ and church forever.
So how did we get here? The first five verses of the Acts of the Apostles helps set the tone. It is traditionally understood that the author of Acts is also the author of Luke, partly because the writing style is similar but mostly because both Luke and Acts are addressed to Theophilus. Now it is possible that Theophilus was a real person who commissioned the writing of Luke and Acts. But the name means “lover” or “beloved of God”. So I like to think that these texts were written as an open letter to anyone willing to expand on their relationship with God. As it says in the opening verses Acts is a transitions from “all that Jesus did and taught” to the life and ministry of the disciples, now called Apostles. This suggests that Jesus’ work continues in and through the apostles’ actions. We also get a hint at what is to come, that the Holy Spirit will baptize them with the gift of preaching, proclamation and prophecy. Essentially they will be gifted with some of the skill and power of Jesus. So, while these first five verses seem to just simply a brief re-cap of what we read in Luke it really is a clear link between Jesus and the apostles. Make no mistake that Jesus’ ministry is alive and well through them.
Verses 6 through 11 then narrates this strange story of the ascension. Within the lectionary we can call this “Ascension Sunday” but it is important to note that the ascension happened 40 days after Easter- which means that it was actually celebrated on May 13th this year. More liturgical churches would have marked that day with a service and many of you from Continental Europe may even remember that Ascension Day was marked with a holiday. For some reason, unlike Lent we tend not to mark the 40 days between Easter and the Ascension with much importance. Yet, they would have been an interesting 40 days for the disciples who got to spend 40 days with Jesus, likely sequestered somewhere in Jerusalem just talking about all that had taken place and why. What an incredible opportunity.
Eventually, the disciples decide that there is one last question that needs to be answered and they approach Jesus together, after all there is solidarity in numbers. And I think the question is quite legitimate since Jesus has been talking about the Kingdom for 40 days but they still do not know when all this will take place. They ask, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” essentially, they want to know when this glorious kingdom of God will become a reality on earth. But Jesus tells them that they are not privy to God’s knowledge of these things. But not to be discouraged by this fact because instead of knowledge they will be gifted with power via the Holy Spirit. And through the Holy Spirit they will be transformed from passive participants to active witnesses.
As soon as Jesus promises the arrival of the Spirit- which we know will come just 10 days later- Jesus is lifted up and a cloud takes him out of their sight. Jesus doesn’t even seem to say, “goodbye”. No wonder the disciples are left gazing up toward heaven. I would be too! It appears that Jesus has gone up, up and away. But why? Well, quite simply put there was a precedence. If you can recall back to the transfiguration when Jesus and a few disciples go up a mountain and there Jesus is transfigured into dazzling white and two other guys appear on the scene, Elijah and Moses. If you know the story of Elijah then you know that as a great prophet after he transferred his authority and power to Elisha he ascends in a whirlwind into heaven! Here the link between the prophets of old and Jesus is clearly being made. On top of that, throughout the book of Exodus when Moses would be deep in conversation with God it often appeared to others in the form of clouds. Within the Old Testament clouds are a display of God’s presence. Jesus going up in a cloud means that God is present. Jesus’ ascension also makes the link between Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel Chap 7 of “one like a human being coming with clouds of heaven.”
But I can empathize with the disciples. They are just getting comfortable with the idea that Jesus is back in their life when once again he is taken away and at such a key transition in their ministry. This is a new chapter in their lives, a new beginning. New beginnings, new chapters, transitions can be really exciting but they can also be terrifying. Theologian Gilberto Ruiz points out, “Transitions can initiate new beginnings in the aftermath of trauma. The disciples have just undergone a whirlwind of events, from the crucifixion of their leader to their experiences with him as resurrected Lord, and now they await a new phase of relating to him not in body but through the Holy Spirit.” We are on the cusp of a transition- a post-pandemic world, and I’m going to be honest and say, I’m nervous. I have had numerous conversations with colleagues who feel the same. We just don’t know what church will look like. But thankfully Vancouver School of Theology principal Richard Topping had some advice for us. He said, “God raised Jesus to raise the world to life…the active agent in interpreting scripture or breaking bread is not primarily us but Jesus is the principal agent. .John Calvin said, “Wherever the Word is preached in the power of the holy spirit and bread and wine shared in obedience to Christ renewal can break out at any moment.”” These comments brought us some relief in knowing that no matter what the post-covid church looks like, so long as the focus is on Christ, things will happen! I also think this is why our New Beginnings building project is so exciting. Yes, its a change and transition but it is going to be a new phase in the way we engage with our neighbours.
While it appears that the physical presence of Jesus has gone up, up and away, the presence of Christ abounds through the life and work of the church. The disciples were the first ones to experience this hope in the very real and living presence of Jesus. It is why the two men in white robes ask them “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Basically they are asking them, “what are you going to do now that Jesus has commissioned you to be his witnesses? This isn’t a time to just stand around looking up. This is a new beginning!” We now carry this torch of hope and renewal in a time of transition. Amen