25 May 40 Day Mark: Passing the Baton
Forty is an important number in the Bible. In the story of Noah, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tested and later, he appeared to his followers for 40 days after the resurrection. The church reflects on Jesus’ temptation experience during the 40 days of Lent, while “Eastertide” is the name of the church season that follows Easter and celebrates the resurrection and commemorates his ministry.
The Ascension of Christ comes at the 40-day point of Eastertide which happens to be today. If you’re wondering, “what on earth is the ascension?” you’re not alone. It is, to put it mildly, not the most well-known of the church’s holy days. But that’s a shame, because the Ascension has more to say to us than most people realize.
The story goes like this. Jesus had spent 40 days appearing to his disciples, teaching them, eating with them, and continuing his ministry of healing people, just as he had done before the tragic events of Good Friday. And, just like before, the disciples are a little dense. They didn’t anticipate that Jesus was going to leave them the first time, and they don’t see it coming the second time. They thought surely now, being resurrected and all, Jesus was going to once and for all wipe out the Roman occupiers and establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” they asked.
Jesus answers their question by saying nary a word about Israel’s kingdom. Instead he responds by telling them in no uncertain terms what their mission is: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And then, Jesus was enveloped in a cloud and rose toward the sky, disappearing from view. The Ascension.
The disciples, understandably, are straining their necks looking heavenward, no doubt wondering what in the Sam Hill just happened. Their gaze is so intently upward that they don’t notice that two angels are suddenly standing beside them asking one of the best questions ever: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Seriously? You need to ask?
The message implicit in the angels’ question is, “what are you still doing here? He gave you a job to do and staring into the sky won’t get that job done. It’s time to get moving!” Here at the Ascension, Jesus’ followers finally start to grasp that Jesus has passed the baton to them. They are now the ones to do the teaching and healing. They are now the ones to tell Jesus’ story. They are now the ones entrusted with living the life of love, justice and compassion that Jesus modeled for them. Jesus, it turns out, was not going to sprinkle the world with magic fairy dust, solving all the world’s problems. Instead he was “sprinkling” the world with them, and their mission was to continue in his footsteps.
The uncomfortable truth is that the church has always been and continues to be just one generation away from extinction. If just one generation fails to pass on the baton of faith, there will quickly be no faith left to pass. It is an awesome responsibility Jesus gave us at the Ascension. A lot of days I wonder if he made a good choice given all the ways we find to blow it. But Jesus left no other way. There is no Plan B. We’re it, for better and for worse.
The good news, though, is that Jesus left us in order to stay with us. That means we don’t have to accomplish this task of bearing witness to Christ on our own. We do not have to rely on our own strength and wisdom. Our limitations are not determinative. Christ is with us always. We are never alone.
Celebrating the Ascension reminds us that Jesus invites us to partner with him in continuing to love and serve the world. It is an awesome responsibility. It is also an awesome privilege. Come on, Church. What are you waiting for? Get moving!
Yours for the Kingdom,