by David Sibley
When they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (John 1:6-11)
In seminary, a phrase that often gets thrown about is to talk about God’ work as a paradoxical “already/not yet.” In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the kingdom of God is already present in our midst, already transforming our hearts and the world around us, already a realization of God’s purposes for our world. But we know the kingdom of God is not yet visible in its fullness among us. War, hatred, violence, fear, hunger – all these things are visible in the world, and yet we believe that they are not of God’s design for abundant life – the kingdom is not yet fully realized in this time and place.
That moment in Acts when Jesus ascends into heaven – the feast the church celebrates today -illustrates the already/not yet quite vividly. Jesus gives the disciples work to do – “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem… and to the ends of the earth.” After his Ascension, the angels address the disciples somewhat incredulously – as if to say, “Didn’t you hear him? Why are you still standing here? Go! Do something!” Yet Jesus has given his disciples the promise of the Holy Spirit in the days to come. The Spirit itself, as the Acts tells us, comes at Pentecost. And in the days between… as to that power that the Holy Spirit will pour upon them… well… not yet.
To be a disciple in those days must have been harrowing. They know they’ve already been given marching orders. They know they have important work to do. They even choose another disciple to fill out the twelve after Judas’ death. But they still find themselves waiting for the Holy Spirit to descend upon them. They wait with bated breath for the coming of the Spirit. Already… not yet.
In this moment, the disciples are reminded that Jesus’ work has been placed in their hands; they are also reminded that they cannot and will not do that work alone. And in the time between, I suspect, they made space. Space to dwell in the mystery of what they already know to be true and what they have not yet seen. Space to reflect on the wonders they had seen since Jesus arose from the dead. Space in themselves to prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Today, Jesus ascends to heaven with a shout. Today we see where he calls us to go. And today we wait and make room – wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit to direct and rule our hearts and lives, and make room in our lives for that Spirit to bring to completion the work that God has already begun in us.
What do you wait for this Ascension Day? Do you hear Jesus’ command that the gospel, that pearl of great price, has been left in your hands – given for you to witness to to the very ends of the earth? Do you wait with eager longing for the coming of the Spirit that has been promised? How do you live in the space between already and not yet?