This past week, many in the Christian Church observed and celebrated the Ascension. The ascension is the departure of Christ from Earth into the presence of God. The well-known narrative in Acts 1 takes place 40 days after the Resurrection. As it is told in the book of Acts, Jesus, in the company of the disciples, is taken up in their sight.
Once again, Jesus promises the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit by which his mission and ministry will continue and will bring forth the birth of the Church. As Jesus ascends, a cloud hides him from their view, and two men in white appear and ask the disciples "Why do you stand looking into the sky?" These messengers of God not only assure the disciples Jesus has returned to heaven, but they also remind the disciples that their work is just now beginning.
As I have been reflecting on the beauty and meaning of the ascension story, I am reminded of an interview that author and pastor Darrell Johnson once did with the organization "Work of the People" in which he talked about the importance of the ascension.
He begins with sharing an observation his friend Richard Halverson once made. Richard Halverson was a Presbyterian pastor, and at one time, he was the chaplain of the United States Senate. He was known for saying pithy things on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Darrell Johnson said he was inspired by this observation from Halverson,
"Christianity begins on Palestinian soil as a relationship with a person--with Jesus.
It moves on to Greek soil and it becomes a philosophy.
It moves on to Roman soil and it becomes an institution.
It moves on to British soil and it becomes a culture.
It moves on to American soil and it becomes an enterprise."
Darrell, in explaining how Halverson's observation made him think differently about the Ascension of Jesus, went on to say this, "I think that enterprise is getting in the way. We want to turn this into something we can package. Getting some nice neat books and something like that. Get it out to people and that is somehow going to attract the culture. I think we need to go back to Palestinian soil. It's about a person and the relationship with the person. I'm coming up with a new definition for the church. We will never have one good definition of the church, but here is one to try on for our time...'we are ordinary broken human beings gathered around the ascended Jesus to share in his life and to be about his business in the world.’"
I wonder if we all might be challenged to stop and consider what it was that drew people to Jesus. If you read the Gospels, it seems clear people did not flock to a philosophy, a culture, an institution or an enterprise. In fact, at first they did not even flock to Jesus for his teachings. Sometimes the crowds and even the disciples themselves did not have a clue what Jesus was really teaching. In fact, some people from an ordinary person in the crowd to the prominent religious leader did not like what Jesus was teaching.
Regardless, people flocked to Jesus. What was it about Jesus that drew people in? I believe it was his care and his compassion. Many times in the Gospels, we read of Jesus, being "moved with compassion" towards the multitudes that had gathered to be in his presence or the individuals who came to him seeking wholeness and healing.
I believe Jesus expressed a care and compassion in a way that other people do not. A care, which says, "I am here for you. There is no agenda. I am not trying to prove something." I believe people sensed this in Jesus, that regardless of who they were, Jesus accepted and cared for them. I think people were drawn to Jesus because they sensed he wanted a relationship with them, and they wanted a relationship with him.
The ascension stories of scripture invite us to recall an image of the ascending Christ with extended hands. Hands with scars. Hands that were visible signs of his willingness to extend himself so fully, even dying, for the people that turned against him.
I think we are called to embody the openhandedness of the ascended Jesus. We are called to live out the care and compassion Jesus modeled for us. The truth is just like in Jesus' day; people will not be drawn to a movement, a philosophy, a culture, an institution, or an enterprise. They will be drawn to a relationship-a relationship with those who embody the characteristics of Jesus and to a relationship with Christ himself.
Imagine how differently our churches would look and function if we spent less time talking about buildings, strategies, plans, and programs for growth, and we simply lived into being "ordinary broken human beings gathered around the ascended Jesus to share in his life and to be about his business." I, like Darrell Johnson, believe this is what the church is to do and be.