Did you know that domestic turkeys will actually stand in a rainstorm and stare at the sky until they drown? I mean, according to Snopes, it’s nothing but an urban legend (although when we’re talking about turkey farms, I suppose it would have to be a rural legend). But still, it’s a thing that people say, and we’ll come back to it later. I promise.
Last week, we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension, which…I struggle with. It seems, to me anyway, a bit like celebrating the Feast of the Beanstalk or the birthday of Little Miss Muffet. On a good day, at the mention of the ascension, I’ll just shrug my shoulders and move on down the road. On a bad day, I’ll climb up onto my soap box and fire off a rant about how ridiculous it is that the final act of God-Made-Flesh, the one who was sent to know the fullness of human existence, who lived and loved and went to the cross so that we would know that we are never alone or abandoned in this life, the most human human who ever humaned in the image and likeness of God, the last thing that man would ever do would be to…fly away to heaven on a cloud! But WHY? Why spend a lifetime showing us exactly how to build the Kingdom of Heaven, and then take the express route that is somehow only available to deities and their mothers? It doesn’t make sense, so I shrug my shoulders, and move on. (In fact, I do this with a lot of things in the gospels that don’t make sense to me. For more on this, check out Episode 5 of the podcast!)
But when I gloss over these types of stories in the life of Jesus, I know full-well that I’m doing myself a disservice. Not only that, I’m doing the gospel writers a disservice, as well. These stories are there for a reason, so when I find myself doubting their veracity, I need to ask myself just why folks like Matthew and Luke would think that it was important to include an account of the ascension in the life and times of Jesus Christ. In situations like this, I often find that it helps to work backwards.
So what was happening just prior to this episode of messianic levitation? Well, Jesus had just spent a solid 40 days hanging out with his buddies, but he was, you know, kind of different. Like, the kind of different where he could walk through locked doors and transmogrify when he broke crackers in half and stuff. And before that, he had done the whole “resurrecting from the dead” magic trick. So in the grand scheme of things, the disciples may well have watched Jesus fly off to heaven on a cloud and been like, “Well that’s not even the strangest thing that he’s done this month.”
On top of that, the resurrection must have really messed with the apostles’ concept of what death is and what it means for all of us here on earth. For Jesus to die and then come back was kind of a risky move. If the disciples interpreted it incorrectly (as they often did), then they may have believed that death was inherently bad, something to be avoided so that the righteous might embrace an eternal life in this world. If Jesus had already won the victory over death, but the disciples continued to watch people around them dying, then it could be a logical guess to think that those who suffered death after the resurrection were somehow excluded from the salvation offered by Jesus. Thus, in some views, Jesus had to move on from this world to the next so that we would all fully understand death in light of the resurrection. Death doesn’t get the final say, but there’s a difference between “immortality” and “life everlasting.” The ascension tells us that there is another chapter for Jesus and the rest of us, but he wasn’t going to die all over again to get there (that would be overkill…get it?), so why not fly to heaven on a cloud?
In forcing myself to reflect on the ascension over the last few days, I stumbled across another reason why the story kind of makes sense in the overall scheme of the life and times of Jesus. In some ways, the mission and ministry of Jesus was all about the “watch me” moments. He didn’t just talk a big game (though he could talk the beard off a pharisee if the situation called for it), he was a man of action. And he specialized in precisely the kind of actions that respectable men of the Jewish faith were simply not supposed to do. He seemed to revel in doing what he was told that he couldn’t or shouldn’t be doing. “Hey buddy, I don’t know who you think you are, but you and your friends shouldn’t be picking grain on the sabbath.” WATCH ME. “You’re also not allowed to heal people’s afflictions on the Lord’s day, and you’re definitely not supposed to forgive sins.” WATCH ME. “Don’t touch that leper.” WATCH ME. “You can’t walk on water.” WATCH ME. “Don’t go talk to that hussy by the well. She’s a Samaritan.” WATCH ME…AND DON’T CALL HER THAT. “But she totally is a Samaritan.”
Obviously, the ultimate “watch me” moment came with the resurrection. Dead is supposed to be dead. You don’t come back from that. But Jesus did, and so in some ways it totally makes sense that even after the resurrection Jesus would close out his time on earth with one final act that was meant to be impossible. “You can’t just fly to heaven on a cloud.” WATCH ME. And so they did.
Which brings us back to our turkeys (I told you we would get there!). The apostles stood there on top of the hill, staring at the sky like a cluster of clueless Thanksgiving dinners. They actually stood there for so long that, according to Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles, two angels had to casually stroll by and snap them out of their stupor, reminding them to blink, and breathe, and, eventually, to go out and spread the good news of the gospel. And in the end, perhaps that is one of those little nuggets of meaning embedded in the story of the ascension. Eventually, we’ve got to be ready and willing to move on from just watching Jesus do his thing so that we can “go out and do for others as I have done for you.” The Spirit is coming, and there’s work to be done. Don’t just stand there staring at the sky until you drown!