Like the Easter accounts in the Synoptics, the Ascension narratives provide good soil for reflection. The larger part of reflection is asking questions of the various texts before us. An important question is: what do we find the disciples doing and what does that mean for us? It is not, which one do we like or prefer, but, how does each teach us about discipleship after the Ascension.
And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Acts 1: 10-11
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."
What I find in Acts is an elaboration of Luke. The disciples find themselves "continually in the temple blessing God." It forms a symmetry with the Luke 1-2, where the temple is prominent in the stories of Zechariah, Simeon, Anna and the Circumcision-Dedication. The disciples are filled with wonder and praise. They are staying inside the temple in one case, and in the other, caught gazing into heaven. In what ways does hanging out in church (the temple) provide an examination of my preference for safety, insulation? The deliverance (exodus) from slavery to sin and death challenges my preoccupation with the familiarities and comforts of church worship.
Gazing in wonderment at the ascending Christ can hinder my communion with the living Christ. Wondering where Jesus is can prove as fruitless as seeking the living among the dead. (Luke 24). This is at least a comment on a sign-driven spirituality, one that quickly germinates in shallow soil but cannot be sustained for long without better soil and deeper roots.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
The disciples gather on the mountain to be commissioned as apostles, "sent out." Matthew is a missionary Gospel. The distinction from Luke-Acts is the promise of a continuing presence of Jesus- forever. Maybe that's the reason Matthew omits the departure of Jesus, the Ascension. There is no waiting on the Spirit in a temple, or, wondering-gaze to find the whereabouts of Jesus. We are told to go and do, knowing we are doing it with Jesus.
Mark 16: 9-20 Mark's longer ending includes, like Matthew's, a command to go and do, with the presence of the Lord: "So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it."
Mark 16:19-20 As the earliest manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20, the writer must have had the benefit of early Mark as well as Luke-Acts, and Matthew. The disciples follow- through in Mark. Not only do they go and proclaim, but also, the Lord "works with them" and provides, with their proclamation, accompanying signs.
Out of the these comparisons, more questions can be considered:
1. What are the promises and pitfalls of the disciples' various responses?
2. What is the value of each account in telling the story of Jesus' departure (exodus)? The value in reading them together?
3. In what ways is my practice of Christian spirituality redirected as a result of the Ascension of Jesus Christ?
4. In what ways is the Lord absent? Present?