By Sarah Puryear
In 2011, I had the privilege of going to the Holy Land with a group from my church. One of the places that stood out to me the most was the Mount of Olives, a mountain ridge just to the east of the Old City Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives is home to several significant Christian shrines — the Church of the Agony sits next to the olive trees of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus struggled to accept his Father’s will; the Pater Noster church marks the site where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer; and the Dominus Flevit church is a small teardrop-shaped church that recalls Jesus’ tears as he looked over the city of Jerusalem.
There’s one other site on the Mount of Olives that seems a bit off the beaten path, hidden inside a compound with high stone walls. You’d never know it was a site of religious importance if it weren’t for the sign that says “Chapel of the Ascension.” Inside the compound walls is a bare earthen courtyard with a small domed structure standing at its center.
The interior of that little stone building is a small, sparse room. The feature that draws one’s eye is not on the walls or up in the dome above — they too are just plain rock. What draws the eye is the uneven slab of stone embedded in the center of the floor. That stone supposedly bears the imprint of Jesus’ last footprint on earth before ascending to heaven.
While we can’t know for sure whether this stone was really the last thing Jesus’ foot touched before he ascended, we do know from the reading we heard today that Jesus ascended to heaven from this area — from the Mount of Olives, with his disciples gathered around him and looking on.
In contrast to the other, more elaborate shrines on the Mount of Olives, the Chapel of the Ascension feels very bare — it has no beautiful mosaics and tiles or paintings. Unlike those other shrines nearby, and despite its name, it isn’t a church. There’s no altar or baptismal font where sacraments would be celebrated; there are no blessed elements reserved in an aumbry; there’s no sanctuary lamp hanging overhead to represent Christ’s presence. Instead, in its sparseness, the Chapel of the Ascension seems to announce, like the angels at the empty tomb, He is not here; he has ascended!
Its sparse style is actually a fitting monument for the event that it commemorates. Jesus’ Ascension is apparently not something to linger over for long, according to the angels who appear to the disciples just after Jesus’ foot touches earth for the last time. When the disciples take an extra moment to look up into the sky after him, two angels appear and say to them, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
This isn’t a place for the disciples to linger in wistfulness or build elaborate shrines while waiting for Jesus’ return. Jesus will return, they assure the disciples — but now there is something for the disciples to go and to do.
This moment, as the apostles turn and leave the Mount of Olives, marks one of the biggest transitions in the story of Scripture. N.T. Wright helps us to understand the significance of this moment by describing this scenario: suppose a lost Shakespearean script, never before seen or heard of, is unearthed somewhere in a dusty corner of England. It is unfinished; Acts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are there — but Act 5 is not complete.
Suppose a troupe of actors wanted to stage this unfinished play and carry on the story. How would they pull this off in a convincing and fulfilling way? Well, they would study the script they did have, getting to know the story’s plot, its themes, and its characters. Then, and only then, would they be ready to continue the story in a way that was both faithful to what came before and creative in their ideas about how the story would unfold in Act V.
Wright outlines the major movements of the Bible as a play with four complete acts and one act yet unfinished. The first Act is Creation — how God creates the world in love The second is the Fall — how humanity turns away from God and falls into sin and death. The third act is Israel — how God begins his plan for redemption through calling the people of Israel. And the fourth act is Jesus — God carries out redemption through Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection.
This moment on the Mount of Olives is significant, then, because it tells us about the transition from Act IV to Act V. Jesus leaves earth in bodily form, and Act V begins as the apostles turn and leave the Mount of Olives, headed back toward Jerusalem and into the yet unwritten story God has in store for them. God has given lots of foreshadowing and promises in Scripture about how he intends to end the story. But, as the angels’ prompting suggests, there is space between Christ’s Ascension and his final return for human actors to carry on the story.
On one level, this transition seems potentially tenuous; it looks like the star of the show is taking his final bow, and he’s passing the baton to his understudies, who haven’t had a great track record when left to their own devices.
But in fact Jesus hasn’t left the disciples to their own devices; just before he leaves, he gives them very specific instructions about what to do after he leaves, and they may be the very hardest instructions he could have given them: “Do not leave Jerusalem,” he tells them, “but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Their first order of business is not to rush off and do lots of things for him, but to wait.
By a miracle of God’s grace, the disciples remember what Jesus told them and obey him.
They don’t launch off following their own ideas about how to go and make disciples. They don’t break out maps of the Roman Empire and decide who’s going to go where. Instead, they go together as a group to the Upper Room, and they devote themselves to constant, corporate prayer, for ten full days.
From verse 22 of this chapter, it’s clear that they already understand the task that will lie ahead of them after the waiting is done — they are to witness to the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection. But they don’t lift a finger to do it until the Holy Spirit comes. I wonder which of the disciples, by the ninth day of waiting, was itching the most to get out there and do something!
But as we will see next Sunday, on the tenth day Jesus’ promise is fulfilled, the Holy Spirit comes in power, and they are launched into the next great act of God’s story — the act of the Church.
Studying this story is helpful for us as Christians today, because until God draws his story to its ultimate conclusion, we stand in the place of those disciples, appointed to be the actors carrying forward God’s story in the world. We must be faithful to what has come before us, while also applying it creatively to the time and place in which we find ourselves.
As the apostles in the world today, we need to spend some serious time with passages like this one, asking: “What are we to be and do? What makes us the church? Of all the things we could do with our time, what should be our priority?” Three characteristics of Christ’s Church stand out from the opening of Act Five:
First — a life of prayer. Prayer is still the Church’s first act of business. Gathering in one place and devoting ourselves to prayer, like those first disciples, is the most important thing that we can do. It binds us together as one body in Christ; and it keeps us alert and ready to receive what God has in store for us.
When we don’t devote ourselves to prayer, we stop waiting to hear from God, and it is all too easy for us to take matters into our own hands, to rush off in our self-appointed directions, thinking we are doing the Lord’s work when we are merely fulfilling our ideas. Prayer has to come first, and it never loses this primacy. It is always worth spending time on; we are never done with this first and most important “task” of communing with our Lord and seeking his will.
Second — the presence of Christ. The presence of Christ is what defines and constitutes the church, not his absence. Though he ascends to heaven, Jesus doesn’t abandon us. Instead, as we will celebrate next Sunday on Pentecost, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus becomes present to each Christian believer in a new and even more personal way.
Jesus made the astounding claim that it was better for his disciples and that he leave earth; because after he left, he would send them the Holy Spirit. I imagine some of the disciples begged to differ! The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, would guide them into all truth, would remind them of his teachings, would strengthen, empower, and comfort them. Jesus has not taken his final bow after all; he is just as present to us now through the Holy Spirit, and in one sense even more personally than ever before.
Third — the power of the Holy Spirit. Like those first disciples, we must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit if we are going to faithfully carry on God’s story in the world. Jesus made another astounding claim, that through the Holy Spirit the disciples would do even greater things than Jesus did. I imagine the disciples may have begged to differ with that statement too!
But through the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples spread out across the face of the earth, proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, making disciples in every nation, healing and serving in his name. They didn’t always do it perfectly, but we can see from our vantage point in history that, in fact, the Holy Spirit did empower the disciples to do the very thing that Jesus commissioned them to do. And our instructions haven’t changed. They remain the same: to receive the power of the Holy Spirit, to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
So may we walk in the footsteps of those first disciples, carrying on their role in our time and place. Like them, may we be characterized by our life of prayer, by the presence of Christ among us, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we take our place on the stage of God’s great drama.
The Rev. Sarah Puryear is an assistant priest at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville.