Now What? (Ascension of Our Lord)

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Probably almost everyone has watched the classic Pixar animated movie, “Finding Nemo.”  It’s the story of an adolescent clown fish named Nemo who gets captured by a scuba diving dentist and put into his office fish tank.  There, Nemo befriends the other fish, and they plot ways to escape while Nemo’s dad and his friend Dori frantically try to find him.

At the end of the movie, Nemo has managed to escape through the sink drain by the dental chair.  He re-unites with his dad and goes home.  But the rest of his fish buddies are still stuck in the tank.

But as the final scene in the movie, the fish have managed to clog the water filter, forcing the dentist to put them in little baggies and clean the tank himself.  As he did this, the fish were able to put their plan into action! They rolled themselves, in their water-filled plastic bags, out the window, across the street and into Sydney harbor.  They all made it!  And now they were all in the harbor, but still stuck in their little plastic bags.  And after their initial cheers of success, one of the fish says, “OK, now what?!”

Now what do we do?  How do we get out of these bags?  Where do we go from here?

That’s how the movie ends, and we don’t find out exactly what they do.  But I suspect that Jesus’ first disciples had exactly this same feeling on the day of his ascension.  They, too, had been through a traumatic event.  After Jesus’ death, it seemed like they were trapped in the tank of death as well.  And yet now, after Jesus’ Resurrection, there was new hope.  Jesus was alive!  They had new life as well.  But as Jesus departed from them into the clouds, they stood there looking up, feeling as trapped as the fish in the plastic bags, and must surely have asked, “now what?”

Now what?  Where do we go from here?  What do we do?  How do we envision the future?

Well, the entire Book of Acts describes what they do in the years ahead.  But initially, they aren’t sure what comes next.  Jesus had told them that they should wait in the city until they were “clothed with power from on high”, but what was that supposed to mean?

So in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ ascension – and living into this new, but unknown chapter of their lives – it seems the disciples answered the “now what” question by doing at least three things:

  • They stuck together – this wasn’t a foregone conclusion.  In many movements, if a leader leaves, followers disperse.  They go their own ways and do their own things.  Sometimes, they stop their “following” altogether.  But the first disciples of Jesus had come to realize that Jesus called them to live and act in community, and not just as individual followers.  And so they understood that, whatever was to come, they needed to stick together and figure it out together…
  • They lived in hope that, even if Jesus was physically absent, God had not abandoned them – Jesus promised that this was not the end, and so Luke says that they were “continually in the Temple praising God.”  That’s not necessarily what one might expect, either.  It would be perfectly reasonable to go to the Temple to complain to God; to lament that Jesus was no longer visible to them; or to generally mourn together that the life they might have hoped for was going to be different now.  Yet they somehow focused on the promise, and trusted that God really did have a future for them, even if they couldn’t see it at the moment…
  • They waited – this, to me, would have been the hardest part.  I hate to just “wait”.  But, that’s what Jesus told them.  “Wait” until you’re clothed with power from on high. What would that look like?  How long would they have to wait?  What did that even mean?  At first, all they could do was wait – but waiting was apparently part of the process…

And I think the story of the Ascension is an important one for us, because we also face those “now what?” times in our lives.

“Now what?” moments may be times of deep personal or communal loss or tragedy, which we’ve had a lot of lately.  Life seems to be falling apart.  Things are getting worse, not better. Now what?

But “now what” moments can also come at times of great joy and happiness.  At this time every year, many of us are happily celebrating graduations, or the graduation of family members or friends.  But as happy as those moments are, they’re also times of change and transition.  And sometimes, they’re also moments of asking, “now what?”

And indeed, “now what?” has been a question we’ve been asking in our personal lives, in the church and in our wider society over the past couple of years, as things have changed, routines and structures have morphed and things that used to work don’t work anymore.  What are we to do?  How are we to adapt?  Now what?

The answer to “now what?” isn’t always immediately clear.  But like the first disciples, even and especially if we don’t have the answers yet, it’s important to:

  • Stick together – usually, it’s harder to figure a way forward when we isolate ourselves, or when we’re not open to what God may be saying or doing through others in our community, sometimes even and especially the people we don’t generally agree with.  And while it’s sometimes understandable to want to duck and cover in uncertain moments, it’s almost always the case in our personal lives and in our communal life together – that sticking together and working together helps us figure out the “now what”…
  • Live in hope – that is, for us also to remember that God has a future for all of us.  God is not done with us, and all is not lost, even when things seem really bad.  That doesn’t always make people feel better in times of stress and crisis, and I supposed that’s why the disciples intentionally focused on praising God – it helped them live into the promise that was ahead for them, even if they were still mourning Jesus’ physical absence and even though it didn’t answer “now what”…
  • Wait – and that’s hard.  If I have to wait, at least tell me what to do while I’m waiting!  What can I do to prepare or at least help the process along?  But sometimes, as with those first disciples, at least for a little bit, simply waiting is part of the process of God revealing the answer to “now what”…

Unlike in “Finding Nemo”, the question “now what” is not the end of the story in Acts.  It’s just the beginning.  In fact, God was continuing the story, even though Jesus was no longer visible to the disciples as he had been before.  In fact, the presence of God, through the power of the Spirit, was about to begin in a new and life changing way, even though the disciples didn’t know it at the moment.  And in fact, the story of Resurrection and new life was going to become a bigger story in the life of the world, even though, at the moment, the disciples just had to wait.

And that’s true for us, too.  Whenever we reach “now what” moments in our lives, Jesus promises us that the story of God’s love and presence is not over, and there is more to come, even if what that looks like isn’t entirely clear.

And so like those first disciples, Jesus calls us also to stick together and work with one another to figure out the next steps.  Jesus calls us also to trust and live into the hope that the Holy Spirit will continue to be revealed in and among us.  And even when we simply have to wait to see what God is revealing, Jesus promises us also that our waiting will not be in vain.