What did Jesus want? In thinking about this scene from the end of Luke’s Gospel, the ascension of Jesus, I’m wondering if this is what he wanted. This departure, this exit.
“Lifting up his hands,” it says, “he blessed them. While he blessed them, he withdrew and was carried into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). Is this what Jesus wanted from the beginning, from the moment of his arrival—to leave?
As I paged through the book of Luke again this week, I was drawn into the parts where Jesus gathered people around himself, the stories about how he formed a community—a ragtag community.
First, fishermen: “When they had brought their boats to shore,” it says, “they left everything and followed him” (5:11). Jesus offers this invitation again and again, “Follow me,” he says. And people do. All kinds of people. Even street kids. The other followers think the unwanted youth would be a distraction—too much of a liability, a burdensome people group. But Jesus says, “Let them come to me, do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (18:16).
The kingdom of God belongs to them, Jesus says—to the people of all kinds, as they gather, as they follow, as they are drawn into friendships with one another, relationships of solidarity, of belonging, a new kind of belonging, nothing like what they had before.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back much more in this age” (18:29). Their relationships stretch Jesus’ community beyond the family, beyond their cultural family values, beyond society’s networks of belonging.
In his life, in his ministry, Jesus gets to a point where he names his followers, the people around him—where he names their friendships the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of God is among you,” he says (17:21). It’s not in the future. It’s not in the sky. It’s here, it’s there—in their community, in their lives together. “Among you.”
What I can’t tell, what is impossible to know, is whether Jesus knows this from the beginning– whether he knows, before he begins his ministry, that the kingdom of God will be found in his community. Or if Jesus discovers it along the way, as they eat and teach and heal, as they walk through the fields, plucking grain on the Sabbath, stirring up trouble with the Pharisees.
Does he always know that the kingdom will happen among his followers, in their gathering, and is that what motivates his life? Or does he figure it out one day, as they lounge at a meal or escape from the authorities? Is it a dawning realization, as he looks around at the people, glimpsing God’s presence?
We do know this: Jesus knows that God is with them. And Jesus loves to be with them. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” he says to people in Jerusalem (13:34). He feels drawn to them, desiring their presence, longing for them—their warmth under his wings.
We also know this: From early on, Jesus had a sense that he would be taken away from his people, that he would be dragged away of his community, that his time with his friends on earth won’t last forever. He spoke of this to them in parables, hinting at an unbearable reality, devastation looming on the horizon. “The days will come,” Jesus tells them, “when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” (5:35).
A few years ago I spent some time with an Amish bishop in Indiana. I was there the week after his community had celebrated Ascension Day. For them this day is the most important date in their church calendar—more significant than Easter.
I asked the bishop how they celebrated Ascension—with a worship service, with a meal, with a potluck? I asked. No, he said, we don’t really think of the day as a celebration, but more like a time of mourning, he said, because that’s when Jesus left us behind, that’s when he left us here.
Ascension Day, he said, is not a day for a feast, but a day of fasting. His words sounded like that verse about fasting after the bridegroom has been taken away—“then they will fast in those days.”
I wonder if Jesus wanted to stay, to be with his people. I wonder if his departure here, at the end of the Gospel of Luke, is one more trial for him, another moment in his long ordeal, part of the agony begun on the Mount of Olives, when he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours” (22:42)—that everything from crucifixion to ascension was in that cup, Jesus praying to the Father for another way, an alternate route, anything that would keep him on earth, with his beloved community, the people who have revealed to him the kingdom of God in the flesh, a new reality, a new creation, friendships alive with divine love, with grace, a people readied for the work of mercy and justice, ready for the struggle of peace.
And his resurrection appearances were part of his reluctant departure. Jesus couldn’t quite leave, not permanently, so he kept coming back, extending Easter for as long as he could, returning to his friends on the road to Emmaus, then again in Jerusalem—each time sharing a meal, bread and fish, and with each meal a lingering in the kingdom of God, a postponement of his final ascension.
There are mysteries here, hidden things, divine secrets—like why Jesus ascends, withdrawing into heaven, now seated at the right hand of the Father, as the ancient creed says.
We do believe that Jesus returns again and again, even after the ascension, but he is now veiled in our flesh, coming to us in the hungry who need food, in the prisoners who are lonely, in strangers who need a place to stay, in all who thirst for mercy and justice—Christ transfigured in them, and Christ made present in us, his body.
Yet, in these forms of his presence, Jesus remains incognito, camouflaged, never as present as he once was. When Jesus gives us his self, now, in our world, we are offered nothing definitive, nothing verifiable, no convincing proof, no wounds in his side and hands to touch. Instead, Christ veiled in others, only available through the eyes of faith.
For now, the most sense I can make of ascension is that it requires us to depend on each other, to depend on a community. And perhaps that’s what Jesus found among the disciples and wanted for us to find for ourselves: this dance of interdependence, of one looking out for another, a mutual reliance on grace, a grace available in human hands—like Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Susana who paid for his travels, like the woman who washed his feet with costly oil, like the bread offered to him at the house in Emmaus, all of this as the interplay of communion, relationships that are our communion in the kingdom of God.
“The kingdom of God is among you,” he says, after he lives with them, after he gets to know them, after he lets his life get mixed up with theirs.
And that’s what Jesus wants for us—this love, this belonging, this mutual reliance only possible when all we have is each other, when the only Jesus we can know is the one beside us, across from us, before us, the friend who offers their hand, the stranger who asks for your help.
Ascension means that God’s love is now made flesh in our human flesh, humanity transfigured by God, hidden in us: Christ reaching out to us through each other, because he longs to be with us again, just like he was, just like he will be again, at the consummation of all things, when the waiting is over, when our fasting will become a feast—like the Psalmist’s celebration, with clapping and dancing, with shouts of praise and songs of joy.
For now, we know this: there’s a longing at the heart of life, Christ’s love for us, a longing that becomes almost unbearable as he strains toward us, awaiting his return, anticipating our communion with him.