By: The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr.
After eons of God scooching ever closer to us on the Divine Couch, Emmanuel walks with us for thirty-some years. This past Lent, we read the stories of ever-closer covenants between God and God’s chosen people. God moves from promising not to kill, through promising deliverance, to promising to write God’s law upon people’s hearts. Christians believe that the incarnation of God in Jesus is the culmination of this movement from heaven to earth, to God-with-us. When we again try to separate ourselves from this narrative by killing Jesus, he rises from the dead to share a few meals. My understanding of God’s relationship with humanity imagines a God constantly seeking greater unity with God’s people. This God, scripture tells us, is to one day gather all the world into God’s divine presence.
It does not fit my neat little narrative for God-on-Earth to get sucked up into space, away from the action. Thankfully, I am not alone in my perplexity, as early Christians also similarly struggled with the bodily absence of their Lord. After all, the epistles are brimming with conflicts among Christians that the presence of Jesus would have handily solved. Perhaps, if Jesus had stuck around, we might have avoided all those nasty debates about circumcision, and women would have maintained their rightful roles as leaders in the beloved community. Today, Christians are even more complexly divided, and it would be handy to have a godly referee to call the shots.
Sometimes one must step away to move closer. In the Book of Common Prayer, the first collect for Ascension Day sums it up nicely, saying that Jesus “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” By removing himself yet again, Jesus invites us to look elsewhere, once again reimagining the relationship between God and humanity. When Jesus is transfigured, he retreats up the mountain with Peter, James, and John. The disciples saw their Lord lifted up above all on the cross, upon which he brought salvation. The good news of Easter is first learned, not by the presence of Jesus, but his absence. He is not where they laid him! Often, the disciples ask, “Where is Jesus?” and the answer is rarely what one expects.
As in Luke’s account of the resurrection, his account of the ascension in Acts features the appearance of divine messengers, robed in white. On Easter, the women are greeted by two men who ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” In Acts, after Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come to them, he is lifted up, and a cloud takes him out of their sight. Again, two divine messengers appear saying “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Once again, God works great things in Jesus, and once again his absence leaves his followers dumbfounded.
We modern disciples stand with our forebears, slack-jawed, craning our necks toward the heavens and scratching our heads. The angels tell us to look around, promising Jesus’ return and leading us to Pentecost. Soon, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, the indwelling God who would imbue the church with holiness and complete the Divine Scooch. The God who slipped into Jesus’ skin will soon dwell in the disciples’ hearts, answering once-and-for-all the question of God’s dwelling place. We modern disciples have the benefit of this presence by virtue of our baptisms, enabling us to see God’s presence among us today, once again in flesh and blood.
To ask the question, “Where is God?” is the constant struggle of the Christian. Left without the body of Jesus to meet, we instead see God all around us. Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments administered, the church, the Body of Christ is there. When bread is broken and wine is poured in remembrance, Jesus is there. When water washes away sin, Jesus is there. Jesus is the “least of these” and the greatest. We need not look to the heavens. We need not look to the tomb. God’s messengers guide our eyes to each other, to creation, and to the church.
It’s hard to imagine the absence of Jesus as good news. Surely, we disciples would prefer a Jesus in flesh and blood. Yet, Jesus’ retreat marks a step closer to us. The good news of the empty tomb is reflected in Jesus’ ascension, and the disciples are encouraged to move past their confusion into the world. After all, God soon sends the Spirit to dwell in each Christian’s body, making them holy and embracing the church in power. No longer next to God on the couch, but surrounded by God on all sides, we are free to see God at work throughout all creation.
 Luke 24:5. NRSV.
 Acts 1:11. Ibid.