The ascension in three movie moments
Yesterday morning, on my last service in my church for three months, I reached the end of a short post-Easter preaching series of‘what happened next’. It was inevitable that at some point we should come to the story of the ascension in Acts 1 v.1 – 9. The thing is, many of us are not quite sure what to do with it. Why does it matter? My own plea for help with that question on Twitter last week brought some helpful insights, but it is still something of a puzzle. I decided to look at the story through the lens of the three movie moments depicted below.
1. Apollo 13
There comes a moment in Apollo 13 where everything hangs in the balance. The three-man crew have been through hell together, and now they have but one chance to save their lives. They have enough fuel to fire the booster rocket just once. If it works, their capsule will be sent on a trajectory back to earth. If it fails, the craft will either shatter or spin off into space never to return. Turning to his crew Commander Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) says ‘Gentlemen, its been a privilege flying with you’. The words of Christ to his disciples in Acts 1 have some resonance here. However, unlike the space crew Jesus has no uncertainty about what will happen next. Unlike the space crew, too, the disciples seem to be rather inept, with their questions still focusing on a physical kingdom. Not an exact match then.
In a Guardian poll the farewell scene in Spieleberg’s E.T was voted the most moving movie ending of all time. E.T is about to leave forever when he turns to the boy who has sheltered and protected him. Touching Eliot on the forehead he says ‘I’ll be right there’. Surely this is what Christ is doing with his disciples- comforting them with the assurance of his ongoing presence? To a certain extent that is true. However, as the late Trevor Huddlestone would have put it, this is ‘naught for your comfort’. Christ’s ascension words are not just about comfort but about revolution – shifting the spiritual battle up a gear as the disciples take on the evangelisation of the world.
3. The West Wing
Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing was one of the most successful political dramas ever screened in America. It ran for 7 years and attracted vast audiences as it tracked the story of President Josiah Bartlett. In the 88th and final episode everyone wondered how it would end. What would be Sorkin’s final flourish? As the former first couple head home to New Hampshire on Airforce one, Josiah’s wife asks him what he is thinking about. There is a long pause before he utters his final word of the entire series. Still staring out of the window he utters the one word ‘tomorrow’. This is very definitely the focus as Christ addresses his disciples. He is leaving, the Spirit is coming, and they are to set their sights on tomorrow.
Looking out from the lectern a few hours after the service was over, I reflected that I have probably preached over 500 sermons from that exact spot. To leave it, even for three months, feels like a real wrench. Still, as President Bartlett would say, my thoughts should be on ‘tomorrow’.