Jesus was gone! And they were alone.
Eleven apostles stood staring into the sky like children seeking shapes of animals in the clouds as they beheld their master, their risen Lord, ascending ever upwards until they lost sight of him, a tiny speck in the clouds of heaven.
Speechless, they looked at one another, and their thoughts, though unspoken, resonated: "Now what?"
Now what indeed!
But wasn't this the moment Jesus had been preparing them for during the past three years? Everything that took place before this was mere preamble. This was the test, the moment they feared. The moment when Jesus left them, alone, to carry on his work.
Just as the world had been changed forever by the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem thirty-three years ago, it was changed again now that he was gone.
But was it? And was he?
He had told his followers that he would be with them till the end of time. That he would never leave them orphans; never abandon them. How could he? They were too special. They meant so much to him.
He called them the "Salt of the Earth," and gave them a job to do: to season the very essence of mankind with the salt of eternal life through belief in Jesus Christ.
He told them they were to do this for "all nations." Not just for their families or friends and neighbors, their tribe or city or country, but for everyone. The gift that Jesus offers is to be extended to all men, no matter where they are in the world or what other gods they may believe in. His appeal, and his gift, are universal and everlasting.
As they ruminated in confusion over their abandonment, kicking idly in the dirt, raising little clouds of dust, tiny effigies of the real clouds that had swallowed their master, they reflected on the years and experiences that had led up to this moment.
Somber faces developed smile lines as one after another recalled an earlier moment in their lives, an unforgettable moment, the very moment when Jesus first touched them. When he first put that special kind of anchor into their very souls that said they would always belong to him.
Fishermen know what anchors are for. They also know about nets and hooks. And they knew that Jesus had caught them, and would never let them go. He asked them to drop their nets and abandon their boats and follow him. And they did, and never stopped following him.
They were as helpless as minnows in his hands, as he guided them through the shoals and reefs that threatened to ensnare them and pull them away from him. They were untouchable to all, except to him.
This enthrallment with Jesus made them impervious to the threats and attempts at domination wrought by mere men. Power meant nothing now. They could not be moved by pressure, intimidations, or imprisonments. Jesus lived within them.
And then the reminiscences began, initially related with a slight reticence, but later with full abandonment and glee.
"Remember when he calmed the storm?"
"We thought he was a ghost!"
"And you actually walked on the water!"
"Yeah, but then I tried to figure out why and started to sink!"
"He sure knew how to handle those Pharisees!"
"Nothing they did ever scared him. He outfoxed them every time!"
"I liked it when he chased the moneychangers out of the temple!"
"And knocked over their tables."
"And little kids scrambled to scoop up the coins!"
"He even dared to cure people on the Sabbath."
"He cured everybody who came to him. Even lepers!"
"And he really loved kids."
Their emotions were flowing freely now as they recalled the wondrous deeds of their leader. Laughter was spontaneous and raucous, vehement and manly, as they relived their unique training and experiences at the hand of their master.
But then introspection turned into self-assessment. The laughter twittered out as each of them in turn recalled once again those times and places when and where they had failed to live up to the expectations that Jesus had set before them. These were sad reminiscences that were shared with a rueful whimper.
"He said I began to sink because my faith was so weak."
"And we argued about who should have the first places in his kingdom."
"We all ran away when the soldiers came to arrest him."
"I fell asleep in the garden."
"None of us tried to stop Judas!"
"I even betrayed him! Three times!"
Eyes glistening, they looked at each other and saw themselves as they were: mere men imbued with a divine spirit, chosen by the one who knew them better than they knew themselves to perform beyond the capabilities of mere men and to bring the story and mission of Jesus to the whole world.
This realization triggered a resurgence of their psyches. Sure, they had failed him. Of course, they had made dumb mistakes. Yes, their faith was weak. Obviously they were human, but it was when Jesus breathed within them that they were capable of wonderful things.
As he was ascending Jesus must have looked down for a final glance at the world he was leaving. What would he see from such a height? Would he see that animal shed where he was born? Was it still standing? Surely he would see the temple, the banquet hall in Cana, and Joseph's carpentry shop. Soon the Jordan River would come into focus, and he would smile at the remembrance of his cousin John baptizing in its cool waters. And there was the hill with three crosses still standing, and an empty tomb nearby. He saw the big city of Jerusalem, and all the people, the good and the bad.
Soon the entire Mediterranean lay before him, the internal Roman Sea. Everything from Italy to North Africa was now in view. And there was Rome itself! He could almost hear its hustle and bustle even from this height. Soon he could make out the four corners of the earth, the entire world he was leaving to these carefully chosen men.
He smiled when he saw them still staring into the sky. He felt their sadness, his eyes misty because he loved them so much. He wanted to bring them with him, but they had a mission to fulfill. He knew he was breaking their hearts by leaving them.
But he wasn't leaving them.
Suddenly a blazing ray of light broke through the clouds above, casting its beams directly on the eleven men huddled on that mount. Their voices rose along with their spirits. They knew.
He was still here. He had not gone. They were not alone. And their work had just begun.