When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” – Acts 1:9-11
“You are not alone.”
These four simple words are one of the most powerful things we can hear when we are in a hard place. So it’s not surprising that these words also contain a core truth of the Christian gospel. It’s why the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel refers to Jesus, with the words of the prophet Isaiah, as “Emmanuel,” that is, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23); and why the same gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’s words to the disciples: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). It’s why, in John’s gospel, Jesus calls the disciples friends and promises that they will not be left as orphans, but rather that the Spirit will be sent to accompany them (John 14 and 15). It’s why one of the most beloved Psalms reads, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). God wants us to know that, through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are not alone in whatever we are going through.
And yet, as many churches celebrate this coming Sunday as Ascension Sunday, we are confronted with a passage in which Jesus seems, at first, to be breaking this core promise. It’s only been forty days, just over a month, since the trauma and devastation of Jesus’s death had been overturned by the glorious miracle of the resurrection. The devastated disciples had their friend, their companion, and their rabbi returned to them. And now he’s going away again? The feelings of abandonment and disappointment must have been acute.
On the surface, the message of the mysterious “men in white robes” who appear to the disciples appears to be all wrong. “Don’t worry about it” is hardly the most comforting message to hear when you are feeling abandoned and lonely. “He’ll be right back” seems, at the very least, to miss the mark a bit.
Yet Jesus’s promise that the Holy Spirit would baptize the disciples “not many days from now” will be fulfilled. And with it, the disciples will realize that they, in fact, have not been left alone. Not only is Jesus present to them in the coming of the Spirit, but Jesus is present to them in the very community that he had called together and that the Spirit continues to gather, form, call, and empower for ministry in the world.
The experience of having a mental illness can be a lonely one; and with it can come some very real fears and experiences of abandonment or isolation. As a community of faith, we can respond to the calling of the Spirit to make present in the midst of real feelings of abandonment that core promise of the gospel:
“You are not alone.”
David Finnegan-Hosey is the author of Christ on the Psych Ward and Grace is a Pre-Existing Condition: Faith, Systems, and Mental Healthcare. He serves as College Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministries at Barton College. He holds an M.Div from Wesley Theological Seminary and a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. He is certified by Mental Health First Aid USA to provide initial help to people experiencing depression, anxiety, psychosis, and substance use disorders. In 2011, David was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a series of psychiatric hospitalizations. He now speaks and writes about the intersections among mental illness, mental health, and faith. David lives in Wilson, NC with his wife Leigh, their daughter Laila, and their dog Penny Lane.