After the first prayers, ask the children what they think faith means. Explain the difference between faith and conventional knowledge. Demonstrate by bringing a child up to the front, and asking them to fall forwards, with their eyes open, into your arms. Ask them whether that required faith (and hope for the answer "no," because they could see you were there etc.). Then ask them to close their eyes. Walk to the back of the church, talking all the time (so that the child can hear you're not behind them) - and nudge a helpful Sunday-school teacher who you've primed earlier, so they can get up and stand behind the child. Ask the child to fall backwards, saying they'll be perfectly safe. Hopefully they'll do it after some hesitation. Then come back to the front and ask them why they fell backwards - hopefully they'll say they trust you, etc.
Then ask the children in general what's in the bag. They'll no doubt have remembered that the answer is sweets. Ask them how they know - again it comes down to trusting what someone else says. Point out that lots of things have happened since they were told, and draw the analogy that we should trust the Bible even though it was written a long time ago.
So what point was Jesus trying to make in all of this? Was the Ascension just something that happened for the purely practical purpose of getting Jesus back to Heaven? I don't think so. I believe it happened the way it did in order to teach us something about what the disciples were supposed to do next, and what we should be doing with our lives. I suspect there are as many different interpretations of the Ascension passage as there have been sermons preached on it, but for what it's worth, this is mine.
In many ways, I'm very glad I wasn't an apostle. Don't get me wrong - I certainly don't have all the answers, and find many bits of theology downright confusing. That's fine - at least we're one up on the apostles who had to try to figure it out as they went along. We've got two thousand years of thinking to help us work out what it's all about. I view it a bit like quantum physics: I find that baffling enough as it is, and can't even begin to imagine how nutty it must seem as the scientists themselves work out one bizarre aspect of physics after another. Fortunately, for all the confusing aspects, a lot of our Christology can be summed up in ten words:
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
So, the apostles have maybe just about got to grips with the first two. After all, they've had a month or so to get used to the idea of Christ coming back to life, and they'd seen him do some pretty remarkable stuff before, so even if they couldn't understand it, maybe they could accept it. Now they were being given two predictions: firstly, Jesus was coming back. They didn't know when, but he was coming back, and they'd been given pretty strong hints that when he did, it was going to be a big deal. End of the world, or just a new era with Israel back in control of herself? They didn't know, and maybe they didn't care that much - it was an event to look forward to. Second prediction, they were going to be baptised again, this time with the Holy Spirit. Again, you've got to try to get into the heads of the apostles - what was this Holy Spirit thing anyway? We have the benefit of hindsight, and know about Pentecost - I suspect they were left, once more, confused. Again though, Jesus had said it would give them power, and that they'd go throughout the world witnessing about him. Even if it sounded like a big task, it was still intriguing.
"And he said to them, 'Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.'" Okay, unwrapping the double negative, we end up with: "Some of you will live to see the Kingdom of God." When I first read this in preparation of today, alarm bells went off. It sounds very apocalyptic, and very much like some of Paul's writings where he's convinced that the end of the world is going to happen any minute now. End of the world predictions are always a bit risky, it seems to me. I remember watching a programme about them late in 1999, where various people were saying that none of us would be around now. My guess is that they feel pretty foolish. Was Jesus foolish in the same way? No. I can't believe that. A Christ who predicts an imminent apocalypse that doesn't happen isn't the Christ I worship. So what are the alternatives?
First, there's the easy option: ignore it. All of the gospels were written long after the event, and the exact words must surely have been lost. Lots of bits have no doubt been added. In this case at least, I don't like this option. I'll save it for other passages which are even harder to explain and other times when I'm feeling more controversial.
Second, we could guess that there are some folk around who are really old, and will be hanging onto life somewhere out of the public eye until the last trumpet, just to fulfil Jesus' words. I don't buy it.
Third, we could look at Jesus' words a bit more carefully. He doesn't say that there are people who will still be around at the end of the world. He says that there are people who will still be alive to see that the Kingdom of God has come with power. This seems more promising, as the exact meaning will depend on what we understand by "Kingdom of God has come with power". Some suggest that it means Christ's death and resurrection. Others think it means the transfiguration, acting as a preview of the end of the world. The fact that Mark wrote about the transfiguration directly afterwards seems like a clue. I personally don't think it's actually about the transfiguration itself. I think that was just a demonstration - an eye-opener so that the apostles might see what the Kingdom is really about. Put simply, I believe that the Kingdom of God is personified in Jesus himself, and the power of the Kingdom is the same power that Christ demonstrated in both the transfiguration and the ascension.
Now, that may sound pretty odd at first, but think of it this way: imagine if everyone in the world tried to act like Jesus. Worshipping God, caring for their neighbours, serving others. Does that sound like Heaven? Not quite, maybe - but as close to Heaven as can be achieved on earth.
We have died to sin. We have been baptised with new life in Christ. We await Christ's second coming and prepare for his Glory. Alternatively: The world was in darkness. The world was given light in the form of Christ. The world is incomplete until his return.
In each case, there's a statement of a past we dislike, a statement of a present to give thanks for, and a statement of belief in a future we need to shape.
To me, ascension day is another day for recommitment. It's a day for looking forward to a glorious future and for promising to do our best to work towards that future. The apostles had to wait for Pentecost to be blessed with the Spirit - we don't. The Spirit is here among us and working through us now. We can work towards a better future today. We may not see the Kingdom of God come with his power quite as dramatically as Peter, James and John did when they saw the transfiguration, but we can see the Kingdom of God approach by building it with our own hands, given strength and guidance from above.