GOSPEL Luke 24:44-53
On the day of his ascension, Jesus leaves his disciples with a commission, a blessing, and a promise of the Holy Spirit.
44[Jesus said to the eleven and those with them,] “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The feast of the Ascension has become an easily overlooked holiday in the west; 40 days after Easter, which is always a Thursday, and always during the workweek. But did you know in Germany, it’s a national holiday, and stores and banks and offices are closed. It’s also Father’s Day – and a day that many Germans get out and picnic, hike, and some men observe the traditional practice of taking walks together pulling a wagon full of beer. The German word for the feast of the Ascension? Himmelfahrt. It even sounds fun!
The bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven is detailed in Luke and its volume 2, Acts of the Apostles. Luke highlights Jesus opening the disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures and the promises. Luke emphasizes repentance and forgiveness of sins as the thing to be proclaimed now, to all nations. And in Luke’s retelling – the disciples are to stay in Jerusalem, before they start proclaiming things to other nations, until they are clothed with power from on high. The disciples don’t get a word in but follow orders to return to Jerusalem – to the temple.
In the second retelling in Acts – it seems like these are the same confused bumbling disciples we’ve come to know and love. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” “Now Jesus? How about now? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” And even as Jesus reassures them that they will not be left alone, and that they will even have his power – they still stand looking up – wondering what the heck just happened and where did Jesus go?? So what actually happened?? One lesson ends with them standing around looking confused – the other ends with them worshiping in the temple and continuing to be the joyful disciples they were called to be.
My guess is it points to the reality that we as disciples have not changed too much in 2000 years, and if we think about it, we know just where they’re coming from. There are times in our life as disciples that we worship continually with great joy and get down to business – to the work of discipleship, and there are times when we too have been left staring up at the sky wondering what just happened and if we really have been abandoned. Wondering and hoping that Jesus will come right back to get us because we’re not too sure about the kingdom he’s left us in. This has been one of those weeks for us again, senseless violence followed by senseless violence. It is hard to believe that all this is laid at Jesus’ feet, but then again, the earliest church was no stranger to death and violence and proclaimed Christ’s kingdom all the more.
As Jesus floats away on a cloud, or however it looked, that’s certainly what I would have been thinking. But a return to heaven is not a few minutes elevator ride away – it is a return to a realm outside of our own, outside space and time and the constraints of this mortal coil. God is not above us looking down, and neither is Christ or the Holy Spirit for that matter. But the power of God and the reign of Christ is for us and with us.
Theologian N. T. Wright reminds us that “heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation.”
The ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts signifies has far less to do with geography (Where Jesus is) than with his exaltation (Who Jesus is). Jesus’ ascension firmly establishes him as the Lord and Messiah, exalted at God’s right hand in ways not merely physical (Acts 2:22-36; 3:26; 5:31; 10:40; 13:31-38; cf. 3:21). In short, the ascension of Jesus speaks volumes about who Jesus is, without confining him to house arrest until he returns again. (Troy Tuftgrube, workingpreacher.com)
This is what we miss when we overlook the ascension. We as the church may claim our God given place as Christ’s body on earth but neglect the fact that our head is still very much intact. Like a headless horseman the church has terrorized people throughout the ages, believing ourselves to be in charge, and identifying our institutions and our buildings and our leadership as though it were God in himself. The ascension means that not only are we the body and Christ the head – but that god stands apart from the church and may indeed judge the church herself.
It is what the writer of Ephesians emphasizes when they wrote:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
This power God put to work in Christ is not the power we see around us in this world. God’s power is not wealth or might or threats or coercion. This power is not backed by the gold standard or protected by bullet proof vests. The power of God is not magic or even majestic usually – but is rooted in repentance, forgiveness, and the cross of Christ – vulnerability and love. This is the power we are given. It comes from outside us – a gift from the Holy Spirit. It’s not something we can summon from inside, or a muscle we can flex. It is a different way of being within our world. Knowing that we belong to another kingdom. And also, that we are still not the head of that kingdom either.