Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
Feast of the Ascension, 24th of May, 2020
Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension, a part of the story of Jesus that we often ignore. It is such an important event that it gets a clause in the Apostles’ Creed; one of the things that the church believes about Jesus is that ‘he ascended into heaven’. But it is usually forgotten, perhaps because the image of Jesus taking off into the sky is so difficult to take seriously. Rising into the heavens looks cool when Superman or Thor does it but it’s hard to imagine Jesus doing it, especially since we no longer believe in a three-tiered universe of Heaven/Earth/Hell. I have put a selection of images of the Ascension on the church’s Vimeo page, created from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries, and you’ll see there how very hard it is to portray the Ascension without making it seem that Jesus has taken off like a rocket. But as one Biblical commentator has put it: ‘We do not, as a matter of fact, believe that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch, rising a few hundred miles above the earth. Nor do we think Jesus was the first to be “beamed up,” to use the term made so familiar by the television series Star Trek.’ No matter how many artists have portrayed it that way, that is not what the Ascension means.
There are only two descriptions of the Ascension in the Christian Scriptures, both of which were written by Luke. It is the last thing that he describes in the Gospel that carries his name, and the first thing he describes in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. These descriptions of the Ascension are the transition point between Luke talking about Jesus’ life, and Luke talking about the mission of Jesus’ followers empowered by the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, the two stories are slightly different. In the first description of the Ascension it seems to have happened very soon after the resurrection, immediately after Jesus’ appears to ‘the eleven and their companions’. It’s also very short; Luke writes: ‘Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.’ (Luke 24:50-1)
Luke’s second description of the Ascension, at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, is longer and more detailed. In this description the Ascension is said to happen forty days after the resurrection; Jesus commissions his followers, rather than simply blessing them; and we have an appearance from two men in white robes. These are probably meant to be the same two men in dazzling robes who spoke to the women at the tomb on Easter morning. Then they asked: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ Now they ask: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ In both cases these two men remind Jesus’ followers not to standing gazing on the past but to look towards the future.
The reading we hear today from the Acts of the Apostles isn’t just a description of the Ascension. At the beginning of his second book, Luke recapitulates his entire first book, the Gospel according to Luke, so that his reader, Theophilus, is in the right mood for the new tale he’s going to tell. Luke’s getting Theophilus ready for a change in subject, from the story of Jesus’ life on earth to the story of the mission of Jesus’ followers. So he summarises Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; reminds Theophilus of Jesus’ command to his disciples to await the coming of the Spirit in Jerusalem; and answers that vital question: does Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the kingdom of God mean the restoration of the kingdom of Israel? Jesus’ answer to that is that if it is, it’s not in the political form that the disciples might want. He’s not commissioning them to rule over an Israel freed from Roman occupation. He’s commissioning them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth once he himself has gone to the Father.
The Holy Spirit is mentioned three times in this short introduction: during his ministry Jesus gave instructions ‘through the Holy Spirit to the apostles’; during the forty post-resurrection days he spent with them Jesus promised that they would ‘be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’; and as he leaves them he tells them again: ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you’. Luke is preparing us for the entrance of another manifestation of God among humanity, for the next Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Today, the Feast of the Ascension, marks the end of Jesus’ time on earth. Next week, the Feast of Pentecost, marks the coming of the Spirit. It’s a bit like a relay race in which the baton is passed. Jesus has left the scene and the Holy Spirit has entered and Luke’s second book tells his readers about the acts of the apostles who have received the Holy Spirit, the way in which the followers of Jesus witnessed to him and their astonishing discovery that the Holy Spirit baptised Gentiles as well as Jews. But this new focus doesn’t mean that Christ has been replaced by the Christian community that became the Church. The Church does not replace Christ; instead Christ is present with the community in a new way, through the Holy Spirit. It’s one of the mysteries and gifts of the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit are One. By ascending to the Father, Christ is able to relate to humanity beyond the limits in time and space. Jesus lived and died in one country, at one time, interacting with a small group of people. The Holy Spirit is accessible to everyone, all people, all the time. This is how we can be in relationship with Christ, despite living 2000 years after his birth on the other side of the world from his birthplace. We relate to God through the Holy Spirit, the gift of God and God, who is always with us.
There are two more reasons for us to affirm and celebrate the Ascension, apart from this increased accessibility of Jesus. The Incarnation of Jesus had brought heaven to earth, when the Word became flesh and lived among us. The Ascension now brings earth to heaven. Now that the one who ministered to us on earth is in heaven, we have an advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1) and a giver of gifts (Ephesians 4:8). John Calvin wrote that the ascended Christ is our ‘constant advocate and intercessor’ who ‘prepares a way and access for us to the Father’s throne’. The God who has experienced everything that it means to be human, who understands our humanity from the inside, is now in heaven, able to intercede and advocate for us.
The Ascension also reminds us again who Jesus Christ truly is. Through the Ascension we see Jesus as equal with the Father, seated at the Father’s right hand, having authority over the whole world. And so we joyfully proclaim that Jesus Christ is The Lord, the ruler of everything in our lives. We have no greater allegiance. St Columba’s sixth-century hymn rejoices in this:
Down in the realm of darkness
he lay a captive bound,
but at the hour appointed
he rose a victor crowned,
and now to heaven ascended,
he sits upon the throne
in glorious dominion,
his Father’s and his own. (TIS 192)
The Ascension reminds us that all of us live in Christ’s ‘glorious dominion’. This is why we proclaim it in the creeds and celebrate it in our worship – despite any difficulties caused by pictures of feet disappearing into clouds.
 Ronald Cole Turner, ‘Acts 11:1-11’ in Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 2, p. 498.