May 26, 2022 - Ascension Day
I want to start by confessing that I do not have a very good (ie well developed) theology of the Ascension. Every year, part of me is sad that Ascension Day falls on a Thursday, which means that so few of us will participate in the celebration, while another part of me is thankful that no more people get to hear me try to make sense of an event I don't really understand. But the more I think about it the more I am convinced that we need Ascension Day now as much as ever.
Luke tells us that Jesus bid farewell to his disciples and then, as he was blessing them, "withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven." I want to note two things about Luke's description of the Ascension. First, Luke is the only one who mentions it. Second, he says a lot more than that.
Luke is the only one who describes the Ascension with any narrative detail. Here at the end of his gospel account and again at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes what happened when Jesus was taken up (note the words) into heaven. In John's gospel account, Jesus talks a few times about the Son of Man ascending into heaven (1:51; 3:13; 6:62) and, at the empty tomb, tells Mary not to hold onto him because he has not yet ascended to the father (20:17), but none of the gospel writers besides Luke makes any attempt to convey what happened when Jesus took his leave of the earth. Mark finishes with the discovery of the empty tomb. Matthew describes how Jesus commissioned the disciples to preach the gospel to all nations, promising to be with them even to the end of the ages. John finishes his account with a meal of bread and fish and a commissioning of Peter on the seashore. But Luke is the only one to try to explain what happened in the end.
I think that's both a symptom and a contributing factor for why we have such a poorly developed theology of the Ascension. All the gospel accounts talk about the cross and empty tomb, but only one says anything about Jesus disappearing up into the clouds. It's hard to understand. It's hard to imagine. If Jesus isn't here any more, where is he? Where is heaven? Where does God really live? Up there somewhere? Is that where we go when the world comes to an end--up into the sky, into the stratosphere, into outer space, into another galaxy far, far away?
That brings me to the second aspect of Luke's account of the Ascension that I want to talk about--everything else he says. This isn't just a story of Jesus disappearing up into heaven. Notice all the richness of the text. Jesus says to his disciples, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me...must be fulfilled." His parting words are about fulfillment and completion. The Ascension is inextricably tied to and an expression of the fullness of Christ as the fulfillment of God's loving promises.
In Luke's account, like those of John and especially Matthew, Jesus uses this farewell moment to commission his followers: "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." Thus Luke makes it clear to us both that this Ascension moment is a completion of his identity and ministry as Messiah but also, at least in part, the enabling act for the disciples' proclamation and witness of that fulfillment. In other words, the Ascension is both the culmination of Jesus' identity as Christ and the focal lens through which his followers bear witness to that culmination.
Finally, Luke notes that, as Jesus was ascending, he blessed those who watched, and they responded with worship. This is the first time in Luke's account that anyone worships Jesus. Worship, of course, belongs to God alone. That's the first commandment on the top ten list of commandments. The Ascension of Jesus, as Luke recalls it for us, is also a moment when Jesus' identity as one who is worthy of worship, which is to say God himself, is proclaimed and received by humanity.
The Ascension, in other words, is not just Luke's ending to the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is, in fact, the culmination of our understanding of Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promises, which is achieved as God with us. The Ascension is not only the logical conclusion or corollary to the cross and empty tomb--God's vindication of Jesus--it is the very means by which the incarnate one "returns" to God (inadequate language) while still remaining God-incarnate.
I live in a world in which evil is rampant--Buffalo, Uvalde, Ukraine--and I am desperate to know that what Jesus said and did and represented to the world was not just a moment in time--an event for the history books--but an offering and a promise that have already changed the way the universe works. If Jesus were just a prophet, his remarkable words would be worth receiving and embracing, but they would have no power over evil because evil cannot be defeated by human intentions. If Jesus were simply God trapsing about the earth in a human suit, adopting our lifestyle for a while, his life and death would be inspiring, but they wouldn't make an ultimate difference in my life or in this world.
Only because in Jesus Christ God has assumed the fullness of our humanity and retains that union beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus can I know that what happened in the cross and empty tomb was not just a fireworks show for the ages but the ultimate defeat of sin and evil. Jesus is not just a chapter worth rereading but a fundamental shift in the power of the universe that does not have an expiration date. Jesus is still flesh and blood, wounded by the cross and vindicated at Easter, but now present with God the Father just as God the Son has been for all eternity. That is our future. That future is assured, even now, even in the midst of gun violence and narcissistic warfare, because in the ascended Christ we can see ourselves in the presence of God. The Ascension means that Jesus did not shed his humanity when he returned to God but brought us with him. And that's a hope I need to hold onto, especially today.