Readings Luke 24:46-53 and Acts 1:1-11
“Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and dine with you, and you with me.” Rev 3:20
The ascension feels like the poor second cousin of Christian liturgical dates (so much so that it doesn’t actually get a Sunday… I pulled it in from this coming Thursday). And yet, Luke tells the story twice.
Both accounts follow roughly the same shape. Jesus urges the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus speaks of their going forth as his witnesses as the necessary extension of his earthly ministry - the outflow of his death and resurrection, and Jesus is taken up to heaven whilst speaking to/blessing them. The Acts account gives us some more details – including the somewhat humours ending with these enigmatic figures asking the disciples why they are staring off into space.
There is something of a throwback to the empty tomb, where a figure in a white robe announces that Jesus has already risen… these surprising and enigmatic figures, perpetually (though gently) nudging the disciples to stop looking for Jesus in all the wrong places.
So what is happening in the ascension? Or, perhaps better put, what does the ascension teach us about Jesus (and what it means to be one of his disciples)? Let’s say two things it doesn’t teach us:
The ascension is not the moment in which a great distance or chasm opens between us and Christ. As that little verse from Revelation reminds us, Christ is always knocking and ready to come in for a meal. In a similar way, Paul would attest that the ascended Christ is still ready and able to break in and confront us with the truth of our actions (a confrontation with very earthly effects). Indeed, we attest each communion service that Christ meets us in the bread and cup, is present to us at his table, feeding us along the way to a promised end.
Neither does the ascension establish a distance between the ascended Christ and the earthly, crucified Jesus. Just as the resurrected Christ (now able to move through walls) is still recognisable to his friends, is still able to eat with them, and still bears the wounds of his death… so too, we are reminded in Revelation, the ascended Christ who will come on the clouds in glory is recognisable to those who pierced him. The ascended Christ, who sits at the right hand of God advocating mercy for all, does so with the same heart of mercy that Jesus demonstrated when a woman bleeding for 12 years dared to reach out and touch the hem of his garment. The ascended Christ, to whom all authority over heaven and earth has been given, exercises that authority with the same love that wept over Jerusalem when he considered its coming trials, that wept over the tomb of Lazarus when death had (momentarily) snapped him up. The one who lived among us is the one lifted into the heavens.
The ascension then is not about Christ putting a great distance between himself and humanity (neither his humanity nor all of humanity). The ascension is not a departure from all we have come to see from Jesus in the gospels, rather it is an enlargement! It is an intensification and an expansion.
The ascension is tied to both the sending of the disciples and the sending of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is sent to aid, empower, and comfort the disciples as they are sent (not only into their local regions, but indeed to the ends of the earth). Jesus ascends so that the disciples, in the power of the Spirit, might carry on his way all across this wide and weary world.
Jesus, whilst incarnate, is bound bodily and geographically as we all are. Whereas the disciples (and the church to come) is Jesus’ body, but no longer bound or confined in the same way; it can now spread and move and be in many places at once. In the ascension (and accompanying Pentecost) the ministry of Jesus pours out, overflows, beyond the Jesus in his singularity and is now taken up and shared with us. The ascension teaches us that we have been called (and empowered by the Spirit) to be Christ in the world.
It also teaches us that Christ – ascended – is able to be present to us wherever we are, at whatever time. “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and dine with you, and you with me.” I mentioned earlier the story of Lazarus. In that story Jesus’ journey to ailing Lazarus is delayed and by the time he arrives Lazarus is dead. Jesus weeps at the tomb of his friend. There is great loss and sadness, which, Martha tells Jesus, could have been avoided had he had been there, but – as one bodily and geographically bound – he wasn’t there.
Now the story of Lazarus is about many a thing, and Jesus goes on to demonstrate his power over death, raising Lazarus from the tomb – but the point we glean from it today is that, there were limits as to who Jesus could be present with at any given time during his earthly life – by the virtue of it been earthly. In the ascension, these limits are no more. Christ is everywhere all at once, present to us, within us. Christ is there when we seek and knock, Christ is there when two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is there in the breaking of bread, and Christ is present through his Spirit, poured out on the church at Pentecost.
So we do not need to look to the heavens, waiting and wondering when Jesus will return… when we will see him again and what it will mean to do so. No, the ascension teaches us that Jesus is present to us always. And that this ascended (and present) Christ, to whom all authority over heaven and earth has been given, seated at God’s throne advocating mercy for all, is the same one we meet and have met through the stories of the gospel, the signs of the sacraments, and the witness of those sent into all the world to carry on what he began.
Image: Bagong Kussudiardja (Indonesian, 1928–2004), Ascension, 1983.
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