Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
Fitting words as we celebrate today the Feast of the Ascension of Christ. But just to be clear, today is not the actual Feast of the Ascension. The Ascension is commemorated 40 days after Easter which means that it always falls on a Thursday—that would have been last Thursday—but the Church sometimes lets us move important feasts to Sunday which is our principal day of worship.
I wonder out of curiosity how many of us recognize and understand the significance of Christ’s Ascension. I mean how many people here took a moment last Thursday and remembered that that was the day Jesus was bodily taken up into heaven in the clouds? And if we did remember, what difference did it make to us in that moment or for how we were conducting our lives?
To be fair, the Ascension is not an easy image for the modern person. If you Google the Ascension of Jesus in images, you will see many beautiful works of art, of which a high percentage have at the top, dangling feet, and down below, disciples with upturned faces. In some cases it made me think of Glinda the Good Witch ascending in her bubble with all the munchkins madly waving goodbye beneath her. Not that I’m comparing Jesus and Glinda, although for some of us the munchkin metaphor works (me included) but it’s about this business of going “up” into heaven.
People who favor literal interpretations over the metaphorical will have great difficulty with this image, as will the scientifically minded. We simply know too much about the universe to imagine Jesus parting the clouds and heading off into outer space, with heaven as his destination, so we must remember that this is language that reflects the ancient view of heaven as being above the earth.
Nevertheless, the point is this, Jesus left the disciples and went to be with the Father in heaven. The images we have of him ascending, going up, being taken beyond the clouds is language of enthronement. It’s what we recite in the Creeds when we say:
“he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
But it is also language about presence. It’s not so much about heaven being a place that is ‘up’ but rather the place where God resides. Now that is not to say that God does not reside in our hearts and in our world, Her creation, but rather that heaven is the full unfettered presence of God, without barriers of any kind. Heaven will be that moment when we can look fully upon God’s face and know the depth of our own Belovedness; when all pain, crying, suffering, strife, and death are forever banished from our experience.
When Jesus departed bodily from the disciples to be fully with the Father, he did something remarkable. He took our humanity in his body with him. We know God as all-powerful, all-knowing, majestic, sovereign and eternal, but because of Jesus, God is also the God who knows loneliness, betrayal, rejection, thirst, and even death. God is no longer detached from human experience because Christ took our humanity into not only the presence of God but into the very being of God. Our God, because of Jesus, is vulnerable, approachable and knows our trials.
Now that’s good news indeed, and it’s why we remember and celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. It not only points to the true direction of our lives but it also reminds us that we truly have an advocate with God, One who knows the joys and sorrows of what it is to be human. It is also the precursor to another wondrous gift—the giving of the Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate next week at Pentecost.
In the passage in Acts, Jesus called the Holy Spirit “the promise of the Father” and proclaimed to his disciples that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit so that they could continue his mission and be witnesses in the world. In the passage in Luke, Jesus said that by sending the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father, the disciples would be clothed with power from on high. They and we are left behind not as an act of abandonment but as an invitation to participate in the work and mission of our Lord Jesus.
We are left as witnesses in a world that needs to know that God created all that is with a plan, and that the plan has been fulfilled by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We are entrusted with God’s message of hope to a world that needs the healing power of forgiveness and reconciliation.
We as the Church are charged to be Jesus with skin on because we are Christ’s Body. Christ’s glorified body is in heaven and we are Christ’s Body here on earth. I wonder if perhaps that was part of what Jesus was trying to explain in the Final Discourse passages in John that we’ve heard the last few weeks—that he is in us and we are in him as he is in the Father. The love flowing back and forth in the Godhead is the love that has been extended to us and which encompasses us. It is the Holy Spirit that empowers us in this love, to abide and serve, to be witnesses of God’s involvement and action in the world, to proclaim repentance and forgiveness, to be agents of God’s power for good in this world to transform the world.
So let us not stand around merely gazing up in wonderment. Let the wonderment of Christ’s resurrection and ascension penetrate our hearts so that as the writer of Ephesians says, we may know the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance as his children, and the immeasurable greatness of his power at work in us who believe.
This is our call, Beloved.
This is our invitation as God’s agents in the world.
Let us keep looking for Jesus, not up in the sky but in each other, and as he is enthroned in heaven may he also be enthroned in our hearts.