Jesus prays “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you”. I wonder how Jesus disciples felt when they heard this prayer. What did they think they had ‘signed up for’ in following Jesus? When they first decided to follow him, perhaps they thought it would be nice to have a rabbi, to sit around and listen to him, watch him perform miracles.. all very cosy.
Yet this prayer of Jesus - just before his crucifixion – warns them that it’s not that simple. The time is fast coming when they will have to do the work Jesus has begun.
And the ascension, which was celebrated on Thursday, just underlines this sense of responsibility. Jesus has died and has risen but is now gone back to the father – the last thing they glimpse are his feet. Then they have to get on their feet & really start to follow Jesus.
The disciples learn that following is not just tagging along after: it involves more commitment than that.
I’m sorry to be so unseasonal – but we find this kind of committed following in the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’! You might remember that the King sees the peasant ‘gathering winter fuel’ and sets off into the snow to bring food & wine to the destitute peasant. The poor old page doesn’t really have a choice :
“In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed”.
Jesus’ resurrection body has left the earth forever, and so the disciples have to accept the challenge to live life as Jesus’ new body, the church.
But Jesus is not just passing the baton to the disciples & leaving them to it. After the ascension, they might well have remembered this prayer of Jesus to the Father that ‘they may they be one as we are one’ and Jesus request for God the Father to ‘protect them’.
The disciples must walk in Jesus’ footsteps, but always guided and upheld by what Jesus has left with them - the Spirit. Of which more next week, when we celebrate Pentecost!
But perhaps you’re left wondering what the Ascension of Jesus really means for us.
There was an article in ‘Reform’ magazine this month by John Pridmore, who writes that he struggles with Ascension if it is only a celebration of the victorious Christ finally being freed from the squalor of earth to return to the father. Pridmore rejects the idea of a Jesus ascended and untouched by our reality, but reminds us that as we see Jesus ascended he does not leave our humanity behind, but takes our humanity with him into the heart of the Godhead.
He sums this up in a wonderful phrase “All that we are – much of it so wretched – is what he is”.
The ascension is not a farewell appearance from Jesus, but is a cementing of the relationship between heaven and earth.
So at the ascension, Jesus’ mission passes to the disciples; it shows us Jesus taking our humanity into heaven; and it also releases the presence of Jesus into all space and time.
It is easy to treat the ascension as if Jesus becomes less present in the world – disappearing, head first, into a cloud.
But the ascension shows us Jesus’ resurrection body being received into heaven so that Jesus can be present in the here & now in a different way and can be equally and really present to all his followers, wherever and whenever they live.
Years ago when I was a science undergraduate, I heard Timothy Radcliffe, who went on to be Master of the Dominican order, talk about the resurrection. He said that we had to let go of the idea that Jesus became less bodily, less enfleshed, at the resurrection, and instead to understand that he becomes more bodily, more real, more truly present. If this doesn’t make complete sense to you, take heart in the fact that I have been thinking about it for 30 years and I still don’t fully understand it.
But I think Tim Radcliffe’s ideas have something to offer in our understanding of ascension, too.
Instead of thinking that the ascension makes Jesus go away from us, we need to realise that it makes Jesus even more present to us, even more real. Jesus becomes more bodily – he is here.
Jesus takes our humanity into the heart of God, he passes the task of mission to all his followers, but he never abandons us, but is present: in bread and wine – in our neighbours – in his body, the church.
Let’s celebrate Christ with us – and wait with eager expectation for the celebration of the coming of the spirit, next week at Pentecost.
Thanks be to God. Amen.