So is Ascension day important or not?
Unfortunately the “40 days after Easter Sunday” calculation means that Ascension day is always ‘tucked away’ on a Thursday! - which implies it’s not too important.
But on the other hand the story is so good that Luke tells it twice – at the end of his gospel and at the beginning of the book of Acts.
OK – so it’s important – but why is it important?
I don’t think its importance lies in the problem of physics – or maybe it’s geography – that it throws up. The question of what really happened: especially where did Jesus ‘go’?
The disciples see him ascend into heaven, and are left gazing up with open mouths.
But we might feel suspicious of the idea that heaven is ‘up there’. Nikita Krushchev, leader of the Soviet
Union, tried to discredit Christianity by saying of the first Russian cosmonaut – ‘Gagarin went into space but didn’t find God there’. Heaven is not simply, physically, beyond the sky – we know now that that’s space. And if we start asking questions about what’s beyond space we soon bump into the issue of the relationship between time and space, what’s referred to as the space time continuum... and I can just feel some of you glazing over.
So let’s not get bogged down in the ‘where’ and ‘how’ questions around the Ascension of Jesus and ask just three questions.
First of all if e agree it’s important - Why is it important to the disciples?
We see how important witnessing the ascension was by the reactions that the disciples have.
Luke tells us the disciples saw Jesus go from them and knew he had gone back to God – and so they worshipped him.
Whatever the physics of where Jesus went, the reality is that his resurrected body wasn’t to be seen any longer and that the disciples knew that he had returned to God. This was the final piece of ‘irrefutable proof’ that Jesus – whom they had followed for three years and then seen die – was risen and that he was God made flesh. In order to become incarnate he came to earth from heaven – wherever or whenever that is – and his physical presence has gone back to heaven.
The ascension convinces the disciples of the divinity of Jesus, and so they worship Jesus as the Christ – the Son of God. This is an important moment in their discipleship.
Secondly, What did Jesus do at the ascension?
This is not just a story about Jesus taking his leave of his disciples. We have heard how Jesus first raised his hands and blessed them. This is just the end of the resurrection chapter – and the beginning of an amazing new chapter in the life of the followers of Jesus. Jesus blesses and commissions his followers – he wants them to continue the work he has begun. But first he tells them to wait (for the Holy Spirit).
On Easter Sunday he found them waiting to see what the authorities were going to do next – waiting behind locked doors in fear. Then they were surprised by the arrival of the risen Jesus. Now they are told to return to Jerusalem and wait – but this time to wait in joyful expectation – waiting for arrival of the Holy Spirit, which will drive them out beyond any locked doors to tell the world the Good news of the love of God.
So at the Ascension the disciples learn about the divinity of Jesus and Jesus blesses them and tells them to wait for the Spirit to empower them.
But what difference does the ascension make to us?
Today is so much more then just a chance to remember the events of the ascension. We, like the first disciples, learn about Christ’s divinity, and wait, with them for the coming of the Spirit. And maybe our hymns encourage us to be triumphalist about Jesus, our Lord who soars through the clouds back to the right hand of the Father.
But more that that, the Ascension shows us that the Jesus who died and was raised is taking the marks and the pain of crucifixion, still evident on his resurrected body, back into the heart of God. The ascension tells us that the crucified, vulnerable, human flesh of Jesus is now received back as part of the Godhead.
Never again can we tell ourselves that God doesn’t know what pain is, doesn’t understand, doesn’t feel as we do. Even at the heart of the beauty of heaven there is a place for the wounds of Christ.
The same Lord who accepted the lowliness of life as a human being, the same Lord who accepted humiliation and death, the same Lord who was raised in triumph at Easter, that same Lord takes the pain of our existence and inhabits, enfolds and transforms it utterly.
And then he promises to come and make us part of the body of Christ, broken and yet transformed.
So at his invitation our earthly lives may be lifted up to reach the heights of heaven with him.
Thanks be to God. Amen.