There must have been a lot of standing around in silence, the disciples staring up at the sky as Jesus levitated away, his shining face veiled by the clouds, his pierced side obscured by the tree tops, the bottom of his worn sandals disappearing into the ether.
The modern Church, regrettably, has stood around silent too, not in awe but in uncertainty about how to understand or explain this last moment on earth for Jesus. Still, we recite it in the Apostle’s Creed saying, “he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almight.”
So, assuming this is a fundamental part of what we believe, why does the Ascension matter?
Luke 24:44-53 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
If Jesus, a man, ascended to be with God, then we have a flesh and blood advocate on high.
Jesus’ going allows the Spirit’s coming.
Yet another attempt by Jesus to give witness to his resurrection of the body.
Walk into any Christian book store and you’ll likely to find dozens of titles about motivating the laity, how to get the people in the pews involved. One chapter will recommend doing a spiritual inventory, a revelation of each congregant’s gifts to be connected with the church’s needs. Another chapter will advise reorganizing the missions committee around a community need and then getting involved in the neighborhood. But what inevitably happens is that the inventories get filed away in the pastor’s study and the missions meeting can’t ever start until the minister offers the prayer. In most congregations, there is a culture of deference to the one in charge. Yet, discipleship has never primarily been the responsibility of those paid to follow Jesus. Instead, if the Church is at its best when the laity are engaged, then, sometimes, the most effective thing a pastor can do is not show up.
Jesus was one man, in ministry for three years, with a dozen followers. And as long as he physically remained, his disciples were going to defer to him. While they healed a few and fed a few and converted a few, it was not until Jesus was taken up that the disciples became wildly more active in the book of Acts. What would have been a footnote of religious history, a cult that came and went in ancient Palestine, grew to become the world religion of Christianity because its followers were first left behind.
The Ascension matters because for the ministry of the Church to begin, Jesus’ has to end. In one of the great paradoxes of faith, it is in response to his absence that we become more present, that instead of standing around in silence waiting, we get busy doing ministry here on earth.
The Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus raising his hands to offer a blessing, a commissioning for all of his followers to go and do an even greater work. So I invite us to do the same by lying hands on the disciple next to you. Let us pray: O’ God, the miracle is not that you exorcized the demon or multiplied the loaves, but rather that you trust us to do even more miraculous things in your holy name. So remind us that your gracious will is now administered through our hands, that your converting word is now spoken through our mouths, that your loving forgiveness is now expressed through the open embrace of our bodies. In the name of the one, who for our sake, loved us enough to leave us.