The Feast of the Ascension is one of the major festivals in the Church’s calendar, but it can feel somewhat overlooked – overshadowed by Easter and rather close to Pentecost. What are we to make of this fascinating but elusive feast day?
The Ascension isn’t that easy to interpret or to understand. Sometimes it’s presented as a celebration of Christ’s exaltation and his universal sovereignty, rather like the Feast of Christ the King which comes in November. Sometimes it’s presented simply as a prelude to Pentecost – a foretaste of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Occasionally, if you’ll forgive a slight irreverence, it’s seen as little more than a convenient device for despatching Christ’s resurrection body. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the significance or power of the Ascension, or its role in the mission, ministry, worship and life of the church.
The account of the Ascension appears in our readings from both Luke and the Book of Acts, which was, after all, written by Luke. And it is the connecting link between the two books. Reference to the Ascension is also found in Mark 16.19, but that verse is part of what is known as the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel which is generally considered to be much later than Mark’s original text. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, his first letter to Timothy and the letter to the Hebews each allude in different ways to the Ascension but doesn’t refer to it specifically; and it’s not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. So we very much look to Luke as our source and guide.
In Luke’s narrative, Jesus’ ascension marks the end of the post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, and the beginning of the story of the church being empowered to carry forward Christ’s mission – thereby marking a critical point of transition from Easter to Pentecost. The first five verses of our reading from Acts chapter 1 give a short summary of the events of the forty days following Easter, and they record Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to stay in Jerusalem, promising them that God’s Spirit will soon be made evident in fresh ways – and he presents the promised coming of the Holy Spirit as a new, Spirit-filled baptismal gift. The following six verses recount the actual miracle of the Ascension – when Jesus is lifted up in a cloud and taken beyond the limits of the disciples’ physical senses; and two men in white robes encourage the disciples to cease looking heavenwards. And so the disciples go back to prepare for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. But the Ascension isn’t followed straight away by Pentecost in the book of Acts. The disciples set about finding a replacement for Judas Iscariot, and Mattheus is chosen to join the apostles – so the disciples are actively preparing themselves for their ministry which lies ahead.
But even at the scene of the Ascension, the disciples who so often showed a lack of proper understanding of Jesus’ mission continue to get it wrong, when they ask him: ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ And so the disciples continue to hope that God’s Messiah will restore the political fortunes of the royal line of King David. Jesus deflects their question and refocuses their attention on the demonstration of God’s power and the outpouring of God’s love that they are about to experience. Jesus effectively says to them: ‘It isn’t the restoration of the kingdom of Israel that will energise you. The Spirit will empower you to be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but also in all Judea and Samaria, and throughout the world’
The Ascension is a manifestation of God’s glory, and we see Jesus who was raised on the cross, and risen from the tomb, now raised to the Father in power and majesty, as we recall the over-shadowing cloud at the Transfiguration of Jesus which pre-figures the cloud-filled glory of the Ascension. But the Ascension is not only about what is happening to Jesus, but about what is happening to the disciples. In the New Testament perspective, the Ascension is a time of expectant transition between promise and fulfilment – in some ways, rather like Advent. And we need to look to the Book of Acts to see the outworking of the Ascension for it is nothing less than an amazing account of the spread of the gospel and the growth of the early Christian church.
I’d now like to draw out four significant points from our Gospel passage from Luke, relating to Scripture, witness, worship and the Second Coming. Firstly, scripture. We are reminded that the Jewish scriptures provide an understanding of the Messiah and his destiny. Earlier in Luke chapter 24 (25-27, 32) Jesus interprets the scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus before he is revealed to them when he takes bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to them. Now, at the Ascension, Jesus again speaks to the disciples about the scriptures – that everything written about him in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. And so in the light of the resurrection, and before he disappears from their view, we read that Jesus opens the disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures (v.45). They are shown that the resurrection of the Messiah, and the proclamation by the disciples of the message of salvation, fulfil the divine plan – which is for justice, reconciliation and peace to be established on earth.
Secondly, witness. Jesus declares: “You are witnesses of these things” (v.48). But who is Jesus addressing? At one level, the answer is the disciples. The role of the apostles as witnesses is a theme which recurs frequently throughout the Books of Acts. Indeed, they are not to stay in one place but to share the Good News with people everywhere, Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus’ commission to the apostles makes them the chief heralds of the good news. But at another level the “you” is directed to a broader company of readers and listeners, past and present, who are drawn to participate in the story, wherever we are. We are witnesses, and we are all called to receive the power that God promises and to proclaim the good news of the risen Jesus.
Thirdly, worship. The narrative ends in a remarkable outburst of worship. Rather than being depressed that Jesus had withdrawn and left them with a burdensome responsibility, the disciples worship Jesus, returning to Jerusalem with great joy, where in the temple, they bless God continually. Worship and witness belong together. The singing of hymns, offering prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, reading and opening the scriptures, and breaking bread should energise and inspire all that we do to bring in God’s kingdom and to make Jesus known.
Fourth and finally, the account of the Ascension points towards the second coming of Jesus, at the end of time. It’s what theologians call eschatology (the last things). Jesus is raised heavenwards amongst clouds; and it is said that he will return in the same way. Luke’s imagery reflects the belief that Jesus the Messiah would come again with the clouds of heaven, thus fulfilling the vision of the prophet Daniel. It is indeed between the Ascension and the Second Coming that the church seeks to live out the gospel in the power of Christ.
One final reflection. Did you notice that the first verse of the Book of Acts is addressed to Theophilus? We don’t know who Theophilus was. He may have been an actual enquirer, a Christian seeking information about the origins of the Christian faith, or perhaps a Roman official who just wanted to know more. However I suggest that Theophilus (theo-philus, roughly translated, lover of God) could well be not a single person but a representative reader – you and me – because the story of the the Acts of the Apostles continues, today and into the future, through all of us who follow our risen and ascended Lord.
LUKE 24: 44-53