Near the group of four churches in Oxfordshire which I served as parish priest for eight years, after I was curate here and before I returned to Dorking a couple of years ago, is the fine mediaeval church in the village of Childrey. There you will see some very fine and interesting fourteenth century stained glass which includes the Ascension of Christ. The Apostles, with the Virgin Mary introduced into the scene, on the left, kneel around the mountain top. Jesus Christ is in the process of ascending to heaven, and all you can see is the cloud in which he is taken up, and his feet. And if you look closely you can see Jesus’ footprint on the mountain top – an engaging detail to which I shall later return.
The Ascension features in both our readings today, in Luke chapter 24 and Acts chapter 1; but that’s not surprising since Luke is the author of both books, and the Book of Acts is sometimes called part 2 of Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel ends with the Ascension and Acts begins with the Ascension – it was indeed a pivotal event. Luke’s Gospel is the story of the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and the Book of Acts is the outworking of the Gospel story in the life and witness of the young Christian Church.
In Luke chapter 24, Jesus appears to his disciples on several occasions after his resurrection; and then he commissions his disciples. He reminds them of the Scriptures; of how his resurrection is foretold and how the forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. He describes them as witnesses; and tells them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit clothes them with power from on high. Then he leads them out as far as Bethany; and in the act of blessing them, he withdraws from them and is carried up into heaven. One could draw the inference from Luke’s slightly condensed gospel account that the ascension took place on the same day as the resurrection; but the account in Acts is clearer when it says that there was an interval of forty days.
The account in Acts chapter 1 indeed gives more detail than Luke’s gospel, and recounts the conversation between Jesus and his disciples immediately before the Ascension, in which they misguidedly ask (and not for the first time) if this is the time when Jesus will restore the kingdom of Israel. So Jesus puts them right for the last time – it is not for them to know the times that the Father has appointed. But they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and will be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Then a cloud takes Jesus out of their sight; and as he departs from their view, two men in white robes stand by them, and remind the disciples that Jesus will return, in the fullness of time.
So what are we to make of the Ascension, which is one of the most important festivals in the Church’s year, but perhaps the most elusive and mysterious ? Let’s look at the fuller account in Acts, chapter 1, verses 1 to 12, which serves as an introduction to the whole of the Book of Acts.
Firstly, the passage refers the reader to what follows – which is an account of the spread of the gospel and the growth of the Christian church. It indicates the continuity between Luke and Acts, and shows that the church stands in continuity with the whole narrative of God’s saving plan.
Secondly, the passage focuses on the Holy Spirit as an essential and dynamic presence; and it speaks of the baptism in the Spirit which will come upon the disciples at Pentecost in a few days’ time; and it speaks of the power of the Spirit which will empower their ministry. Indeed some have suggested that the Book of Acts, customarily known as the Acts of the Apostles, should be named more appropriately The Acts of the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, the passage underlines the role of the apostles as witnesses; and this is a theme which recurs frequently throughout the Book of Acts. And the opening verses of Acts also point out that the church and its work of witness are to extend throughout the world. Jesus’ charge and his instructions to the apostles made them the chief heralds of the good news. The central instruction is the command to be witnesses. The command to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit is so that the disciples may be prepared for the task. The reference to the places where they are to go indicates that they are not to stay in one place, but to tell people everywhere. And the specific reference to Samaria (where there was only a very small Jewish population) shows clearly that witness to the Gentiles is part of God’s plan.
Fourthly, the passage from Acts points towards the second coming of Christ, at the end of time – it’s what what theologians call eschatology (the last things). But details of the future, though determined by God, are not to be made known to humans – even apostles – who seek foreknowledge.
These verses from Acts set out the framework within which the Christian story is to unfold. Jesus has been exalted to heaven amongst clouds; and he will return in the same way. Luke’s imagery reflects the belief that Jesus, as Messiah, would come again with the clouds of heaven, thus fulfilling the vision of the prophet Daniel (“I saw one like a human being [or a Son of Man] coming with the clouds of heaven.”) And we also recall the over-shadowing cloud at the Transfiguration of Christ, which in a sense pre-figures the Ascension – because the Ascension is also a manifestation of the divine glory.
The disciples had seen Jesus go in power and glory; and in power and glory he will come back in the fullness of time. It is between the Ascension and the Second Coming that the church seeks to live out the gospel in the power of Christ; and the apostles are the first representatives who Jesus Christ commissions to do his work in his name.
The account of the Ascension only appears in Luke/Acts. It expresses the theological conviction that Jesus after his earthly life and death is now the Lord who reigns at God’s right hand; and it also addresses the physical problem of the disappearance of the physical body of the risen Jesus.
Of all the Gospel writers Luke perhaps has the clearest sense of the disciples living out the reality of Jesus’ resurrection life. Over the period of forty days between the resurrection and the ascension, Jesus appeared at intervals to his apostles and other followers in a manner which left no doubt that he was really alive again, risen from the dead. He took food with them and those occasions must have evoked memories of the Last Supper. But all these appearances were transitory, and after each of them, Jesus withdrew from the apostles’ sight. So in a sense Jesus being removed from the apostles’ sight at the ascension was the culmination of a sequence of post-resurrection experiences. In Luke/Acts, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension form one continuous movement, and both speak of his exaltation, of his being lifted up and raised to glory.
The implications of Luke’s words at the beginning of Acts is that the Book of Acts is intended as an account of what Jesus continued to do and to teach after his Ascension – except that he is no longer visibly present on earth but, by the Holy Spirit, he is present in his followers. So perhaps that footprint left on the mountain top in the 14th century stained glass window at Childrey church is theologically significant after all – because we are called to follow in the footsteps of the Master, and to be his hands and feet in the world.