After his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.
“This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:3-11)
Today the Church celebrates the Ascension.
Or, at least, it’s supposed to. I don’t know of too many (any, actually) churches holding special services this evening. It’s never bothered me before: growing up, we’d go to Christmas Eve services and Christmas morning services; we’d go to Maundy Thursday services and Good Friday breakfasts and Easter Sunrise services. The incarnation of Jesus and the Passion of Jesus are both easily key theological and worship occasions in the year’s calendar. But the ascension?
The Heidelberg Catechism, as it usually does, gives us helpful answers to, “Why the Ascension?”:
Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?
A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.
Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.
Q. Why the next words: “and is seated at the right hand of God”?
A. Because Christ ascended to heaven to show there that he is head of his church, the one through whom the Father rules all things.
Advocate. Pledge. Head. The Heidelberg Catechism distills these answers from the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament, and offers compelling reasons why perhaps we should be gathering for a truly unique and appropriate occasion of worship this evening.
Still not convinced? For further evidence, I turn to N. T. Wright:
Why has the ascension been such a difficult and unpopular doctrine in the modern Western church? The answer…is that the ascension demands that we think differently about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation. Both literalism and skepticism regularly operate with what is called a receptacle view of space; theologians who take the ascension seriously insist that it demands what some have called a relational view. Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “in heaven and on earth.”
The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians….It’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this….
Only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand — when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present — are we rescued from a wrong view of human history and equipped for the task of justice in the present…We are also, significantly, rescued from the attempts that have been made to create alternative mediators, and in particular an alternative mediatrix, in his place. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus. (Surprised by Hope, 110-111 and 113)
For this reason, N. T. Wright suggests compellingly that today is the most appropriate celebration of “Christ the King,” and not the end of the Liturgical Year (which, Wright argues, confuses Christ’s real, present reign with the influence of the Church). We may not be gathering today to worship and celebrate Christ our Lord and King, but let us not forget in our work, our rest, our play, and our daily small acts of personal devotion and worship, that “Jesus is Lord.” Amen!