Tucked away in a corner of most “stained glass” churches is an “Ascension window,” which usually depicts Jesus floating upward in flowing robes while distraught disciples look upward or cover their eyes in fear and anguish. Although we do have the Ascension windows in our churches, most Presbyterians don’t think about or talk about the Ascension very much. It’s an option in the lectionary to read the Ascension texts on the Sunday before Pentecost, and so quite often we miss it altogether, having no special service on Ascension Day, and choosing the 7th Sunday of Easter readings on the Sunday before Pentecost.
References to the Ascension are found in many places throughout the New Testament, but the primary texts that describe the Ascension are the two stories that we read today from Luke and Acts. In the first chapter of the Book of Acts, Jesus appears to the disciples and speaks to them about the Kingdom of God. He instructs them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit who will make them into witnesses “to the end of the earth.” After this “Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
But as much as the Ascension may seem like a strange, magical — even bizarre story, it’s interesting to note that our forebears in the faith deemed it to be extremely important. In Scripture itself, the story appears in Luke and Acts, and in the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel. It’s hinted at over and over in John, and referred to in Romans, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, and the Book of Revelation.
And it’s not only in the Bible, it’s an important part of the earliest Christian creeds. Just think of the Apostles’ Creed, which Christians around the globe still adhere to today:
…I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
We talk about the incarnation a lot — about the fact that God came to us, into our world as a human person in Jesus of Nazareth. We talk about the resurrection a lot — about the fact that Jesus was raised from death and appeared to his disciples and to some others who became his witnesses. Then we usually jump right to Pentecost, and the coming of the Holy Spirit onto the Church. But if we skip the Ascension, we miss something important. We miss something that does make a difference to our faith.
“Living Faith,” our church’s statement of Christian belief, includes this short paragraph in its summary of what we believe about Jesus as Lord:
3.5.1 Jesus suffered, died, and was buried,
but God raised him from the dead.
Risen and ascended,
he is alive now; the living Lord.
One of the problematic parts of the dramatic Ascension story is the sense it can give us that Jesus is leaving us — abandoning us — and going up to live in the paradise of heaven, while we take up his work here on earth. Thinking back to my own preaching and teaching on this part of the story, I’m aware of the fact that I have tended to think about it in that way.
Jesus had to go. He died, and then he rose. He appeared a few times to make sure that his followers understood what had happened, but he wasn’t going to hang around. He couldn’t live forever as a human in the world. And the consolation for the abandonment, of course, is the sending of the Holy Spirit.
It’s Jesus, in John’s Gospel, explaining, “Sorry, I have to go. But don’t worry, you’ll have a comforter — the Spirit will help you out. I’ve given you a great big commission, and asked you to keep on living like me. I know it sounds hard, but the Spirit will help you to cope once I’m gone. The Spirit will remind you of the things I said. Not to worry — you’ll manage okay. Alright, see ya!”
I remember that Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned,” but sometimes in the Ascension story, it seems like that’s exactly what he is doing — abandoning us, leaving us as orphans.
And it’s not just about the story either. Sometimes it’s the circumstances of our lives that can make us feel like we’ve been abandoned by God. When we experience tragedy in our lives, and everything we once counted on seems to be falling apart, we can feel extremely alone and vulnerable. When something bad happens to us, or to someone we love, we sometimes start to wonder where God is at. Has God left us? Are we alone in the world? — left to our own devices or to the evil devices of the people and systems around us?
Whether it’s an accident, an illness, or a death, a financial disaster, or a relationship break-up, a mistake that we made, or someone else who let us down, we can often feel that God is somewhere very far away. Jesus is up in heaven, while we are continuing to struggle through life down here on earth.
But perhaps there is another way of reading the Ascension story. Perhaps there is a reason why the first Christians included it as an integral part of the Good News that they proclaimed.
The Ascension of Jesus Christ marked the end of Christ’s earthly existence, and the beginning of a new period of time, one in which Christ’s relationship with the Church is not restricted by the boundaries of time and space. Jesus’ ascension into heaven meant that he would be gone — “gone” in the sense that he was no longer going to be present in the world as a particular human being who occupies a particular place and time. He was no longer going to be present as Jesus of Nazareth.
But also by virtue of the Ascension, Christ is more abundantly present and active in the world than he has ever been before. The risen and ascended Jesus is no longer limited to one time and place, but can be present everywhere. And this is not as some kind of ghostly presence who hangs in the air but never takes form. No, says Luke, Christ is now present as the material body of Christian believers, brought into being and inspired by the very Spirit that made Jesus who and what he was. The Spirit now makes the Church what Jesus of Nazareth was, so infusing and shaping its life and work that the mission of Jesus continues in the Church as a real and tangible Christ-presence for the world.
As the letter to the Ephesians describes it: God has made Christ “the head over all things for the church,
which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
In the wake of the Ascension, Jesus isn’t gone. Christ remains present to us, but this presence is of a different order. It is what one theologian calls a “saturating presence” — a presence which so pervades and infuses the world with God’s glory that it confuses and dazzles our limited imaginations.
You know the expression “He couldn’t see the forest for the trees”? It’s like that. While we may not be able to pin Christ down to a particular bodily form and draw borders around him which define where he is and where he isn’t, he is abundantly present in the material reality which we encounter every day.
Christ is in the body which is the Church, past, present, and future. Christ is in the bread and wine, broken and poured out for the life of the world. Christ is in the Scriptures proclaimed and the Word preached — that all might come to believe. Christ is in the stranger and in the widow. Christ is in the orphan that we are called to meet in our ministry of care. Christ is ascended to the Father so that he can be “everywhere present” — abundantly present and active in our world.
You see, the Ascension isn’t about Jesus leaving us — not really. Even in John’s Gospel, where Jesus is talking to his friends about the fact that he has to leave, John doesn’t portray Jesus’ immanent disappearance as a withdrawal of presence, pure and simple. In a profoundly paradoxical statement in John 14:28, Jesus says to his friends: “I am going away; but I am coming to you.” It is by going away — by the Ascension — that Jesus has come, Jesus is coming, Jesus will come to us.
The Ascension is not a strange and distressing disappearance of Jesus from our lives. The Ascension brings the gift of Christ’s continuing, abiding, abundant presence with us — in the Church, his body, in the Word and the Sacraments, and in the least person for whom we show care and concern.
Christ has not left us as orphans. He comes to us tangibly and bodily every day, to love and care for us as only God knows how. May God help us to see and know his presence and his power in our lives. Amen.