Some Thoughts on Ascension
Yesterday was May the 4th (be with you). Today is Cinco de Mayo. And the National Day of Prayer. AND... it's Ascension. Did you know that? I didn't know there was such a thing until my third year of seminary (!). Like a lot of things, I kind of learned as I went.
Sure, I confessed with everyone else each Sunday, "He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty." But I was never really aware that there was a day the church remembered and celebrated Christ's ascension into heaven.
The congregation I served during my vicarage year (third year of seminary) had an Ascension Day service on Thursday evening (rather than the more common observance on the seventh Sunday in Easter). Guess who was slotted to preach that night? I hit the books really hard that week, perusing the New Testament ascension texts (Luke 24, Acts 1, Ephesians 1), the Old Testament background (Psalm 47, 110), the Lutheran Confessions, and Christian Dogmatics to get a good handle on the doctrine.
Since then, Ascension Day has become a favorite of mine during the church year. I've deeply enjoyed preaching Ascension (ever since my surprise encounter with it on vicarage!), the doctrine has had deep meaning for me as a Christian, and although the only eyewitness accounts of the event come from Luke and Acts, I've noticed that the entire New Testament is saturated with references to Christ's ascension and its theological implications.
As I'm preparing to preach this Sunday (not today) on Ascension, here are some thoughts I've been mulling over. I'd love to hear your thoughts as well.
- Ascension makes sense of Jesus' words to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection - "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17). When Christ ascends he will fill all things, in such a way that Mary, the apostles, you, me, and all the baptized have access to the presence of the risen Christ anywhere and anytime. It is better for him to ascend, for with ascension will also come the promise of the Spirit on Pentecost. Tim Keller does a great job of explaining this in a chapter on the ascension in Encounters with Jesus.
- Ascension answers the question "Where is Jesus?" This isn't much of a problem if we hold to a heretical, gnostic version of Jesus. If Jesus is just a spirit, then the question "Where is he?" makes about as much sense as, "Where is a ghost?" But when we take the eyewitness resurrection accounts seriously, we see that the risen Christ is flesh and bones - human. So... Where is he? The last time I checked, if you ascend long enough, you eventually end up in a cold, lifeless vacuum. A proper view of the Ascension reminds us that Christ has not ascended into some localized point in time and space, but rather into what N.T. Wright calls "God's time and space - heaven." He is ascended in such a way that he still fills all things and is still with us as we eat the bread and share the cup each Lord's Day. N.T. Wright has a great chapter on the Ascension in his short book Following Jesus, and as a friend reminded me the other day, in his more popular book Surprised by Hope (it's been a long time since I've read this).
- Ascension dominates the narrative of Acts. Acts begins with a group of confused apostles staring into the sky, and it ends with a multi-national, multi-ethnic church that has gone from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Acts ends much differently than it begins because every chapter is under the care of a risen, ascended, and sovereign Lord Jesus Christ, who orders all things for the good of his church. He takes the persecution of chapter 7 and 8 and uses it to push the Gospel into Samaria and beyond. He overcomes the church's worst enemy (Saul) through conversion, and calls him to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He uses doctrinal division and church strife to create a more clarified and clear Gospel proclamation (chapter 15). In chapter 16 he uses ministry failure in Asia Minor to open up a ministry door in Macedonia, and he even uses the imprisonment of Paul and Silas to convert the Philippian jailer. The list could go on and on, adding weight to the Lord's parting words - "And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
- Isn't it odd that the apostles are joyful when Jesus leaves?! "And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy" (Luke 24:52). When Moses ascends the mountain in Exodus, Israel ends up having a Bronze Age frat party. In his absence, there is chaos. But not with Jesus. He will send the Spirit, and the Spirit will lead us into all truth, not into chaos, confusion, or idolatry. The fruit of his Spirit is self-control. As Elijah prepares to depart in 2 Kings 2, Elisha is fraught with anxiety and sorrow. Not so with Jesus. He will send the Spirit, and in his apparent absence he will be present with his peace. "Peace I leave with you - my peace I give to you."
Have a blessed Ascension Day! If you are preaching, may the Lord bless your preparation and proclamation with the power of his Spirit. If you are attending service, may the ascended Lord send his Spirit into you heart as you worship!