Ascension Day – An anti-climax?

As they were looking on, he was lifted up,
and a cloud took him out of their sight.

It is forty days since we celebrated the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus.  It is the same period of time that those first disciples were blessed with resurrection appearances of Jesus – Luke says, He “showed Himself alive after His passion by many proofs.”

At the end of those forty days, they were gathered together at Bethany just outside of Jerusalem.  In Luke’s Gospel, he records that “lifting up his hands, [Jesus] blessed them. While He blessed them, He parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And [the disciples] returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” 

Why is the ascension of our Lord the cause of such joy?  Why is his final disappearance not a kind of anti-climax for the disciples and for us?

I want to suggest three reasons:  The disciples were happy for him; they saw the implications for the kingdom of God; and they saw the implications for themselves.

1 The disciples were happy for him.

Perhaps the sorrow we feel at the loss of loved ones is in part an uncertainty that they are truly received into glory, into the heaven of heavens.  Yet the disciples knew that Jesus was truly lifted on high to the heights of heaven.  Promise after promise that Jesus made to them was being fulfilled…

  • Jesus prophecied, the night Nicodemus came to him, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” John 3:13 [see also John 14:28]
  • In a resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, Jesus says, “Touch me not for I have not yet ascended to my Father,” and later, “Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father.
  • Paul later in his letters speaks with certainty of Jesus’ ascension.  In Hebrews Paul says, “He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above the heavens” and later, “He entered into the holy place, even into heaven itself, to appear in the presence of God.

His ascension, gives further confirmation of the acceptance of Jesus’ ministry and self-offering to the Father, and that his earthly work is accomplished.  The disciples were happy for Him.

2 The disciples also saw the implications for the kingdom of God

The ascension of Jesus is an affirmation that Jesus has not only overcome death himself, but that he is fulfilling an expectation that the Messiah would inaugurate the Kingdom of God.

Paul says that the Father raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.  And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. [Ephesians 1:20-23]

It is very lofty language about the headship of Christ, Jesus is fulfilling the Jewish expectation of Old Testament prophesy about the Messianic age.  Here are a few examples:

  • God promised David that his descendent would come to rule forever: When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. [2 Samuel 7:12-14] (see also for example 1 Chronicles 17; Isaiah 9:6,7; Jeremiah 25:5,6)
  • It is the fulfilment of the prophesy we heard from Daniel, of the Messiah, who “comes to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” [7:13-14]
  • The exaltation of the Messiah is spoken about in Isaiah about the Suffering Servant – before speaking of his great abasement, God says, through Isaiah, “Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.” As Fr Jos pointed out a few weeks ago, it is the very same language used earlier, when Isaiah had a vision of the Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up!  [6:1]
  • God’s kingdom on earth begins – as Psalm 110 says, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”  Jesus quoted this psalm, which was well known to be referring to the Messiah, and unravelled the mystery that it refers to the human and divine natures of the Christ.  It suggests a kind of progressive ever expanding fulfillment of God’s promise of the kingdom of God, one we see coming about on earth, as more people fall down before Jesus and worship him as Lord, and seek to follow His rule.

3 Jesus’ ascension is also the basis of our personal hope of ascension.

In our Baptism, we were joined mystically to Christ.  By grace, through faith, the bond of our union with Christ is strengthened and held firm.  As we love Him and feed upon the spiritual Body and Blood of Christ, our union with Him is perfected – so we can say with Paul, “I am sure that neither death nor life,… nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

God’s love joining us to Jesus is drawing us heavenward, is a drawing of us up to be seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father.  While we remain on earth, there is a way in which we have even now ascended.  Listen to what St Paul says in Ephesians – “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us,.. .made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” 1 [2:5-6]

We have ascended in one sense already since we are joined mystically with Christ in a bond stronger than our feeble faith, and we feel Him lifting us even now, His grace lifting our thoughts to eternal things, moving our hearts to care about eternal things.  Do you feel it this morning?  His love is irresistible, though strangely we try to resist.

But of course, we also still feel the pull of the world, we feel the pull of all the details of our lives, we feel the suffering, the uncertainty, even sometimes boredom none of which can be any part of heaven.  We are saved, in Christ, and participating in His life in heaven, but we also must still be sanctified, made ready for our final ascent.

This is why Paul continually calls us to lift up our minds, and our affections that they might match who we really are in Christ.   In Colossians Paul says, “If we be risen with Christ, we must seek those things which are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God,” and “if our life is hid in Christ with God, we must set our affections on things above, not on things on earth.. .”  It is as Jesus says, “Where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.”

Our thoughts, our hearts, our affections, must truly be set on the things above always.

I know many of you enjoy going to Switzerland or Austria for holidays or retreat, it is to go to the mountains!  In the Bible, we have lots of examples of the saints going to high places.  Think of Moses, ascending Mount Sinai to converse with God in prayer and fasting for forty days.  Think of Elijah, ascending Mount Horeb for forty days of prayer and fasting to hear the still small voice of God.  Think of Our Lord who on several occasions left the disciples to go to a mountain by Himself to pray.

Now we know that God is no nearer on the top of a mountain – but mountains help us conceive something of the spiritual reality and greatness of heaven.  When you get to a mountain top, preferably by walking since the struggle itself seems to add to the beauty, you see the town you left behind below, all the details and worries are somehow brought into the bigger picture.  There is a certain serenity that hits the soul as you view your struggles beside the wonder of creation and the enormity of time and space in which we have been placed.  We find we have less place for a lot of words, our troubles which seemed enormous, shrink to a more appropriate size.

Our union with Christ who is ascended means that we can already view our lives and the world from the mountaintop that is heaven.  And when we forget or don’t experience the reality of our union, through the darkness of sin or our unsteadiness in the Light or God removing his consolations to deepen our faith, we can through prayer, through fasting, ascend by grace in heart and mind to Christ who is in heaven to rest again with Him.  By these ascensions, our lives, with all their sorrows, sufferings, desires, disappointments, can again be seen from the mountaintop, in the light of Christ, in the perspective of eternal things – and this brings about a serenity, a peace that passes all understanding, that enables us to act in the world in the most loving, creative and subversive of ways.

Living the Resurrection and Ascension life means keeping one eye always on Christ who is in heaven, and filled with Him and guided by Him, then moving out into the world, down off the mountain to see with the other eye the multitudes, to point them to our ascended Lord and to guide them that they to might receive the promised blessings.  From the heights of heaven we are to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.”

Christ has ascended and is drawing us with Him.

Jesus is interceding for us today at the right hand of the Father, and he will soon draw us once again into the Holy of holies, as we partake of His Body and Blood in the Holy Communion.

Let us see our lives and the world into which we are sent from these heights always.

Grant we beseech you, Almighty God, that like as we do believe your only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. AMEN.