Today is Ascension Day, an all too often-neglected feast in many Christian circles. Perhaps this is due to the spatial image we fashion in our minds from a reading of the Gospel or Acts accounts. However, the Ascension is an incredibly important part any exploration of Christological thought. It is a feast bracketed (although many weeks apart) by two other great feasts; Easter and Pentecost. Over the years I have read many reflections on the Ascension of Jesus. Some much more rewarding in their content than others. This year I returned to the following offering by Bruce Epperley which I feel is a worthwhile read both for its general content and as a response to our current context in a Covid-19 world.
The Ascension of Jesus is a peculiar day in the Christian calendar. In a de-centered, non-hierarchical world, most of us don’t know which way is up! The idea that Jesus ascended to a God “up there” is strange. Some Christians still live in a three-story universe—heaven above, earth between, hell below—but few people believe, as one pastor stated, that if you get into a spaceship and fly far enough, you’ll find a place called “heaven.”
What are we to make of Jesus’ Ascension? Of course, it’s not out of the question that Jesus defied gravity, but is that the real point? Is the Ascension about gravity or spirituality, geography or vocation?
Acts 1:6-11 describes the Ascending Christ. First, the disciples quiz him about the fulfilment of history, the restoration of Israel. Jesus’ response is purposely vague, and still remains good counsel for those who seek a precise date for judgement day or the fulfilment of history. “It is not for you to know the times or periods.” Rather, we are to await the coming of God’s Spirit and the missional power that comes from encountering the Holy, whether in the 1st or 21st centuries.
Finished with his counsel, Jesus is lifted up, and the disciples are left gazing into the heavens until an angel admonishes, “Why do you stand looking toward heaven?” The angel promises Jesus’ ultimate return, but that’s not the point. The point is that the disciples’ mission and our own is right here—in our time and place and on our planet not some far off sphere.
The point of Ascension is perspective. Rising to the clouds gives us a broader perspective on our lives and the planet. Rather than individualistic images of salvation and personal well-being, Ascension challenges us to bring heaven to earth, that is, to live Jesus’ values in our world. As the Lord’s Prayer proclaims, “Thy kingdom (or realm) come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When we live from a higher perspective, we can transcend our own self-interest to embrace the well-being of the whole earth, including strangers, enemies, and non-humans.
We catch a glimpse of Ascension living by reflecting on the Day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2. The Spirit Jesus promises will embrace all creation. The Spirit reconciles rather than divides. It promises wholeness and salvation for all people, not just a select few. Revelation is global and all-inclusive, not parochial and limited, in contrast to individualistic and limited visions proclaimed by some persons. As Acts 2 proclaims:
God will pour God’s Spirit on all flesh,
And your sons and daughters shall prophesy;
And your young men shall see visions
And your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit;
And they shall prophesy.
On Ascension Day, we are called to “go up”—to find higher ground—not to escape Earth’s crises, but to gain a vision and mission that is larger than ourselves or our communities. We don’t need to look to the heavens to find inspiration. The ever-present God is right here, giving us all the guidance and inspiration, we need, if we but look beyond ourselves. Our mission is here—to heal, to embrace, to welcome, and to love. We don’t need to wait for a far-off day of perfection and rapture. If God is always with us, then right here and now can be the day of transformation and fulfilment.
As the restrictions begin to be rolled back and as we again begin to venture further into our communities, may all of us seek to be raised up through the Holy Spirit to continue God’s mission as our mission in the world, bringing healing, comfort, hospitality and love to those who are in need in any way. (Of course, maintaining all current restrictions as responsible citizens would do).
Let us continue to keep all those in need in our prayers and let us give thanks in prayer and praise for all those children who will be returning to in classroom schooling next week.
Peace and blessings,
Reverend Mark Leam