“in my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about everything that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up into heaven…” Acts 1:1
It seems like everyone is familiar with and remembers the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus on Easter. These three parts of Jesus’ life are often dissected, reflected upon, and celebrated. I always thought it curious that (at least American Protestant Christians) don’t celebrate the ascension of Jesus. This was the moment in Luke 24 and Acts 1 where Jesus was taken up into heaven.
What a crisis for the disciples and the early Christians the Ascension must have been! All of a sudden, this flesh and blood man that they had relied upon as their leader, their example, and their Lord, was gone! What would become of them? How would this movement carry on? What were they supposed to do, now?
The book of Acts records the last words of Jesus before his Ascension. In these last words to his disciples, Jesus gives them a command and a promise. The command is to “do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.” He was promising that they would receive the Holy Spirit. That even though he was about to leave the earth, his Spirit would always be with them, guiding them, empowering them, and leading them. His command to them was to “wait.” How hard of a command that must have been for the disciples who had witnessed the risen Lord must have been absolutely ready to move forward and to…well…do something. Sometimes in spite of our eagerness to move and our willingness to serve, God simply calls us to wait. There are obvious decisions that we can make in our own ability in order to move forward, but “waiting” on God often brings about new perspectives and opportunities.
He also gives them a promise. “You will receive power, and you will be my witnesses.” The promise is that something supernatural would come upon them as a result of waiting on the Lord, and they would be equipped for the great task of continuing the work of Jesus which he had previously began. Jesus was about to ignite a movement that transcended time and geographical location and physical reality. He was about to ignite a Church, a community of people filled with power who would “do even greater things” than even He had done while he was on earth.
And then, like that, he was gone. “Hid from their sight” the text says.
The implications of the Ascension are equally as mysterious and powerful as that of the death, burial and resurrection. Jesus’ work will continue through his Church. His work is not finished, and the time of relying on the physical presence of Jesus was over for his disciples and for his community. It was time for them to continue to flesh out the life of Jesus through their actions, attitudes, choices, lifestyle, and boldness. The movement of Jesus transcended time and space. Ideologies, movements, and historical legacies are often immortalized in the departure of the person who championed them. Jesus had accomplished the work of the cross, and now the time had come for him to return to the glory that was originally his. It was time for the Jesus of earth to become the Christ of Heaven, over all time and history, perpetually empowering His Church through the power of his Spirit. Finally, the Ascension opens us up to the wonder that the next chapter will be better than the first. Jesus promised his disciples that they would perform even more wondrous works than he had done on earth because he was leaving. The ascension was the opening of a new chapter, the Church. Its as if Jesus was telling his followers “you ain’t seen nothing yet…just wait till you see what I’m about to do through my Church.” He will come back, the same way you have seen him leave. Death doesn’t have the last word, and this world, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the faith of the Church is being renewed, redeemed, and recreated, and there will be a time when he comes back.
C. S. Lewis captures it the best in the Last Battle: “all their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” There is a hope beyond hopes, to which the Ascension speaks, that reminds us that we are invited to play a crucial role in the God-story Jesus is writing through his Church, and that our lives are only a shadow of glorious things to come, and that the very fact that Jesus left implies that he will return…
So June 2, 2011… lets reclaim Ascension Day.