Ascension Day (Observed).18 “Ascension” Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
So… my question (and there could be lots of questions regarding the Ascension of our Lord!) is this: “how is it the Apostles return to Jerusalem with great joy, continually in the temple worshiping?” Because, taken at face value, it seems almost comical, that last remark. “He led them out as far as Bethany (dwelling place of Jesus’ best friends) lifted up His hands, blessed them, and was parted from them (as they worshiped Him) and was carried up into heaven.” This seems rather odd…
Because, when Jesus was not with them (as when he left the 9 behind and took Peter, James, and John up on the mountain of the transfiguration) they got into a lot of trouble and things went badly for them. Especially badly when Jesus was crucified 40 days before this and they were on their own Friday evening to Sunday dawn. That went very badly, and they were quite lost and desolated, the apostles. They richly fulfilled what we heard from Jesus a couple weeks ago that “Apart from Me, you can do nothing”. And while that is a difficult concept for most of us to grasp, the apostles grasped quickly that apart from Jesus they really are nothing and can do nothing worth writing a song about. Which is why all the good hymns in the hymnal are written of Jesus and not about us.
Anyway, a little weird, right(?!) that seeing the Master taken up into heaven, and seeing how badly things went for them the last three years when they were separated from the Master’s presence for only a few hours or days, you’d expect they’d go home sad, not glad, right? So what is going on? Jesus is taken away from them (and been gone quite a good long while now, a couple thousand years, as the world figures such things!) and they rejoice?! They praise and bless God with great joy? Whaaat?
Well, simple, but scriptural observation: the problem here is not with the Apostles’ response to the Ascension but with the common interpretation of the event. Simple logic: the apostles always were sad, confused, desolated when Jesus wasn’t with them. So, if their joy is greater than ever before, it must mean the Ascension is not, as often thought, Jesus going away and leaving us to our own devices. No! It must be the Ascension means Jesus is with us in an even more wonderful and powerful Way!!!!
That really is the Ascension Gospel in a nutshell, but maybe it needs some more unpacking? OK. Part of the problem is simple grammar/vocabulary. For modern people, the word “Ascension” just means upward movement. Up, up, and away! is pretty much the modern concept. But this was not the core concept of Ascension for ancient people, especially for the early Christian Church. For them, the word “ascension” was used most often for a King taking up His scepter, throne, and reigning over His Kingdom, powerfully. Their Ascension has a different meaning—it’s not Jesus packing up and moving from earth to heaven (as modern Christendom tends to view the event).
And when you get the core concept of “Ascending to His Throne, far above all rule and principality, taking the scepter to reign,” the scattered pieces and the puzzling apostolic response to the Event suddenly fall into place and puzzle less and instead generate something of the same Joy the Apostles and the Scriptures and our Synod President Matthew Harrison (in his very fine sermon on this text on the actual Day of the Ascension last Thursday which I was happy to hear) are always on about… And that Christ’s Joy may be in you, and your Joy may be full, let’s look into this a little more, shall we?
St. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that though Christ Jesus was in the form of God, but did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, therefore, for our sake, He emptied Himself of all those divine prerogatives and privileges, laid aside His royal honors and retinues and palaces and powers, and took the form of a slave, came in the likeness of men, and humbled Himself even further, to become obedient to death, even the death of the cross. “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the Name which is above every Name; that, at the Name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
Ascension Day, simply put, is that exaltation, that Ascension to the Throne that’s always His from all eternity, from which He descended, to save us from sin, death, and the power of the devil, the throne Jesus now assumes—but in an even more awesome way than before! You get the impression that the Father has seated the Son on the Father’s own throne, crowned Him with His own crown and put all things under His feet (which only adds to the Father’s glory, you see). If your cousin were the prince of Monaco or some even more rich and lovely Mediterranean city-state and told you that you have free run of the place: “Come and stay as long as you like and enjoy yourself in the Kingdom at my expense!” you’d be pretty excited, wouldn’t you? Sure, you would. If you got to witness your cousin’s ascension to the throne and royal investiture, you’d take up the invitation to go and see that, and have a ride on his G650. You’d be pretty jazzed about getting caught up in such a royal ball.
Well, the Ascension of Jesus is better! Yep, way better, actually. This is His exaltation, Ascension Day. Today, Jesus takes all power, of heaven and earth, that is His as God the Son and reigns over all, with the Father’s blessing. Because, see: Jesus isn’t just our cousin. He is our Brother, according to the flesh, and He insists that if He reigns, we reign—that His Life and Kingdom are all really, truly, eternally, entirely ours, because His Holy Baptism has made us bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh—His very own Body!
The apostles were witnesses of that (the Greek is martyr which means sharing in the dying of Jesus is how the fullness of the Joy comes to you and me!). Even death works to our advantage, now! Great news! The best! By His death, Jesus destroyed death and makes it work backward, makes it work for us, makes it the means by which our old selves go under and are raised up by Him New Creations, full partakers of the Divine Nature ourselves as Jesus shows when, on Easter Sunday He rises from the dead and now is using all His divine power fully, bodily, eternally, through His quite human Body and inviting us to share too: bodily, really, truly to share in that theosis as partakers of the Divine Nature ourselves, in and with Him. From birth to death Jesus didn’t always or fully use His divine power through His assumed human nature. But now, at His Ascension the apostles witness that it’s fully on, all His and all yours.
Ascension isn’t Jesus leaving. It’s Jesus filling the heavens and earth with His Presence, His Joy. I told you the good hymns are about Jesus not us. Well, actually by faith that either/or becomes a joyful Yes!. As Christopher Wordsworth so well put it:
“He has raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heav’nly places,
There with Him in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne.
By our mighty Lord’s Ascension
We by faith behold our own.”
How can that fill us with anything other than Joy? And Peace surpassing understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Risen, Ascended Lord.