Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to journey into outer space in 1961. While he was so high up in the sky he is quoted as saying “I looked and looked and looked but I didn’t see God.
The Ascension is often misunderstood as Jesus going up into heaven as if it is high above us and if we could fly high enough we would see him. Likewise we often see Hell as a physical place deep down in the face of the earth where people go to be punished. But the Ascension has nothing to do with Jesus physically ascending UP into Heaven but ascending to the throne of heaven to the right hand of God, in the same way we speak about a King or Queen ascending to the royal throne.
We often make reference to God looking down upon us making us believe that God is an absent God – more like a coach who sits up high in the coaches box watching his team play and coming down every now and then to spur them on or to reprimand them for poor play. As we look at the state of the world today it’s fairly easy to come to the conclusion that God, if he exists, is not really present in the world. If God were here would he allow everything that’s going on to happen? He’s more like an absent landlord that allows his tenants to trash the house and then leave without paying rent. The wars, the crime, the natural disasters, the human made disasters – if God were really here would he allow them to happen? How often haven’t we felt like crying out like Jesus did on the cross – “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”?
As we look at our Gospel reading we soon discover that Jesus’ ascension does not mean Jesus’ departure. The disciples seem to have finally understood. After fleeing at his arrest – after denying knowing Jesus at his trial – after hiding in fear after his death – the disciples seem to understand that Jesus’ ascension is a positive event rather than Jesus leaving them on their own. This is what we read: While Jesus was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
There’s a few things that we can gather from those couple verses: First – Jesus withdrew from them while he was blessing them. We might have thought that might say – AFTER he had blessed them he departed. But Jesus’ ascension is a continual blessing for the world. And that’s because Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for the world; praying for the world. As Jesus said to doubting Thomas – blessed are those who believe without seeing. As those who believe without seeing we live in a continual state of blessing – whether we feel it or not. It’s not about what we see or feel – it’s about what God does. So while we might think that our world is in a state of disrepair – or as the saying goes – going to hell in a handbasket – we actually are living in a world that is and will always be under the blessing of God because Jesus is constantly and unceasingly praying for the world.
I love Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John chapter 17 that he prayed before his ascension. In fact, that would have been the Gospel reading for today if we weren’t observing the Ascension which was actually last Thursday: Let me read a couple portions from that prayer of Jesus:
“My prayer is not for the world, but for those you have given me, because they belong to you. All who are mine belong to you, and you have given them to me, so they bring me glory. Now I am departing from the world; they are staying in this world, but I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are. “Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy. I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am.
Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began! “O righteous Father, the world doesn’t know you, but I do; and these disciples know you sent me. I have revealed you to them, and I will continue to do so. Then your love for me will be in them, and I will be in them.”
What a beautiful prayer and blessing Jesus has left with us and keeps praying for us. No wonder they returned to their homes with great joy rather than distress that Jesus had left them. And that’s the next part of that scene – the joy they experienced and displayed.
As Christians we can easily get caught up in the despair of the world and become defeatist in our body language. The world keeps telling us that the church is dying – the church is irrelevant – the church is out of touch with reality. And sometimes we believe that. We need to show the world that despite what is happening in the world we have everything to be thankful for. We want the world to see there’s something different about us as St Peter says in his letter:
Set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you have. And then the final part of that ascension we read: And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Luke’s Gospel ends in the same place where it began – in the Temple. It began with Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, receiving a vision from an angel about the birth of his son. It ends with the disciples in the Temple worshiping God’s Son. The temple is the source of blessing – and now our bodies are the living temples of God where the Holy Spirit has made his home. Jesus has ascended but he has not absented as he sends his Spirit to live in us.
The power from on high. He is here in a very powerful and special way blessing us with his presence in Word and Sacrament – the foundation of worship. In his word we hear all the promises of God – just as Jesus did in preparing the apostles: when he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. We experience Jesus presence with us in our Baptism as we hear his promise “I am with you always till the end of the age” – Not – I will be with you at the end of the age.
We experience Jesus saving presence when he invites us to reach out and touch him as he did to Thomas but in a more intimate way – he says take and eat – take and drink – this is my body and blood – given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Now we begin to understand when Jesus says – blessed are they who believe without seeing.
The Ascension is a very special day in the life of the church and the life of the Christian. It’s sad that with our busyness we no longer take that time to worship on Ascension Day. In the European Union Ascension Day is actually a public holiday. In Australia we reserve public holidays for things like the Melbourne Cup and AFL Grand Final. Perhaps that indicates where society’s priorities really lie. So let us continue to observe the Ascension as one of the great days in the church when Jesus completes his work of reconciliation in his death, resurrection and ascension awaiting the fulfilment of his High Priestly Prayer when we shall unite with all Christendom and gather around his throne.