Today we celebrate the end to Jesus being with his followers after his resurrection. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus takes his closest friends to Bethany. Here Jesus tells them that the time had come for the final stage of reconciling us to God.
He commissions them to keep telling all the people about the good news that they have witnessed because the generations to come need to hear what happened. As he said to Doubting Thomas – blessed are they who believe without seeing.
He raises his hands and blesses them as his final physical action. And while he was blessing them, he was carried up into heaven – ascended. Gone. And despite his promise to send them “power from on high,” imagine how alone they must have felt. And just like the resurrection – this is new territory that they are entering.
The ascension is celebrated on the 40th day after Jesus’ resurrection which would make it last Thursday.
And because of the busyness or life and work it’s tempting to ignore the story of the Ascension altogether because it has passed. Unlike Chrismas – the Ascension never happens on a Sunday – always on a Thursday. It’s hard getting people to church on a Sunday morning let alone on a Thursday night. And what is the significance of Jesus floating away like that.
What is there to celebrate with Jesus departing. The significance and the celebration is in the word – Ascension,
Ascension in one sense means to go “up” as we see in the physical sense in our reading that Jesus went “up” into the clouds. But the ascension here is not a physical ascension but a royal ascension as when a King ascends to his throne.
Such as Psalm 47 – God has ascended with a mighty shout. The LORD has ascended with trumpets blaring.
Whereas Jesus was lifted up to the cross when he was crucified now God lifts him up to ascend to his throne in heaven to sit at God’s right hand.
So we see this is a power shift from his physical presence on earth to now his spiritual rule over the earth. And that’s what Paul is describing in his letter to the Ephesians where he writes: God put this power to work in Christ when he 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 age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. And what’s really important for us to understand is that this is a completely different power and authority to how we usually understand power and authority. And this is probably one of the biggest struggles that the church has had to understand. Because we have associated our power and authority too often in human understanding. So when our physical presence declines we believe the church is in decline. When our numbers decline, When our influence declines.
When our presence in public declines – we believe that this relates to our power and authority. That cannot be further from the truth.
The power and authority of Jesus and of the church is seen in things that can’t be measured by human means. Jesus shows his disciples just what that authority looks like. He says that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations. You are witnesses of these things. It is very easy for the church to focus on earthly principles.
To begin to measure our achievements in the same way worldly businesses measure achievement. To some extent it’s important as we need to pay our way in the world. But when that becomes the drive – when that becomes the measure of a successful church – finances,, attendances, popularity – then our mission is based on flawed logic. Jesus has already given us our power and authority – as St Paul says: God has put all things under Jesus feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
It is natural to want to see results for the work we do, just like the disciples in our first reading. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? They wanted results NOW. To which Jesus responded – It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. It’s very tempting, and it’s very natural to want to see instant results. We get impatient and we want to try something else. We’ll look at what others are doing and if only we did what they are doing we’d have the same success. Let’s try another program – another Pastor. But this is where we need to trust God and his plan for us.
We have been given our mission – to proclaim God’s forgiveness in the world and we are his witnesses as we have experienced God’s forgiveness firsthand. And so the question we need to keep asking ourselves – are we doing that?
Are we being examples of forgiveness. If we want to achieve fullness of God then we need to put our complete faith and trust in him and at times that will mean God leading us through the wilderness as he did for Israel – to be led through the valley of the shadow of death but not being afraid because our Good Shepherd is with us. The Ascension is about trusting in God who has placed all things under Christ in the Heavenly Realms and also in the church which is his body. If we look at the world we will miss that because we will panic – we will fear. Wars, pandemics, climate emergencies. But when we keep our eyes on Christ we will allow his Holy Spirit to guide every step we make.
It’s about waiting – it’s about trusting. We are not always that good at waiting. We tire out if we do not get quick results.
Waiting in lines, waiting at the lights, at the doctor’s office, online, on the phone – being constantly reminded that our call is important. Waiting is not what we do well. Why is waiting so hard? Because it means someone else, or some other power, is in charge, not us. Jesus tells the disciples to, “wait”. Wait for the promise of the Father.” He doesn’t want them to go off spreading the news of his resurrection yet because on their own steam they are a small, fearful community that has no power on its own. Look what happened to Peter when he thought he could do it on his own: He sank in the water.
He denied knowing Jesus. The disciples also flee when things get tough.
So, the disciples and we, must be patient and trust God. At times we need to restrain ourselves and trust in God’s timing. The fulfillment will come at God’s timing, not our own. We are action-oriented – we are results driven – that’s human nature. We have our projects and plans, we want to get on with things. Even when our plans and intentions are noble and serve a good purpose sometimes God doesn’t figure into them. Jesus urges his disciples to trust in God’s plan even when that seems not how we should be doing things. Remember how many times Jesus told people he had healed – don’t tell anyone – and it was the first thing they did.
Jesus is never in a hurry. When he instructs his disciples he starts at the beginning to remind them of God’s plan. Jesus had to remind them, by interpreting the scriptures “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,”. He reminds them that sometimes suffering and difficulty is part of God’s mission. And that’s when we can be tempted to try something else, like Peter – never Lord, this will never happen to you.
Our mission is to be witnesses. And we will be witnesses to Jesus by the integrity of our lives and the commitment to his ways. Loving one another as he loves us. Loving and forgiving our enemies. Witnesses at work, with our families, in school and in sports, in our churches., etc., By human standards these may not seem effective. Our attempts will be ignored, dismissed – and we will feel like giving up. We become tempted to try another way. But we are urged to be patient and to wait as the Holy Spirit strengthens us and encourages us to keep the course. To keep witnessing to what we have experienced – the forgiveness and grace of God.