As you know, I spent many more years in the pews as a layperson than I have in the pulpit as a pastor. In all those years, I don’t remember observing Ascension Sunday or even hearing much about the Ascension itself. I don’t even remember learning about it in seminary. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention in class or in worship on those days, and all my former pastors and professors would be greatly disappointed to know that I missed it. But, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago at a meeting of the Anthony Wayne clergy group that I began to realize how incomplete our picture of Jesus is without the Ascension.
The person who opened my eyes to this fact was the Director of Christian Mission at the YMCA, Abimbola Fajobi. At one of our monthly meetings, Abimbola mentioned how surprised he was that Protestant churches in the United States seem to ignore Ascension Day. Abimbola is from the United Kingdom and grew up in the Church of England (as John Wesley did).
In fact, Wesley certainly thought Ascension Day was important. He included it as one of only three non-Sunday holy days in his book of worship services, along with Good Friday and Christmas. In that book, Wesley wrote that the Ascension “marked not just something about Jesus or the church, but about the scope of salvation for the whole universe.” Charles Wesley wrote a hymn for Ascension Day, which we’ll sing together in a little bit.
When Abimbola and I spoke together later on, he told me that, in the UK, Ascension Day is a big deal. Ascension Day actually falls on the fortieth day after Easter. Churches hold special services on that Thursday in the evening, so people can come after work. People get dressed up in their best clothes, much like they do for Easter. There are special processions and the bells ring from all the steeples, including Westminster Abbey.
As Abimbola and I talked together, we realized that there are two ways to approach the Ascension. I tended toward the way most theology books approach it—as the moment when Jesus resumed his lordship over heaven and earth. At the Ascension, Jesus was once again enthroned as the Lord and King over all creation—over all time, all places, and all nations. Paul wrote eloquently about this in his letter to the Ephesians: “God put his 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.”
The Ascension wasn’t a change in Jesus’ geographical location. It wasn’t a change in his status—a kind of divine promotion. Instead, it was the completion of a round trip journey for Jesus, who was in the beginning with God, came to earth as God in human form, and then returned to his rightful place at the right hand of God. This view of the Ascension focuses on the divinity and Lordship of Jesus. But, Abimbola helped me see the Ascension in a more earthly way—as an event that helps to shape our understanding of our relationship with Jesus.
Luke gives two accounts of the Ascension—one at the end of his gospel and one at the beginning of Acts. There are some discrepancies between the two accounts. In the gospel, the Ascension takes place on the same day as the resurrection, after Jesus had appeared on the road to Emmaus and had startled the disciples by appearing among them and eating a bit of fish. But in Acts, the Ascension takes place forty days after the resurrection, which is where it appears in the Church calendar. Those forty days were filled with appearances by Jesus—appearances that Luke describes as “convincing proofs” that Jesus was alive. Jesus also continued to instruct the disciples about how they were to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit would come upon them. The forty days the disciples had with Jesus were days of instruction and questions, and not a lot of answers.
In the gospel, the disciples watched as Jesus was carried up to heaven and then immediately began to worship him—because they finally understood who had been with them all that time. They returned to Jerusalem with great joy and spent their time in the temple, blessing God. The story in Acts is more ambiguous. Again, the disciples watched as Jesus was lifted up, but rather than break into worship and joy, they stood watching the sky until two divine messengers interrupt them.
Why the two different stories? Luke wasn’t an eyewitness, of course. The books were written some fifty years after the events took place. We don’t know for sure who wrote Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, but it’s believed that the same anonymous author wrote both. So, what’s the purpose of telling the story in two different ways?
We always have to keep in mind that Luke has a theological purpose for writing, and that purpose is to help Christians know how to live as part of the new community of faith that had formed in response to their experience of Jesus. Luke wasn’t worried about fact-checkers or spin doctors. He wants to tell us something about Jesus and how we’re to live as his disciples in light of his life, death, resurrection and, now, his ascension into heaven. Each account offers different pieces of that picture for us. They also both have something very important in common. They are both stories of blessing.
Hear again how Luke describes the Ascension in his gospel: “Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Close your eyes for a moment and picture yourself on that hillside in Bethany. Watch as Jesus lifts up his hands. Let your gaze rest on those hands—hands that still bear the marks of the nails, hands that show his humanity. These are the same hands Jesus showed to the disciples in the upper room, the hands he invited them to touch. These are the hands that healed and fed and comforted. These are the hands that physically recall the betrayals and the pain and the suffering that Jesus experienced, not just from his foes but from his friends as well.
And yet, he raises those hands in blessing. He raises them in a sign of forgiveness, for all the times the disciples didn’t understand what he’d tried to teach them and all the times they let him down. He raises his hands out of a love so deep that he was willing to die for them. He blesses them: he consecrates them to his service. His blessing is a prayer that God’s favor will pour over them and that they will prosper in the mission he leaves to them. His blessing releases them from the guilt and shame that could have kept them from carrying out that mission and frees them for bold and joyful service in his name. He lifts up his hands and blesses the disciples, not stopping even as he is carried into heaven.
No wonder the disciples fell to their knees in worship as they understood Jesus in this new light. No wonder they were filled with great joy and returned to the temple in Jerusalem to continually sing their own songs of praise and blessing to the God who had given them so great a gift.
The story in Acts takes a different turn. Gathered together on the Mt. Olivet, the disciples still have questions. They are still hoping Jesus will be the Messiah they’d been expecting—the one who would restore the kingdom to Israel in a political or military way. Jesus declines to answer their questions but reminds them of the promise he has made to them—that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit so that they may become Jesus’ witnesses throughout the world. Then, Luke tells us, Jesus was lifted up into a cloud where the disciples lost sight of him.
They continued to search the clouds, until a couple of heavenly messengers appeared. I imagine the angels snapping their fingers to get the disciples’ attention. Then they ask a question and make a statement. The question is, “Why are you hanging around here when Jesus told you to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit?” And, the statement is this: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
It’s pretty clear that Acts was written as a sequel to Luke’s gospel, so I think it’s safe to say that the author assumed that his readers had read the first Ascension story. They would have known that the way Jesus went into heaven was with his hands lifted in blessing. So, when the messengers tell the disciples that Jesus will return in the same way he left, the readers would have made the connection. Jesus, who left with his hands lifted in blessing, will return with hands lifted in blessing.
He won’t come with “Jewish space lasers” blazing. He won’t come with armies of angels ready for a cosmic shoot-out with the foes of God’s kingdom, whether they’re of the earthly or Satanic variety. He’ll come with forgiveness and compassion. He’ll come with justice—the divine justice that will restore the world to its rightful order and will place all people in right relationship to God and to one another. He’ll come with love for the world he came to save. He’ll come from heaven in the same way he went into heaven—with hands lifted in blessing.
That blessing is ours today, even as we wait for his return. Jesus looks at us with love from his seat at the right hand of God. Though he is Lord of all creation, he desires for us all that his blessing includes: That we will know his peace. That we will feel secure as part of his family and heirs to his kingdom. He wants us to prosper—not necessarily in material ways but in the work that we do and the things we create that bring glory to him and build God’s kingdom here on earth. He wants us to find true happiness in him—not the giddy fireworks of hilarity but the glowing embers of contentment that offer a constant warmth in the heart. As he blessed the disciples in Bethany, he blesses us as we undertake the mission he left to us by the power of the Spirit he gives to us.
When I was growing up, my Dad often had a jigsaw puzzle set up on a card table. I loved working on his puzzles with him—especially the thousand-piece one of the Mississippi River; that was my favorite. Of course, I wasn’t as good at puzzle-solving as he was. But I hit on a sure-fire way to make sure I could help. I’d hide a couple of pieces. Then, when he began searching for those last missing pieces, I’d miraculously “find” them, fitting them into place so the picture would be complete.
The Ascension is one of the pieces of God’s plan for the world in Jesus. The picture includes all of creation and the moment when God stepped into that creation in human form at Jesus’ birth. It includes Jesus’ life and death, his resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and, someday, Jesus’ return. His ascension is also part of the puzzle, connecting Jesus’ place on earth to his place in heaven. There he reigns, until that day when he comes again with his hands lifted in blessing. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young