Note: This blog post concerns the lectionary passages for the Feast of the Ascension (May 30, 2019), which can be observed on the Sunday afterward (June 2, 2019).
The ascension is an oft-neglected feature of Jesus’ story. There are several possible reasons for this. First, conceptually the ascension seems to some to be an understood part of Christ’s resurrection. Along these lines, several Pauline texts are not always clear in distinguishing Christ’s resurrection from his ascension (see Ephesians 4:8-10). Second, not even all the gospels discuss the ascension. In fact, only one gospel explicitly mentions this occurrence. Finally, because the ascension occurs forty days after the resurrection, its commemoration always lands on a Thursday, leaving it prone to be forgotten between the sixth and seventh Sundays of Easter. For all of these reasons (and perhaps many more), it is good to examine the lectionary texts appointed for this occasion.
Even at first glance, we find passages that are closely connected together around several themes. We see the narration of the ascension in Acts and Luke, while Psalm 47 (with reference to God’s “holy throne” and God “going up with a shout”) and Ephesians 1 (where Jesus is placed at God’s “right hand in the heavenly places”) echo language found in the Nicene Creed. So what we find is a significant conviction of the church about the story of Jesus; as stated by the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”
We might encounter the ascension as a sad occasion. It does, in fact, read like a departure. We might mourn as when we depart from a friend or family member whom we do not see very often. Jesus’ departure from the apostles might bring about a similar sense of loss. They have gone through so much in order to be reunited with Jesus after his resurrection, but now he is leaving them.
And yet, Psalm 47 encourages us to “shout to God with songs of joy” (Psalm 47:5). The apostles themselves return to Jerusalem “with great joy” and “were continually in the temple praising God” (Luke 24:52-53). How can this departure be cause for profound rejoicing? Richard Lischer notes that Jesus’ ascension serves as “the linchpin that connects two scripts—the life of Jesus and the mission of the Christian community.” When seen under this aspect, we can recognize that even though the ascension seems to be about Jesus’ absence from the apostles, it is primarily about Christ’s presence in the church.
We hear the prelude to the coming day of Pentecost: “for John baptized you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). That coming arrival of the Spirit, and the ascension’s joining of human nature itself to the one at God’s right hand, are the marks of a new kind of presence, a presence that is mediated to the world through the life of the church. Not surprisingly, we find a likeness (though not an full overlap) between Christ and the church. As Ephesians states, Jesus is now “head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).
And this new presence is truly a cause for joy. Later in Acts, we see apostles like Peter and John performing amazing deeds just like Jesus did in the gospels. We see apostles like Stephen martyred in a truly Christ-like fashion, and we see the gospel spread so that God is “king over the nations” (Psalm 47:8). The ascension, by connecting these stories together, helps us recognize Christ’s presence in the church as a result of his departure, not in spite of it.
The ascension reveals what it might mean to be the church in the world. The apostles ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). There is a great deal of ambiguity about this question, but it suggests that the ascension has something to do with kingdoms and empires—political entities that shape our loyalties and identity. Likewise, in Psalm 47, we read that God is “a great king over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2). Ephesians describes Christ as now “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:21). Thus, his passage from earth to heaven reinforces his Lordship in both spaces.
In one of his commentaries on the Apostles’ Creed, Karl Barth states, “[The Ascension] refutes all attempts at setting up another government, another ‘place,’ from where orders and promises would reach us. It is the ultimate refutation of all dictatorships.” With this in view, Jesus’ response to the apostles is interesting: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (Acts 1:8a). Power is exactly what the apostles were asking about, yet even though Jesus does offer power, it stands in contrast to the reigning kingdoms (both then and now). It challenges those other places of lordship by situating that power within a particular vocation: to be witnesses (Acts 1:8b; Luke 24:48).
With all of this in view, the angels that speak to the apostles in the Acts passage also speak to us, imploring us to serve this Lord who reigns from heaven and will return in order to consummate God’s kingdom. Therefore, we should consider the ways in which our commemoration of Christ’s ascension frees the church from all other lords, so that we can serve all the nations in the name of our ascended Lord.
Image: Stained glass window in Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford