I have to confess that for a long time, I really didn’t know what to make of the Feast of the Ascension. It always seemed like a strange and superfluous afterthought to the Jesus story, which is pretty great already. It’s sort of hard top rising from cold, hard death, and conquering sin and death forever. In light of that, the ascension can seem like a minor afterthought, like a playwright that has to find some way to get the main character off the stage and draw things to a close after a solid climactic scene.
Certainly that’s how Ascension sits in most Christians’ spiritual imagination. Fewer and fewer churches keep the feast of the Ascension, and there are no Ascension Day cards, or sweaters, and no one eagerly awaits the Ascension Day bunny.
But looking over our readings today reminded me that the ascension of Jesus into heaven is really a critical part of not only who Jesus is, but of who we are as the people who follow him.
This morning’s installment of “Brother, Give Us a Word” from the monks of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, by Br. Geoffrey Tristam, captures it perfectly: “The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is of how one man passed through the death barrier—and was raised to life, never to die again. But then the story of Jesus’ ascension and gift of the spirit at Pentecost is of how we, too, can pass through that barrier with Jesus, our pioneer.” So far from being a tidy wrap-up that draws the curtain on the Jesus story, it sets the stage for the next act, which is the story of our life together as Jesus’ disciples.
If Jesus has ascended into heaven, that means when we are baptized into Jesus, when we commit to following him daily, our whole lives start to be pulled in a heavenly direction. The ascension is not Jesus leaving the scene, rather it is Jesus drawing us further into the very heart of God.
In the gospel lesson, after Jesus has given a final blessing to the disciples and ascended, we are told “they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” Having seen and known that Jesus had overcome the worst the world can throw at us, having been pulled in a heavenly direction, the first disciples dedicated their whole lives to staying connected to that reality, even as they continued to live in a world that can often feel like hell.
So the same is true for us. Jesus’ ascension reminds us that when we follow him, our whole lives are being drawn in a heavenward. Jesus’ ascension is the promise that we are being drawn toward God’s life even as we continue to face death; it’s the promise that we are being drawn toward God’s love even as we continue to face violence and hatred in the world; it’s the promise that we are being drawn toward God’s healing even in the face of sickness; it’s the promise that we are being drawn toward God’s forgiveness and reconciliation even in the midst of daily reminders of how divided we are from one another as God’s children. The way we remember that promise, and stay connected to that reality, is by continuing to dwell in God’s presence week by week, day by day, moment by moment in our lives.
But we don’t just do this for our own sake, or our own benefit. As we are drawn by Jesus toward God’s perfect reign of life and love and peace, we are called to use our lives to show that perfect reign here and now. In our reading from Acts, after Jesus has ascended, two men (presumably angels) appear and say to the disciples: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” We who on this day witness the ascension of Jesus into heaven are not simply called to stand gazing up to heaven, we are called to bring that heaven to the whole world. Just before he ascends, Jesus says to the disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Having been pulled heavenward by Jesus, we witness to the final victory of God’s life and love by using our lives now to show a little glimpse of heaven on earth. In the way we love one another, in the way we care for the poor, in the way we act for justice, for compassion, for mercy, for forgiveness. Lives of mercy, justice, love, life, and joy. That’s our act in the story. That’s how we start to draw the whole world in the direction that Jesus has ascended, until we see him come in the same way as today we see him go into heaven.
Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you, and we, will be Jesus’ witnesses in this place, and to the ends of the earth, until he comes again in glory.