The story of Jesus’ dying and rising from death gets a lot of well served attention in our churches – but sometimes we overlook a crucial but rather mysterious part of the story.
At the beginning of the book of Acts we are told that Jesus is taken up or lifted up into the sky where he disappears behind the clouds. It’s called the ascension and down the ages the ascension has had a lot more attention paid to it than it does in today's CofE: Horse chestnut trees for example were known as "ascension trees" because of their cloudy blossons at this time of year pointing to the skies. Ascension was a proper public holiday like Easter and Christmas. The ascension of Christ is important - and ithas been a crucial part of our Christian creeds since the 325AD. D
So what does the ascension mean? Did Jesus take off into outer space like some sort of superman? If not, what does it mean?
First of all we need to understand the way the biblical concepts of heaven and earth – and “up” and “Down” language.
- Throughout the bible – the authors “the skies” or “heavens” (shamayim) in Hebrew) to refer to God’s space – the spiritual realm. And they use the word “earth” or “land (eretz in Hebrew) to mean the world of mortals. When they talk about geographic locations and spatial relationships in the physical world, they are not given the sort of account that a geographer or scientific text book might give: Physical words are used as metaphors to describe spiritual realities.
- So, for example, in the beginning God created the skies and the land. Both belong to God – and on the land, he plants a mountain Garden called Eden – and the plan is that humanity will live up in Eden and they could go down from this paradise to extend God’s word and life to all creation.
- The idea of going up into God’s presence is repeated again in the story of Moses as he goes up Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments.
- Similarly , the priest is described in Leviticus as ascending to the presence of God on the day of atonement (as he went past the veil in the tabernacle after making a sacrifice)
- The Jerusalem temple is also built on a hill – Mount Zion. Notice how every time the Israelites travel to Jerusalem for the festivals the biblical authors always say that the people are “going up” or ascendingto Jerusalem. And they even use this language when the people are not actually getting higher in terms of kilometres above sea level – because the metaphor of ascension is primarily about drawing closer to God.
All this up language is about entering into God’s presence within the created realm in order to bring God’s blessing to his creation.
So unsurprisingly there is a lot of “up language” in the story of Jesus. This up language is used of the cross “When I am lifted up from the earth says Jesus, I will draw all people to myself”
And it is used of rising from the dead
And it is used here, in the story of the ascension. When Acts describes a scene where Jesus is “lifted up” and a cloud receives him, he is not aiming at giving us a description of what camera footage may have looked like. It may have looked like superman – but that is not what the author cared about. What the author cared about was the idea that Jesus is fulfilling the purpose that going up was supposed to have through the whole of the biblical story but so often went wrong.
- Adam and Eve the original rulers of creation under God were exiled from their paradise garden because they disobeyed God – but Jesus has been obedient to God and the way is open for him to go up and to be crowned king of all.
- Moses went into the clouds of God’s glory and brought the law down – but his glory faded and the tablets were broken. Jesus ascension evokes the same imagery being received into the cloud – but this time the law is not being written on fragile tablets but people’s hearts through the gift of the Spirit which will come.
- Before their ascent into God’s presence, the priests offered sacrifices. Jesus the great high priest has offered his own life as a sacrifice. He is for ever the touching point of earth and heaven – where God and humanity are one. The ascension is about togetherness with God. So what does this mean for us:-
The collect for the Sunday after ascension - draws on what is said in different parts of the new testament and makes a great summary:
1 O God the King of Glory, You have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your Kingdom in heaven
Jesus has cosmic significance Most Christians would describe their faith as a personal relationship with a personal God. And so it is. God loved us so much, that even if it was only me, even if it were only you who needed saving from all that is evil in the world, Jesus would have died for us. That is so dear to us.
But the temptation in our culture is to imagine that faith is only personal. People say, “This is the truth for me. Others have different beliefs” or “You have your religion and I have mine. We don’t want to seem bigoted and pushy about religion – we shrink from the slightest risk that we might impose our beliefs upon others. It is so much easier to keep religion as a private or personal affair.
Christ’s ascension reminds us loudly that we cannot keep Christ to ourselves because it tells of Christ ascending to heaven to sit at the RHS of God. This is a reminder of his triumph over death, his authority over all things. Christ hasn’t just got personal significance. He has cosmic significance. He is the Lord of the Universe. The King of Glory. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. As the angel tells the bewildered disciples “Someday he will return from heaven in the same way as you saw him go”
The collect goes on
2 We beseech you, leave us not comfortless But send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us...
The Holy Spirit will given to strengthen us As at the feast of Pentecost the people of Israel celebrated being given the law – so we celebrate at Pentecost being given God’s law in our hearts through God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus taught that he needed to leave his disciples so that instead of being with them in one place and one time – he could be with all his followers in every place and all time through the Holy Spirit. He said,
“it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t the Comforter won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you….When the Spirit of Truth comes he will guide you into all truth” John 16
“Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he has promised. John bapised with water, but in a few days, you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit…. And again just before he leaves he reminds his disciples again, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem throughout Judaea and to the ends of the earth.”
3. And exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before
We can ascend with Jesus That is an amazing thing to pray – exalt us into the same place where Jesus has gone – We are not asking to go up into a fluffy cloud or outer space. We are asking to “go up” in the most important way – to experience God’s presence and be empowered for God’s work of spreading his word and blessing here and now. We are invited to be part of making his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
COLLECT FOR THE SUNDAY AFTER ASCENSION
O God the King of Glory, You have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your Kingdom in heaven, We beseech you, leave us not comfortless But send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.