Reflections on the readings for the Feast of the Ascension, 5 June 2011
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20
The Ascension is much more than a good closure to the story of Jesus. It teaches us that the human has been taken up into the Godhead. In the birth of Jesus, heaven came to earth, and now in the ascension, earth is taken up to heaven. The divide is bridged. It also marks a fundamental change in our God-image: now we know that God is Christ-like.
The psalm is a celebration of the enthronement of the Lord. When I look at it without the ascension of Jesus in mind, I imagine God as a great Middle Eastern despot. I picture the great pageantry as he sweeps up to his throne to the sound of trumpets, shouts and applause. This is the great but distant God, powerful, good, yet inaccessible to the ordinary person. Jesus’ ascension changes that picture somehow. Yes, we celebrate Christ the King, but the picture we construct must stand in continuity with the story of Jesus of Nazareth. We may not imagine Christ reigning in a way which would jar with the values of Jesus. The one who was compassionate and accessible, who taught forgiveness and love of one’s enemies, who did not stand on ceremony and who was thoroughly unimpressed by the pomp and ceremony with which the religious leaders of his day tried to carve out for themselves special positions above the ordinary worshipper, is the one seated at the right hand of God.
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and invited his followers to live in its reality. Yet even when he was bidding them farewell, they were asking whether he would now restore the kingdom to Israel. We can be like that too when our concern is simply with the institution of the Church and not with what God is doing in the world. With the ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit of God, something new and potent is released. There are new possibilities for human transformation, and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. The disciples were commissioned and empowered to be witnesses to Christ and to make disciples. And as Christ’s followers today, we too are empowered to become Christ-like, and to continue Christ’s mission on earth.
Do we believe that? Paul’s prayer is not that the Christians to whom he writes might receive power, or discover hope, or inherit glory, but simply that they may have the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that they can recognise what is in fact already true: that they are gifted with an incredible hope and a glorious inheritance, that the power at work in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is at work for them too. When we look at the story of the ascension with enlightened hearts, we can discover its power. The ascension of Jesus is not the story of the withdrawal of his presence but a way of pointing to the fact that Jesus is with us still, in a way which has greater transformative potential.