I had the opportunity to teach Sunday school on Ascension Sunday in my Jubilee Class at Prairie Baptist, where they manage to keep me on the roll despite my frequent absences! The celebration of ascension is sorely neglected in the liturgical holidays, and I think I nearly overwhelmed my friends with pent up theological musings. At least they do not have to endure a theology exam from me!
I began by simply asking the location of the Risen Christ. Where is Jesus now? Christian theology has done a better job dealing with time than space. As students of the Bible we are rather shackled to the biblical cosmology with its “heaven is up and hell is down” structure.
The answers of my classmates demonstrated theological sensitivity and curiosity, honed from years of faithful reflection. They affirmed that Jesus, the Risen Christ, is with God; Jesus is with us when we gather; Jesus is in our hearts; Jesus meets us in the breaking of bread; and, Jesus is throughout creation, working even where he is not acknowledged as Lord. Pretty good answers, truly.
Then we examined the ending of Luke and the beginning of Acts to try to understand what ascension can possibly mean in a post-Galileo, post-Faraday, post-Einstein, and post-Hubble cosmos. Luke’s story of Jesus being “taken up” does not mean he is the first astronaut, looking for God in the long inter-galactic voyage toward heaven. It may be that heaven and earth are not so far apart after all. Douglas Farrow, in his thoughtful book Ascension Theology, calls the upward call the “natural outcome of the story of Jesus.”
There is theological heft in this narrative, which is often overlooked because we have not attended to what is really going on as Luke concludes the Gospel and sets us up for the stunning action of Acts. What is the meaning of the departure of the incarnate one as a bridge to the outpouring of the Spirit? Presence and absence are intertwined as we observe the cessation of resurrection appearances and the coming of the Spirit in power.
The ending texts of Luke and the opening of Acts repeat the scene of Jesus departing. Ancient authors were not as concerned with redundancy as we are; indeed, narrating the scene twice offers texture and accents its importance. These are scenes of blessing, and his ascension ensures that resurrection has actually occurred. No searching for the body need occur. Jesus has entered into God’s eternal realm. The ascension thus constructs a new cosmology.
I find the words “taken up” (see Luke 24: 51; see also Acts 1:9) particularly important. The cloud, a shimmering metaphor for the presence of God, is actively moving Jesus from the existence of earthly life to resurrected life. Ascension completes the resurrection, and we recall that John’s Gospel combines resurrection and exaltation, also a dimension of ascension.
God has placed Jesus at God’s own right hand, which grants new authority to the Risen One (Ephesians 1:20). From this place of power, Jesus ministers to the world through the church, his own body, and he represents all humanity before God as advocate and friend. He is the visible reminder of human exigency and God’s metamorphosis of glory through the Spirit.
It is common to hear people claim that Jesus is “going back home.” Actually, this world is his home. The word has become flesh. The eschatological return of Christ will really be his homegoing. God has placed him, “once and for all, within the open horizons of the Trinitarian life,” in Farrow’s words. Of course, Jesus is from the Sovereign One, but incarnation is a truly earthly phenomenon. That the Risen Christ dwells both in the presence of God and with the gathered community, the Body of Christ, tells of the enduring significance of embodiment.
God has called Jesus into the divine dwelling, wounds and all, which encourages all frail humans to consider God’s persistent purpose for our lives. Redemption is holistic; it was never God’s intention to rapture souls and leave our distinctive embodied identity behind. Just as the Risen Jesus was recognizable, so shall we be.
The ascension confirms our own hope of life beyond death. Jesus’ departure has opened a new and living way, and we live with confidence that he marks out the pathway. As Farrow concludes, “Ascension theology insists, without hint of embarrassment, that only at the Parousia will such things become plain, when Christ confronts what he has left behind with what he has gone towards ….”
And so with all the Church we confess:
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Creator,
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.