Last Thursday was Ascension Day, when the church remembers how Jesus’ time as a physical being on planet earth came to and end. Luke describes it thus: ‘After his suffering, Jesus presented himself alive to the apostles by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.’ (Acts 1.3) Luke tells of them all coming together, quizzing Jesus on when this will happen; when will Israel be restored? Jesus is evasive about dates and times, but he does assure them of two things: they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and that they will be his witnesses in Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Luke goes on: ‘When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight. (Acts 1.9)
Given that even in our advanced technological age, space travel is risky and human beings have never perfected the art of flying, it is difficult to imagine how Jesus could just have taken off. Rather than ponder this too deeply, I find it more helpful to think of it as the final resurrection appearance at which the Jesus breaks the natural physical human to human relationship that he had enjoyed with his disciples throughout his time in Galilee and Jerusalem. It is a farewell. He will not be travelling with them on the road any more or cooking barbecues on the beach. That social interaction has gone and no doubt the apostles felt some of the sad emotions of bereavement as they made their way back into Jerusalem that day even though Jesus had given a clear indication that this was not the end.
So where did he go?
Clearly, Luke would have us understand that Jesus goes into heaven. After he has passed from their sight, the disciples are left looking ‘up to heaven’. They are then chided by angles: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1.11) In Greek and Hebrew as in English, the word ‘heaven’ or ‘heavens’ speaks both of the sky above us but also the seat of the divine, the place where God is. At the ascension, like the beautiful balloon in the 1960’s pop song, Jesus is both ‘up up and away’. (Jimmy Webb, 5th Dimension) Both ‘up’ and ‘away’ are important.
‘Up’ because Jesus is received by his father and placed in the position of highest status. Jesus had spoken of the Son of Man coming in his glory. (Luke 9.26) Peter, James and John had glimpsed that glory high on the mountain of transfiguration. Now, as Jesus is parted from them in this final resurrection appearance, he is drawn into heaven to take his place of rule and authority so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow. (Philippians 2.10)
Jesus ascends up to a place of highest honour and glory. But he is also taken away from the disciples, the crowds, his critics, that land where he had walked and slept and ate. Like all human lives, so the human life of Jesus comes to an end; critically not through death but in the mystery of this event that we call the ascension. Outside the sepulchre, Mary Magdalene wants to hold onto Jesus. But he tells her: ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ (John 20.17) Mary along with all those who had known Jesus as a physical human being must accept that he is taken away from them. As the sentence often used at the beginning of the funeral service from the book of Job puts it: ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1.21)
So where did Jesus go? Has he just gone up to heaven to sit on a big white throne and take life easy while we struggle on down here? Has he just been taken away from the world leaving us alone? John records intimate words to his disciples: ‘I will not leave you orphaned/comfortless; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. (John 14.18-19) Jesus has moved on. He is not seen by those who look only for the physical presence, but for those who have the eyes of faith and a heart for God’s ways. Jesus is actually very close at hand. As Bishop Tom Wright has put it: ‘Heaven and Earth are not far apart. In Jesus they have come together for ever’ (Wright, 2009)
What does that look like?
The book of the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to Luke’s gospel has much exciting material which helps us to see how Jesus though the power of his Holy Spirit is still very much at work in the world after the ascension.
Our new testament reading today (Acts 16.16-34) tells a remarkable story of how Jesus was at work through the ministry of Paul, Silas, Luke and others in the Roman city or colony of Philippi. Firstly, they encounter a girl who has supernatural powers of divination; a fortune teller we might say. Such were her powers of perception, she rightly identified Paul and his friends as ‘servants of the Most High God’. Paul gets annoyed because of her continual crying out disrupting their work. In Jesus’ name he casts out the spirit that her to do these things. Her masters are furious. They were charging for her powers and now they had lost their source of income. They drag Paul and Silas before the authorities and on trumped up charges, they are thrown into jail and held in high security. This does not stop them. They worship and pray; sensing Jesus is with them. A great earthquake strikes. Security is blown and the jailor tries to kill himself. Paul orders everyone to stay put and the jailor calls for lights. He realises this has happened because God is with Paul. ‘What must I do to be saved?’ he cries out. The answer is the simple one which resounds down the generations to our day: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved,…’ After some further exposition the jailor and his family are all baptised as Christians. The risen and ascended Lord Jesus is exalted on high and no longer a physical presence in the world, but he was in that nick that night.
But it’s not all high drama. Earlier in Philippi, there is the conversion of Lydia, a woman of means, a dealer in purple cloth whose heart was opened as Paul taught. She is baptised with her household. Jesus was at work in her heart too. He is at work in our world sometimes quietly, sometimes more visibly. To quote Bishop Tom Wright a second time: ‘…Lydia’s heart was steadily opened to receive Paul’s weekly teaching. The Jailor, by contrast, went to bed as a pagan and, thanks to an earthquake, breakfasted as a Christian.’ (Wright, Evangelism should’t ignore the Kingdom, 24th May 2019)
So where did he go? Yes, we celebrate at his ascension that Jesus is king of kings and Lord of Lord’s. We accept that his physical presence is no more. But we rejoice that he is not far from any of us or any situation into which we choose to invite him. His ability to call people to faith and transform lives is as strong ever. He stands at the door and knocks. (Revelation 3.20) Can you identify with the words of this old chorus:
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart.
Sunday After Ascension 02.06.2019