Sunday: The feast of the Ascension
Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Here is our worship for Sunday, May 24. Scroll to the 10min mark to skip over the intro announcements.
The text of the sermon is posted below along with a video of the sermon by itself.
Today the Church celebrates the bright and joyful feast of the Ascension. It was not enough that the Son of God should be born, suffer and die, descend into hell, and be raised from the dead, but it was necessary also that he should ascend into heaven. Because when Jesus ascends he completes that great and saving work for which he came. Human nature had fallen from its original condition but when Jesus took our nature upon himself he renewed it and raised it up to heaven. Now human beings are at home with God the Father!
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany,” Saint Luke tells us, and, “lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God,” (24:50-53). After spending forty days with the disciples thereby proving to them beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was really alive, the crucified and risen Jesus went home to the Father in heaven.
Now, this passage is easily misunderstood. For one, along with the early Christians we need to affirm something extremely important here at the outset. The ascension describes an event involving Jesus’ physical body. Some of the early heretics taught that Jesus ascended spiritually, leaving his physical body behind. Against such teaching the early Christians proclaimed a bodily gospel: bodily birth, bodily suffering, bodily death, bodily resurrection, and bodily ascension.
Why is that important? Because the faith of the Church is not about spiritual escapism but about the redemption and transformation of human life in all of its material reality. And the body of our Lord is the first sign of this transformation! This is not just a future hope but a present reality. It has begun now, already! We know because Jesus has taken our human nature into heaven! Now human nature is restored and united to God. Now humans can ascend into the presence of the Father!
Another way this passage can be misunderstood is if we take it to mean that Jesus has simply gone away. We’re stuck on earth meanwhile Jesus has withdrawn into heaven which is somewhere other than here. Well, there are a few problems with this. One is that the early believers, being Jews, didn’t think of heaven and earth as distinct places—with earth “down here” and heaven “up there”—but rather as two dimensions. Heaven and earth correspond to “God’s space” and “our space” and these dimensions overlap with each other. Of course the Temple in Jerusalem was a prime example of a place where heaven and earth met.
On the one hand what the disciples witnessed was the bodily ascension of their Lord but on the other hand they did not experience this as a loss. We know this because Luke tells us that they were full of joy at his departure. That’s strange don’t you think? It’s not what we would have expected. For the disciples, the world is unchanged and now on top of that Jesus is gone. Why are they not sad? It can only be because whatever else may be the case they obviously do not feel abandoned.
In John’s gospel on the night before his death Jesus said to his disciples in the same passage that we heard read from last week: “I will not leave you orphaned; 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). I am going but I am coming to you, says Jesus. Therefore, while the disciples witness Jesus ascend to the right hand of the Father in heaven they nevertheless do not understand this to mean that he has gone away to some other place that is presently inaccessible to them. Rather, and this is the important point, because of the ascension the earliest Christians were convinced that the crucified and risen Jesus is now present to them in a new and powerful way. That’s why they are full of joy not sorrow.
One of those early Christians, the Apostle Paul, wrote in one of his letters, “though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know him no longer in that way,” (2 Cor 5:16). The Ascension opens up a new way of knowing the crucified and risen Jesus, not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Because of the Ascension we can enter into a new relationship, a new closeness with Jesus and through him with the Father.
Think about it. In the three years Jesus spent ministering around Galilee he could only be in one place at one time. There are literally stories in the gospels when Jesus just goes off by himself to pray and the disciples don’t know where he is. They have to go looking for him. But now one of the effects of Jesus having ascended into heaven is that he is no longer bound by spacetime. This means that the risen and living Jesus is able to be present to all things at all times as Lord and Creator. Here’s where it gets fun. Jesus is therefore as present (if not more so!) to us now as he was to the disciples then, as he was to Moses before them, and as he was at the creation of the world before that. Now, truly and finally, the loving authority, rule, and peace of Jesus Christ extends over all creation.
So, the Ascension is not meant to make us wonder where Jesus has gone but rather to make us wonder along with the Psalmist, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). The Ascension does not mean that Jesus has gone away. On the contrary, it means that he has become even more present.
One last detail as we conclude. What does Luke tell us Jesus was doing as he ascended? Listen: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.” And it was as he was blessing them that he withdrew. He goes while blessing and even today his hands remain stretched out over this world, like a roof that protects us while at the same time tearing open the world so that heaven may enter in.
Therefore, we can now begin to understand and rejoice along with the disciples. The Ascension is at once his going away and also his coming to us in a new form of closeness and blessing. Because Jesus is with the Father in heaven he can see us. Therefore, we can always call upon him and we can be certain that he sees and hears us. Therefore, we too with Jesus can ascend to the Father in heaven and know his peace.
 Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed, 88.
 ibid, 89.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 293.
 ibid, 284.