The Importance of the Ascension for Christianity
Preacher: The Revd Stephen Padfield
5 May 2016, 20:00 (Ascension Day)Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension. After 40 days of appearing to his disciples, Jesus returns to the Father, ascending on high, in full view of his disciples. Although part of the Gospel story, I’m not sure however how well known the feast of the Ascension is. If we went into the High Street this evening and asked people, maybe we wouldn’t get much of a response – after all, it’s hardly the resurrection. But therein lies an interesting point. In many ways, the resurrection was only part of the story. Theologians would tell us that without the Ascension, Christ’s work would lie incomplete and the Jesus we speak of in the Creeds would not be the same Jesus at all. The Ascension turns out to be much more than a post-Easter afterthought.
Not that it is without difficulty. I’ll return to the theological importance of the story in a moment, but practically speaking, it’s hard for us moderns to conceive of Jesus lifting off from the ground, like a Marvel film character, and disappearing into the clouds. There’s a marvellous early 16th century painting by the German Hans Suess von Kulmbach, of Jesus with his legs sticking out from the top of the painting, with the disciples all gazing into the sky. I would imagine that many people filing past this painting, which happens to be in New York, wonder what’s going on.
Luke is our main reference for the ascension story, both in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, which he wrote as the second of a two-part work, documenting the life of Jesus and the early Church. He tells us that the ascension took place on Mount Olivet, the Mount of Olives, and tradition has consecrated the site of the ascension so that it can still be visited today. Before the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, a cave was the site of veneration, although today it has moved a little up the hill where the Chapel of the Ascension has been built. It is both a Christian and a Muslim holy site, and if you go into the chapel you will even see a depression in a stone which is claimed by some to be the footprint of Jesus as he lifted off.
So the story is claimed to be an historical one, and yet, maybe a difficult one for us if we start asking questions. Why did Jesus ‘go up’ ? Did he wait until a cloud hid him before disappearing into Heaven? Is Heaven really up there somewhere in space? Did Jesus ascend for their benefit, before entering a different dimension? Did it happen at all? Maybe that’s why we don’t make too much of the ascension because we can’t really get out modern heads around it.
But theologically, it is a really important event. ‘Up’ of course is where the ancients believed the heavens were, the realm above, to contrast with the earthly realm and the realm below. Clouds remind us of the clouds of glory that come with God’s presence in the Old Testament, a sign that Jesus was being received into God the Father’s presence in Heaven. Maybe this was the only way they could explain such a strange and wonderful event, calling on their own cultural and religious reference points as to where Jesus had gone.
Theologically, Jesus had to return to heaven in order for his earthly ministry to be complete. He couldn’t hang around for ever, appearing to his disciples. There was more work to do.
So let’s look for a moment at those important theological themes.
Firstly, Jesus ascends to continue his work on earth. Luke’s second book is about the acts of the risen Lord Jesus, which he goes on to do through his people via the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn’t now go out of the picture. He is present with the apostles and the early Church to continue its mission.
Secondly, Jesus’ return to Heaven enables him to send the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises to send the Spirit, but only after he has gone away. You may recall in John’s Gospel as Jesus gives his final teachings before his arrest, that he said he will send another Counsellor ‘who will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said’ – he also says that it is for your good that I am going away. ‘Unless I go away , the Counsellor will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you’ says Jesus.
So Jesus’ mission continues through the disciples and the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, the ascension brings about Jesus’ heavenly enthronement as King. As we say in the Creed, he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. The book of Revelation speaks of Jesus reigning at God’s right hand, and the book of Philippians states ‘that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord’. Not something that would have been possible if Jesus hadn’t ascended.
A fourth point is that the ascension affirms the doctrine of the Trinity, as the Glorified Son takes his rightful place at God’s right hand, and sends the Holy Spirit to the earth. There’s a sense of homecoming, as the Father proudly receives Jesus back, having accomplished his mission.
Jesus tells his disciples ‘I go to prepare a place for you so you might also be where I am’ - so Jesus’ bodily ascension prepares the way for us to ascend too, to take our place with God at some point in the future. I remember asking Rowan Williams’ wife Jane at Theological College, as one of my lecturers, how it worked that Jesus took humanity back into the Godhead, when it wasn’t there before. She politely dodged the question. But in the mystery of our faith, Jesus goes back into heaven also as a human, and so affirms the physical creation and a future physical resurrection.
Fifthly, Jesus ascends to heaven to become our mediator and High Priest. Limited on earth, he is not limited in heaven, and he intercedes for us, able to hear our prayers, able to respond to our needs. You will remember him telling us to pray for things in his name. Again, the ascension makes this possible.
And finally, as the ascended Lord he will one day return as King and Judge. To those early disciples this return of Christ was imminent, although as time went by, the Church became more established and earthed, as the urgency of the Second Coming receeded. But we are one day to expect him back, in the same way it says as he left – which has led to all sorts of End Time ideas as to how Jesus will return and what the signs of his return might be.
So although there are less of us gathered this evening than on Easter day, and although the Ascension may be something that is rather overlooked or downplayed by Christians, it is actually a cornerstone belief, as the earthly Jesus takes his place as the Cosmic Christ, ruling over all things, sending the Holy Spirit, interceding for us, preparing a place for us, promising one day to return, and completing that earthly journey that began at the incarnation and ends having saved the world. Amen.