For many the Ascension belongs to the world of myth. “No doubt those who lived before Copernicus could believe that Jesus went up vertically and sat down as few miles above the visible sky. But we live in the 21st century – we can no longer believe in a three-decker universe, with a heaven above, hell below, and earth in-between.”
Certainly those who present Jesus as the first astronaut are misguided. Mount Olivet was no Cape Kennedy. However, this is no reason to dismiss the Ascension as a pleasant story, but no more. It was an ‘acted parable’ through which Jesus demonstrated to his disciples that he was going to the Father. How precisely that was achieved, I have no idea. But then we don’t have to understand everything to believe. I don’t know how God became man. All I know is that the Word became flesh. Ultimately, the ‘how’ is not important. What matters is the meaning of Jesus’ going.
The Ascension marked the end of a chapter: it was the end of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. For forty exhilarating days Jesus kept on appearing to those who loved him. But those days couldn’t go on: the Spirit had to be given – the age of the church had to begin. Yet Jesus could not just fade out. A decisive and deliberate withdrawal was called for which was quite different in character from his ‘disappearance’ from the two on the Emmaus Road. This is the context in which the Ascension took place. It was ‘an acted declaration of finality’. Hence the importance of the cloud hiding Jesus from his disciples’ sight (Acts 1.9): it marked the end of a chapter in the life of Jesus. As Jesus had arrived in this world at a particular moment of time – so too he had to leave at a particular moment of time. Otherwise his disciples would have hung around waiting for further appearances, rather than getting on with the job of living for Christ.
The Ascension marked too the beginning of a new chapter. As Peter declared, the risen ascended Lord Jesus is now seated “at God’s right hand” (Acts 2.23,33). This phrase occurs twenty times in the New Testament and brings out the theological significance of the ascension. It was taken from Ps 110, a psalm sung at the coronation of Israel’s kings. To speak of the king seated at God’s right hand was another way of saying that he was exercising power delegated to him by God himself. Later the rabbis applied this psalm to the coming Messiah. Not surprisingly, it was taken up in the early church and applied to the ascended Lord Jesus. Jesus is the one to whom all power and authority have been given! The Ascension in effect marks the coronation of Jesus as king of the universe. To quote from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Eph 1.20-23: “God set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule”.
The Ascension also anticipates a final chapter. To the bemused disciples the two angels said, “This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way that you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1.11). In the words of the Creed: “he will come to judge the living and the dead”. Sadly, this basic tenet of Christian believing has been distorted by some over-enthusiastic Christians, who have developed all kinds of weird and wonderful predictions about Jesus’ return. I find it significant that the angels reproved the disciple: for dawdling there and for longing for Jesus to remain with them: “Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky?” (Acts 1.11) – ‘Stop looking up to heaven; rather fix your eyes rather on earth, for there is work to be done’. According to Luke that was precisely the thrust of Jesus’ final words to his disciple: “The times and occasions are set by my Father’s own authority, and it is not for you to know when they will be. But when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.7,8). The mission of Jesus may have ended with the Ascension, but for us, the ascension marks the beginning of our mission. We have a world to win and a world to serve.