Through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, God’s activity within creation continues. God’s reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God’s responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us.
Christian teachings about the New Testament story of Jesus’ ascension are uncomfortably problematic. An event in salvation history that is, at least, on par with the Resurrection is given short shrift by many or actually not acknowledged. Yet, for Quakers who have, from our beginnings, embraced the notion of the gifting of the church with the Holy Spirit, Christ’s promised and continuing presence, it is an essential piece of the whole story. Put in contemporary terms, the ascension means that ‘‘Jesus has left the building.”
Some Roman Catholics pray to Mary in the belief that a mother has leverage with her son and then the Heavenly Father has a warm spot in his heart for the desires of The Son. It’s an effective way to get your prayers answered. Others only pray to God, even to the point of argument and debate. Despite Jesus’ teaching his followers to pray “Out
Father…” many I know pray to Jesus and envision him walking along side or even carrying them through tough times. Does the message of Jesus’ ascension change how you address your prayers? The text says that with Jesus no longer earth bound we are accompanied on our spiritual journey by the promised comforter and guide.
The Gospel of Matthew has no mention of the Ascension. In his version there is no spectacular escape from the bondage of earth. The last words of his Gospel reads: 16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
What a promise, “and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”! Here there is no heavenly “ascension”, rather a promise of spiritual accompaniment.
Mark’s approach is different and, actually, dangerous. He tells his version at the end of his resurrection narrative: Later he (Jesus) appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.15And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 16The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”19So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. I’m going to suggest that it might be a bit presumptuous to test Mark’s notion of the security of the believer.
Luke’s is the preferred reading from the Gospels. After Jesus voices a last lecture the very last lines from this Gospel read: Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The reading from the ascension story in Luke’s sequel to his Gospel is a bit longer and a bit more detailed. Acts 1:1-11. In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.”
In Isaiah 6 we get a picture of what Jesus’ followers had to have in their minds as the place to which Jesus went. In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
This is quintessential first century Judaism. Mark and Luke, first in his Gospel and then in the book of Acts are certain that this is the heavenly place to which Jesus goes.
The question presented to us is Was Jesus’ ascension an historical fact or a well-informed and intentioned attempt to frame Jesus’ story in language and metaphors widely known and understood in first century Palestine? People of our generation know, from reading from other cultures that the image of a king ascending to heaven, there to be worshipped by his former subjects was not unique to Christianity. Romulus, the twin who with his brother Remus founded Rome was believed to have ascended to heaven and became the popular god Quirinus. And of course we know of Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament and beyond that the ancient figures of Hercules, Empedocles, and Alexander the Great. Of course we shouldn’t leave Mohammad standing on the rock in Jerusalem or Mary, the mother of Jesus, having left bodily remains on earth.
The idea of Jesus ascending to heaven from Palestine evokes continuing conflict between religion and science. Taken literally the pervasive imagery requires a flat earth dependent on a questionable view of the solar system. And to think that heaven is a physical place – necessary if one believes in a physical resurrection – poses the additional difficulty of locating it in the physical cosmos.
Ancient mapmakers placed Jerusalem at the center of creation similar to the way map makers today tend to present the earth with their own nation at the center. The imagery subtly suggests that earth is at the center of creation. I’m afraid that Hubble has quieted that argument. Earth is far from the cosmos’ center and humans are not necessarily the high point of creation.
Does the image of Jesus ascending to heaven imply that heaven is better than earth or that the future is preferable to the present? Yet God created heaven and earth. Valuing heaven more highly than earth requires a considerable amount of human arrogance: who are we to assess God’s handiwork? If, as the Church has long taught, God determines the number of a person’s days, then being where God wants you to be – earth or heaven – is best for that person at that moment.
The New Testament repeatedly states that God is at work reconciling all creation to God. Widespread emphasis on heaven as the locus of life after death not only devalues the earth but also causes the Church and Christians largely to ignore the importance of caring for all creation. God calls human beings to join God in the work of reconciling all creation (and not just fellow humans!) to God.
Jesus says that he must leave the disciples but promises the gift of the Spirit to his disciples as a guide and advocate in his absence. The Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
So what can Christians meaningfully say about Jesus’ ascension?
First, Ascension reminds us to understand our theology metaphorically, to hold even the most cherished concepts gingerly, tentatively. Like the early Christians, we do well to frame our experience of God in the language and metaphors of our time and culture, always aware that these are, at best, earthen vessels. And after all, these earthen vessels are all that we have.
Second, struggling with Ascension’s problems offers a helpful antidote to our tendency to arrogance and our inclination to evaluate reality exclusively in terms of human values. Thinking about Ascension can remind us that although God created humans and crowned us with glory and honor, God’s love has a breadth and depth that encompasses all life and the whole cosmos. Ascension, rightly understood, emphasizes God’s reliance upon us as partners rather than passive participants in creation’s renewal. Jesus is not here; we are; therefore, God relies upon us to act.
Through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, God’s activity within creation continues. God’s reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God’s responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us. Jesus’ ascension is a sign of hope. This hope is Ascension’s real message.