The Ascension of our Lord
As we heard in today’s gospel: “Then (Jesus) led them out as far as Bethany, 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.” (Lk. 24:50-52)
This passage describes the ascension of Jesus, an event that is also described by Luke in today’s first reading from the book of Acts. But what is the ascension really all about? The real significance of the ascension is not that Jesus floated up into sky like a released helium balloon and then disappeared from sight – an event that may or may not have literally happened. Rather, the ascension is about a mystery – the mystery of where is Jesus NOW and what is he doing NOW?
Many people believe that when Jesus ascended into heaven, he left those of us on earth “behind” – and that he is no longer here. That kind of thinking sounds like the so-called “rapture” of Christians described in the “Left Behind” series – in which they were removed from earth so that they would not have to share its sufferings and tribulations.
But that certainly does NOT seem to be what is being described in today’s gospel! Usually, when we have to say “Good-bye” to someone whom we love, we experience some sadness. Even if we are proud and happy for the person who is leaving us – because he or she may be moving on to a different and perhaps better life – we are also still somewhat SAD that he or she won’t be with us anymore. (I suppose that this is how a number of our high school graduates and families might be feeling today.)
But in today’s gospel text, there is not even the slightest hint of sadness! Instead, there is only joy! After Jesus was “carried up into heaven”, the disciples worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy! Their hearts are filled to overflowing with joy, joy, JOY – with no sadness at all for Jesus’ not being with them anymore.
And the reason why the disciples are so full of joy is because they realize that Jesus is still with them. They understand that Jesus has NOT left them behind. They understand that Jesus’ ascension did NOT mean that he was leaving them, but rather that he was transitioning into a new kind of existence – a spiritual dimension of reality (called “heaven”) in which he could fully be with God and yet still also with them in a deeply intimate kind of way. From now on the disciples might not be able to see and hear and touch Jesus physically like they had before, but they can still experience his loving presence with them. After Jesus’ ascension, they are experiencing his life with them even more powerfully than ever before.
At least two of his disciples had already experienced a “foretaste” of what Jesus’ ascension was about. Earlier in the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel, in the beloved story of Jesus appearing to them on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, they did not recognize him at first – but finally did when he blessed and broke the bread at supper. Do you remember what happened next immediately after that? As soon as they recognized him, he vanished from their sight. (Lk. 24:31) But instead of being sad at his disappearance, those two disciples were filled with JOY saying, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Lk. 24:32) They were filled with JOY because now they knew that Jesus was still with them, even when they could not physically see or hear or touch him.
Several years ago, I presented a monologue that portrayed Jesus – written by William Van Dyken. It was beautifully written, and to me one of the most meaningful parts was about how Jesus helped his disciples to understand that he would always be with them. In this monologue Jesus says: “After their first intense grief was spent and I knew they would be capable of grasping what would seem like an impossibility, I began to show myself to them a little – just enough to make them know I was really alive – just enough to make them feel I was still with them as I had been before and would be always. But not enough so that they would remain dependent on seeing me and touching me and hearing me to know that I was alive and with them. It was just right. It took them a while to accept what seemed impossible. But gradually, they did. They were convinced. And with courage and conviction in their hearts, they went forward with me to complete the task God had set himself to doing through us – leading people into the kingdom of heaven.”
This is what the ascension of Jesus is about! It is not that Jesus went “up” to heaven and left us “down here” behind. Jesus’ ascension rather means he has “transcended” to another kind of existence in which he can be even closer to God (at his “right hand”) and also closer to US spiritually than ever before!
This reality may be hard to describe, but it is nevertheless very real to everyone who has experienced it. Even though the world cannot “see” Jesus, through his spiritual presence we can “see” and experience him in our hearts. We can “hear” his voice speaking in the depths of our souls. Yes, we can feel his love, his power, and his LIFE– not just as a memory, but as someone who is truly alive and here with us as our Savior, Lord, and Friend.
Yes, Jesus is here with us now! As he promises, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Mt. 18:20) Jesus continues to be with us in the breaking of the bread (just like he was with the disciples at Emmaus) and when we drink the cup. And Jesus promises to be with us always – even to the close of the age, through whatever we may have to face in our lives and in the world. Even as we go through graduations, and challenges, and changes, and even hurts – Jesus will always, always be right there with us every step of the way.
Yes, Jesus is not only risen from the dead – but he is also our ascended Lord and Savior. Today on this Ascension Sunday we remember that Jesus has ascended into heaven – not in order to escape the world and leave us behind, but rather so that he can be with us even more powerfully and intimately than ever before. He has ascended so that he can continue his work of bringing God’s kingdom into the world through us as his people – and so that he can bless our lives (and countless others!) with his forgiveness, peace, power, and love.
Yes, because of his ascension Jesus can be with us right here and right now – and he will be with us forever. May knowing this fill us with joy – great joy – just as it did for the disciples in today’s gospel. Thanks be to God! Amen!
George R. Karres,
Pella Lutheran Church
418 W. Main Street
Sidney, MT 59270