“ … he ascended into heaven.”
The story of the Ascension doesn’t get a lot of attention in the life of the church. I think this is because it is somewhat difficult to see the point of it. Laying aside all the standard, modern, empirical doubts about the resurrection appearances themselves, there is still the question of why?
If Jesus was resurrected and if Jesus could flit here and there in his new resurrection body, appearing and disappearing at will as if he had Scotty from “Star Trek” beaming him about, why would he pull this somewhat theatrical stunt of floating off into heaven, like the Wizard taking leave of Oz in his balloon? Why didn’t he just say good-bye and go?
Well, for one thing it was important that when he went to “sit at the right hand of the father,” people knew that he was really gone this time. Gone and not coming back until he came back for good, came back to “judge the living and the dead.” If he had just disappeared again, well there would have been more Jesuses seen in Jerusalem than Elvises in Las Vegas. It’s difficult to get busy with the important business of loving the Christ in your neighbor if you are constantly on the lookout for another resurrection appearance.
The Ascension of our Lord is the completion of his resurrection. Christ came from God to take on our flesh, our life, our troubles, our sin and yes, our death. In the mystery of the Three Days, sin was removed and death was defeated. For 40 days Jesus walked and talked among the believers, making sure they knew that this new life was real and not imagined. And then he went back to God, in the spirit and in the flesh, fully human and fully divine forever and ever, amen.
And he left us here. We were all, in one sense, left behind. We were left but we were not abandoned. The Ascension marks the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus and prepares the way for the birth of the church with the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. Up until this moment the gospel has been about what God in Christ has done for us; from this day forth the gospel is about what God in Christ is doing through us in the world.
This need to get on with ministry is reflected in Acts: “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’” (Acts 1:10-11a, NRSV).
Every time I read those verses I remember being 12 years old and doing, or rather, not doing, my chores. I can hear my father come around the corner of the barn or see him suddenly appear beside me in the field. He would scowl and look disappointed and say, “What are you doing just standing there? Get busy; we’ve got a farm to run.”
In the same way, we are reminded to stop looking up and to start looking around at the work we are called to do, at the world full of hurting people who need to hear and feel the love of Jesus in their lives.
Delmer Chilton is an assistant to the bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA, with responsibility for eastern and central Tennessee, northern Alabama and northern Georgia. Ordained in 1977, he has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.