The Seventh Sunday of Easter

The festival of the Ascension is one of those lesser known Christian festivals possibly because it hasn’t been given a public holiday to help with its promotion. The ascension itself – Jesus going into heaven – doesn’t lend itself to easy marketing because it presents, at first glance, a rather negative message – Jesus leaves his followers and returns to heaven.

“So what else is new?” mutter millions. Face it, most of us are just ordinary rank and file people who might wait in a long queue to get a glimpse at the King, Prime Minister, or some other celebrity – and we visit places where important things have happened – but most of us are not the movers and shakers of the world. We know that if you need to see someone important then you have to make an appointment, take a number, get through the minders and the personal assistants because important people are … important and they can’t be wasting their time with ordinary stuff. The more important the person the more difficult it is to get access. So it stands to reason that God – being the most important by definition would therefore be pretty inaccessible – and heaven isn’t like popping next door for a cuppa. Yes, the ascension can seem to confirm how things are in the world – important people far away, difficult to contact, harder to meet – and you and I – the rank and file of humanity just struggle on with life pretty much by ourselves. No wonder the ascension isn’t a best seller – it even has to compete with late night shopping!

But there must be something in this ascension for the Christian Church has confessed and spoken about it each Sunday through its creeds – Jesus ‘ascended into heaven’ – the one who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried, ascended into heaven. In this season of Easter, we hear the constant refrain: Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!] And now the one who has defeated the power of death, the one who is the fulfilment of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – has ascended into heaven. The one whose life and death leads sinners to repentance and the mercy of forgiveness has ascended into heaven. His ascension means that he is exalted – he rules – and will one day return to judge the living and the dead. This message has been spoken again and again in the Church around the world.

Back at Bethany the disciples saw Jesus lifted up and he was gone. They didn’t immediately sit down and write the creed – let’s learn the lines lads! Also they didn’t break down and cry and scream – you’ve left us now that we’re on the winning side! Instead Luke records: And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God (Luke 24:52,53 ESV).

This is not the response of sullen people who feel abandoned, nor is it the glee of the classroom when the teacher has to leave and there’s no one around to supervise. Rather this is the response of people who have had confirmed to them that despite their slowness, silliness, stubbornness, and stupidity their rabbi, their friend, their Lord is really God who has rescued and liberated humanity from its own importance, its fears, its futilities, and its evil. More than just winning the victory and saying to them “Now see if you can catch up with me”, these disciples were aware that come what may – no matter what – Jesus was going to be with them. The ascension is not Jesus’ absence but the event that leads to his presence with his people. And so these disciples rejoice – with great joy – and they worship – and after the coming of the Holy Spirit – they go out and change the world.