Thoughts on Easter 7A: The Ascension and what Follows

For the NT reading: Acts 1:6-14 

The Chapel of the Ascension, Jerusalem

The disciples say, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Jesus replies, “It is not for you the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Thus, according to St Luke, the risen Christ definitively bans all those ludicrous speculations about the exact dating of God’s final judgement—speculations so beloved of a certain kind of quasi-Christian sect, as well as of those awful Left Behind books and films that had something of a vogue a few years ago. But that does not mean that there are to be no gifts or wonders for the disciples in the days that are coming. Quite the contrary! Our Lord continues, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And so the whole great adventure that is the expansion of Christianity is set in motion, that extension of the faith into every corner of the globe over the next two thousand or so years that must surely have seemed so unlikely to anyone who looked merely at the little band of believers with which it began.

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Here Luke deliberately uses the language of Jewish apocalyptic and mystical writing to speak of Jesus’ exaltation, the consummation and completion of his earthly ministry. He is “lifted up”—exalted—and the “cloud” receives him—the “cloud,” speaking, as elsewhere in Luke’s writing and in Scripture as a whole, of the Divine Presence.[1]  But what does all that mean? It means that the destiny toward which Jesus has been moving from the beginning of the gospel, and especially since he set his face to go up to Jerusalem, is now complete. The risen Christ is not merely risen, for his resurrection was but the first stage towards exaltation and divine glory. As the Creed we shall recite in a few minutes makes clear—“he ascended into heaven”—that is an action complete in the past—but he “is seated at the right hand of the Father”—that is present action, now! We have moved from the disciples’ history to our history.

And so what? What is that to us? In the gospel Luke says that the exaltation of Jesus filled the disciples “with great joy” (Luke 24.52). Why? Well, perhaps because they knew that their old friend, their beloved teacher, was all right. God had vindicated him. More to the point then, may be our second question—what is that to us? Why should Jesus’ Ascension be a cause of our joy?

Jesus’ Ascension is and should be a cause of our joy because it is humanity, our humanity, which is in him raised to the right hand of God. It is “flesh”—stuff, sarx, in its weakness and fallibility, that stuff of which the universe is made, and which the Word consented to become, John tells us, at the incarnation (John 1:14)—it is that flesh which is now “is seated at the right hand of the Father”—an expression denoting, of course, not physical location but authority. The Ascension of Jesus is therefore a promise, a sign and a first-fruit of our own destiny and of the universe’s destiny, since it is God’s good pleasure to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ (Col. 1.20 cf. John 12.32 v.l.; Eph. 1.10; Phil 3.21).

To put it another way, Christ’s Ascension reminds us that the risen life, the life of the age to come, is to have a purpose just as this life has a purpose. And that purpose is union with God. We are, as Second Peter puts it, to be “partakers of the divine nature,” perfectly united with the ascended Christ and with each other, beholders of and sharers in the glory which was (according to the Fourth Evangelist) Christ’s before the foundation of the world (John 17.5). Of course we do not yet know what that will mean. Even to speak of it stretches the resources of language to breaking point. We can only hint at it. As St Paul does when he speaks of a coming glory to which the sufferings of this present age are “not worth comparing” (Rom. 8.18). Or St John when he says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3.2)—imagining a vision so glorious that it will transform and transfigure us even as we see it, making us divine. This theosis (divinization) is what many fathers of the church saw as the purpose of the Incarnation: “To make human beings gods,” St Augustine of Hippo said, “He was made man who was God” (Sermons, 192.1.1).

It is in the light of such a hope that we dare open our hearts to the Spirit of God and try to live as Christians—attempting all those lunatic gestures to which the gospel invites us, such as forgiving our enemies, doing good to those who do evil to us, and turning the other cheek. We do not attempt this behaviour because we think it leads to successful lives as the world counts success or because we think it leads to clear consciences. If we did we should be very naïve. Most likely such living leads to a cross if we are good at it; or to a continuing sense of our own guilt and failure if as is more usual we are not: which is, incidentally, one reason why we need the church, that is, a community of fellow-believers who understand what we are trying to do and can help us cope with the daily pain of failing to do it. No, we try to live like this not because it leads to worldly success or peace of mind but because God is like this, forgiving those who do evil and causing gracious rain to fall on just and unjust alike. And we try to be like God because as Christians we know that that is God’s destiny for us and for the universe.

[1] Compare Exod. 24.15-18, Dan. 7.13, Luke 9.34, 21.27-28. The assertion that Jesus was lifted up (epērthē: and similarly Luke 24.51 “he was carried up, anephereto) might be heard as claiming for him a literally physical, upward movement through the heavens, but Luke is using the language and imagery of apocalyptic, as is confirmed by his reference to the “cloud” which, as often in Scripture, signifies the divine presence. It seems Luke expects us to understand this language, just as he evidently expects us to understand it when Peter uses it at much greater length and much more elaborately in his speech at Pentecost – language and imagery which is obviously not intended to be taken literally, since if it were, it would mean that Peter was raving (Acts 2.17-21 citing Joel 3.1-5). If Luke had wanted us to credit the real, physical nature of what he was describing, we can scarcely doubt that he would have spelled it out – just as, in the appearance narratives after the resurrection, he spells out the physicality of the risen Jesus to the point where he has embarrassed commentators from the fathers onwards: the whole point being, however, that in those narratives Luke does want us to take the physicality seriously. Here, however, there is no such elaboration. In contrast to other ascension narratives, both pagan and Jewish, there is not even the mention of an earthly element such as a storm or whirlwind bearing up the exalted one, nor are there other elements of myth, such as horsemen and fiery chariots, nor is there the concern of followers for their master’s fate, such as marked the departure of Elijah (2 Kings 2.16-17). Instead, we have only the simple divine passive – “he was lifted up” – and the apocalyptic “cloud”, the sign of the God’s presence, forming a narrative that Ernst Haenchen in his commentary on Acts understandably characterizes as “almost uncannily austere.”

 

Christopher Bryan

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