The Ascension of Jesus
- The Rev. Grady "Buddy" Crawford
- May 22, 2017
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“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…” Luke 24:50-52a
The ascension of Jesus is one of several biblical scenes that challenge our modern sensibilities. It is a story told twice by the same author, it’s recorded in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles. The Ascension narrative works as a hinge holding these two books together. However, the cosmology the story reveals is far too simple. Heaven is up there somewhere above the clouds, hell is somewhere beneath our feet, with the earth suspended between the two. We know this is not the case. Pictures from the Hubble telescope show us many different “galaxies, suns, and planets in their courses” - we know the vastness of the cosmos. So what do we make of this story of Jesus’ rising into heaven, his feet dangling over the edge of a cloud? This is the way Raphael, Rubens, Copley, West, and Dore among others have painted this scene.
The gospels remind us that Jesus ascends to the Father with his risen body, the same humanity he took on as a babe in the manger…connecting heaven to earth. Now, mysteriously, Jesus ascends uniting earth to heaven. His experiences are the same as ours - birth and death, joy and sorrow, pain and deprivation, fellowship and love, faithfulness and betrayal…and most of all forgiveness…all are intricately woven into his life. Every human experience Jesus had while living on the earth he takes into heaven in his “fleshy” body and hallows all creation.
Before Jesus ascends he gathers his disciples one last time in Bethany, charging them to continue his mission of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit the disciples are empowered to emulate Jesus; reaching out to the poor and the oppressed, to the sick and the suffering, to captives, rich and poor who need to be set free by love. When disciples embrace Jesus’ call, extending forgiveness, then heaven comes down to earth once again. Jesus’ ascension is necessary for his mission of love and forgiveness to spread to the ends of the earth. Jesus’ ascension allows God’s love to be multiplied in the lives of his followers; person-to-person, community to community, generation to generation, until we fill the world with the knowledge of his love and forgiveness – establishing peace for all people.
I often wonder if Jesus tarries in his final return because the church fails to remember his charge at Bethany…our call to live as apostles, as sent ones, to proclaim forgiveness. The community that God wants to build is not only in the future; it is being built in the present, in the lives of each one of us. Receiving forgiveness and giving forgiveness builds and transforms us into God’s temple on earth. But if we stand gazing into the heavens wondering about God’s return, chances are we will forget our mission to be lovers and forgivers of a world in desperate need of both.
Each week as we celebrate the Eucharist we retell the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as we await his coming. And we are reminded of God’s continuing presence. In a profound act of love, the intimacy of a common meal, God chooses to come to us in bits of bread and sips of wine. Our response to Jesus’ gift of himself in the incarnation, his gift of returning to the Father with our humanity…is to remember His words, to proclaim his forgiveness to others until the household of God fills the whole world.