LIVING IN THE STORY: ASCENSION
Dan 7:13-14; Acts 1:6-11
Today in our Living in the Story theme, I’m picking up the story of the ascension. It’s something I’ve never preached on before, and I suspect very few of us will have heard it preached on. Our focus of the stories around the cross generally focus mostly on the cross event itself (particularly emphasising our salvation), to a lesser extent the resurrection (even though that—perhaps even more than the cross itself—was what galvanised the early church), with the story of the ascension probably only getting a cursory glance at best. But the ascension is as much part of the event as the cross and resurrection, one of its important functions being to help set the context for our current situation. We need to begin by putting aside a common understanding around heaven and earth.
(I have relied heavily on various Tom Wright articles for the following:
Acts for Everyone, Volume 1
Earth and Heaven
I want to begin by going over things we’ve previously considered because it doesn’t hurt to have it reinforced.
Here’s the Collect reading for Ascension Sunday from the contemporary version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
If we pay careful attention to these words, we could get the impression that the believer’s goal is to somehow be released from this world; that just as Jesus has left this earth and gone to heaven, so our hope is that at some point we too will leave this earth and join him wherever he is. It’s not hard to see how the story of Jesus’ ascension has led to this understanding and desire; the only problem is that it bears little or no relation to what the scripture actually says. There’s nowhere in Acts (or the rest of the NT) where anybody speaks about following Jesus to heaven as the Collect intimates.
The Jewish understanding was that heaven is God’s space and the earth is our space. God’s space is a further dimension of our world, but not removed from it; it’s the God dimension of our present reality. For the time being God’s space is pretty much invisible and transcends our space, but the two do intersect. In one sense it’s all around us, but because of the effect of human sin in the world it’s as though there’s a veil between the two and heaven remains a mystery for us and is largely unseen.
Summing up: the Christian hope of heaven is not that we go to wherever it is when we die. The final hope is the time when both heaven and earth will become the one dimension and there will be a new heaven and new earth.
Flowing from the Ascension
Here are a few things that flow from the fact of the ascension.
Firstly, the Jesus who ascended to heaven is the human Jesus.
The sequence for Jesus as some have understood it is:
- Jesus is God with God.
- Jesus gave up his ‘godness’ to become human.
- Jesus stopped being human and went back to being divine in heaven with God.
However, the sequence as the bible paints it is:
- Jesus is God with God.
- Jesus came to earth, being at the one time both fully God and fully human.
- Jesus ascends to heaven as both fully God and fully human.
As a human, Jesus was the first and so far only person, the trailblazer, who is fully at home in both earth and heaven. As such, he is the anticipation of what is to come. What this also means is that humanity is now present with God, a humanity bearing all the hallmarks of one who has lived on earth just like us, including the scars of the cross. As such he affirms the value of being human.
Secondly, this is where Daniel 7 fits in, a passage that most likely lies behind Jesus’ self-designation as the Son of Man. Daniel 7 records a dream of Daniel’s, part of which was a court scene before the Ancient One sitting on his throne . In highly symbolic images, the powers of the earth stood before him under judgement. Picture before the throne of judgement something like a rhino horn  with eyes and a mouth, making a racket caused by his arrogant words spewing out of the mouth . The horn was representative of nations, principalities and powers that ultimately sought to take God’s place through warmongering and violence. They were stopped in their tracks and put to death [11-12].
Into that scene came one who looked like a human being, a son of man . He was presented before the Ancient One and given authority over all nations who would then serve him [13-14]. His reign would be eternal and never be destroyed. It is the ascension of Jesus that fulfils this prophecy, but it does so in a completely unexpected way: the human Jesus, the one who suffered at the hands of people even to death, ascended to heaven as the resurrected Lord and is now exalted in the presence of God himself and given all power and authority.
Thirdly, Jesus’ elevation to authority over the whole earth can’t be considered without also reflecting back to the whole thing of the kingdom. The resurrection enthroned Jesus as king in our space because he defeated the ultimate enemy—death. In the ascension Jesus was enthroned as King in God’s space. That means that the ultimate way in which God’s space and ours intersect is in Jesus.
Matthew’s common reference to the kingdom is the ‘kingdom of heaven’, as opposed to the ‘kingdom of God’ as used by the other gospels. I have always simply understood that the two terms were interchangeable, which they are in a sense. But a recent study of the term argues that it is not simply an interchangeable term, but by referring to the kingdom of heaven Matthew is indicating that in Jesus God’s space has invaded our space. It is the kingdom of heaven that has come to earth. The ascension is the answer to the part of the Lord’s prayer that prays: your will be done on earth as in heaven. In the ascension the two spaces become one, anticipating the day when it will be true of the whole creation.
Fourthly, the story of the ascension is sandwiched between Jesus promising the Spirit and telling the disciples they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth , and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Spirit wasn’t given so that we could have what we need in order to finally make it through to a heaven removed from this world. Rather, he was given so that, through the work of the church, the kingdom does come to earth as in heaven. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to picture that because what we see around us doesn’t seem to reflect too much of God’s reign or the life of heaven. I suspect that what we’d really like to see is God triumphing, his people getting a lot more wins on the board, and all those causing trouble getting what they deserve. That’s the attitude I see reflected in many places these days, including in the church.
The problem with that approach is that it simply seeks to match it with the world using their own methods. However, the message of the kingdom has to be matched with the method of the kingdom. The Spirit does work through the church in helping increase the overlap between the life of heaven and the life of earth, but he will only do that in a way that reflects Jesus: vulnerable, loving, compassionate, humble, self-sacrificing, suffering, shame, experiencing injustice, celebrating. That’s the way of the kingdom and reflects the fruit of the Spirit. It is the power of love, not power itself.
Finally, and in relation to kingdom and Spirit, recent years have seen the church becoming increasingly involved in political engagement. To a certain extent that’s right and good. But to the extent that it tries to bring in the kingdom through political means, through coercion and power plays, it is a problem. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus show that he is Lord. As such, he is Lord over all governments, principalities and powers—even those who don’t acknowledge him. You will note from the gospels that Jesus paid very little attention to the ruling authorities of the day in terms of how they got to be in power. He didn’t call for democratic elections, or to set up a theocracy. But he did speak into what the rulers were doing. Herein lies the responsibility of the church: to remind rulers of their responsibilities as rulers, to speak up for the poor and dispossessed, to speak out against injustice; it does not lie in legislating for a Christian moral ethic through politics (a lot more could be said about this!).
A Final Thought
The ascension of Jesus is an integral part of God’s story from the birth of creation. Everything ties together, and mostly it has to do with the kingdom of God. We too are part of that story, and are called in the power of the Spirit to join with God in his mission in the world, bringing to further expression the intersection of God’s space and ours.