In the spring of his first year at the school he came to see me. “
“It’ll soon be Ascension Day,” he said. “I would like to celebrate it here with some of our students.”
“What do you have in mind, Robert?” I asked him.
“Well, I think we should get as close to heaven as we can, and then have our celebration. I’ve found a dusty old staircase in the main building, and it leads up all the way to the roof. We could have our Ascension Day service there.”
“Good idea,” I said. And every year that’s what we did.
The story of Christ’s ascension into heaven is full of meaning, some symbolic, some almost political, but it is neglected in many Protestant churches. Some sects take the Ascension more seriously than others. My wife Bea has the diaries of her grandmother, who grew up in a Mennonite family, and it is clear from what she wrote that Mennonites make a very big deal of the Ascension. For them it seems much more important than Christmas or Easter. In the Episcopal church people sometimes seem to view the Ascension as a bit of an afterthought, tacked on as a sort of postscript to the main events of the nativity, the passion and the resurrection. We get the idea that Jesus, having finished his earthly assignment, is taken up into heaven to sit at God’s right hand and just hang about until it’s time for the second coming. Meanwhile, we are left to get on with our lives, muddling along as best we can, sustained by the memories of Jesus’ earthly life and work, and hoping that when Judgment Day finally dawns we will not be found too wanting.
That of course is a limited, superficial view of the Ascension. Because the Ascension is most emphatically not about absence. The whole point is that in the Ascension Jesus is not leaving us. As our King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the ascended Christ is very present indeed. He has told us: ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’. After the Ascemsion he is as involved as he ever was, but now he is not just our teacher and friend, showing us how life should be lived. He is power, he is glory, he is God. And as he sits at God’s right hand he takes charge. Christ ascended is in charge of God’s Kingdom. Now and always. We have sometimes tended to look at the Kingdom of God as a distant dream, an ideal, something towards which we should work, something that should be our ultimate objective.
But here we come to the astounding thing about the Ascension. The ascended Christ, seated at God’s right hand, establishes beyond any doubt that the Kingdom is here. The Kingdom is now. The ascended Christ is no longer some kind of heir-apparent. He is in charge. There is no greater authority. There is no higher power. And, more astounding still, Christ in glory has a place for you and for me in the Kingdom he has established and over which he reigns. But how, you may ask, are creatures like you and me going to measure up to filling such a place? The disciples may well have had such a question in their hearts as they stood gaping up into the sky. But Jesus answers it. ‘You,’ he says, ‘will be clothed with power from on high.’
So what is that power? With all our faults, all our shortcomings, all our weaknesses, how are you and I empowered to take up our place in Christ’s Kingdom? Fortunately, there’s a simple answer. It’s that you and I have the power to love God and to love each other. That’s all we need to do – although of course it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. But how inspiring it is to think that the ascended Christ decides to entrust his established Kingdom to us, to give us the task of strengthening it, developing it perfecting it – and, yes, enjoying it. How inspiring, and how challenging. If we are to learn anything from the message of the Ascension, surely it must be that you and I have work to do. Fortunately, it is glorious work. It’s the best kind of work we can ever engage in. It is, in the fullest possible sense, a labor of love. We know that Jesus loves us enough to die for us. We know that we have the power to love God and to love each other. So let’s get to work. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do whatever we can to enhance the Kingdom, and as we do, we are celebrating in the best possible way the ascended, glorified and divine Christ Jesus our Savior and our Lord.
10 May 2018