Thought for the week Ascension Day 2022

The Ascension of Jesus is a strange day in the Christian calendar – for a start it’s
celebrated on a Thursday and so, for most people it will go unnoticed – this year it
happened on the 26th May. Another thing about it is that the idea Jesus ascended to a
God “up there” is strange to most of us. Some people do still live in a universe where they
believe that heaven is above, earth between and hell below but few people believe, as
someone said, that if you get into a space ship and fly far enough, you’ll find a place called
“heaven.” SO – what are we to make of Jesus’ Ascension? Of course, it’s not out of the
question that Jesus defied gravity, but is that the real point? Is the Ascension about gravity
or spirituality, geography or vocation?

Acts 1:6-11 describes the Ascension of Jesus. First the disciples quiz him about the
fulfilment of history and the restoration of Israel – Jesus’ response is vague, and still
remains good counsel for those who want a precise date for judgment day or the fulfilment
of history. “It is not for you to know the times” – rather, we are to await the coming of God’s
Spirit and the power that accompanies it, whether in the 1st or 21st centuries.

In the story from Acts, as Jesus finishes his final words on earth he is lifted up and the
disciples are left gazing into the heavens until an angel speaks, “Why do you stand looking
toward heaven?” The angel promises Jesus’ ultimate return, but that’s not the point. The
point is that the mission of God is now entrusted to the disciples (also whether in the 1st or
21st centuries) – in our time and place.

The point of Ascension is perspective – this week I’ve been helping to deliver some
supervision training in which we’ve explored different methods of considering and
reflecting on situations people in ministry find themselves. Some methods we refer to as
giving a ‘helicopter view’ giving a broader perspective on our lives and work and some as
immersive in which we get closer to the detail – sometimes we need both views to help
understand what is going on in a particular situation. Rather than individualistic images of
salvation and personal well-being, Ascension challenges us to bring heaven to earth, that
is, to live Jesus’ values in our world. As the Lord’s Prayer proclaims, “Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Luke quickly summarises his gospel in Acts 1:3-5 as he recounts some of the crucial
events of the Gospel story – the teachings and actions of Jesus; the choice and call of the
disciples ; Jesus’ suffering and death; the resurrection appearances; his eating with the
disciples after the resurrection; his commission of them as witnesses from Jerusalem to
the ends of the earth and the promise of the Holy Spirit. In recounting Jesus’ ascent into
heaven he connects the actions of Jesus with two great figures of the past, Moses and
Elijah. The connection with the prophet Elijah, who in 2 Kings 2:9-22 “ascends to heaven
in a whirlwind” in the sight of his successor, Elisha is a clear parallel – in Jewish tradition it
is Elijah who is expected to return prior to the coming of the Messiah; that is why a place is
always set for Elijah at every Passover meal even today and, though the Bible does not
speak of Moses’ ascent to heaven it’s implied as Moses is left alone on Mount Nebo as the
rest of the wandering Children of Israel enter the Promised Land.

In both the stories of Moses and Elijah, it is emphasised that they must be ‘taken up’
before their successors can by chosen and act in the ways of their masters. After Moses’
death, Joshua assumes control of the forces of Israel and leads them into the Promised
Land and, after Elisha asks his master for “a double portion of the spirit”, he witnesses
Elijah’s dramatic ascent in a fiery chariot and receives what he has asked. In the same
way, Jesus is physically removed from the scene in order that the Holy Spirit of God may
descend on the followers who will thus be empowered to carry on the work begun by him.
After hearing the rising Jesus tell them to stay in Jerusalem in order to receive the power
of the Holy Spirit, the followers stand transfixed as Jesus is transported by a cloud – even
after he has disappeared, their eyes are fixed on the sky when suddenly two men in white
clothing appear and say “Men of Galilee! Why do you stand looking into heaven?”

Why indeed? I wonder … to what extent do we stand looking into heaven longing for the
return of Jesus in order to set all things straight? Rather than gaze into the sky Jesus calls
us to receive the Holy Spirit in order that we might become witnesses. On Ascension Day,
we are called to “go up” – to find higher ground to gain a vision and mission that is larger
than ourselves or our communities so we can immerse ourselves in the here and now. We
don’t need to look to the heavens to find inspiration. The ever-present God is right here,
giving us all the guidance and inspiration we need to engage in our mission to embrace, to
welcome, and to love and, because God is always with us, then right here and now can be
the day of transformation.

For Luke, this is the central reason for the prologue to the book of Acts. We witness the
disappearance of the bodily Jesus in order that we may receive our spiritual marching
orders to carry on his work in our world assisted by a power that will help us to do that. If
Jesus did not leave we would not be empowered to continue the work he began – or, to put
it another way, we would still leave it to Jesus and not get involved ourselves.


Ruth Parry May 2022