“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This question, posed by the two men in white robes (Acts 1:11), has both an obvious answer and a missional imperative. The obvious answer is that the disciples had just watched the risen Christ be lifted up until a cloud took him out of their sight. While they had no doubt become accustomed to seeing strange things during the forty days spent with the no-longer-dead Jesus, this was something new. They looked up to heaven in surprise, and in sorrow, too. Their friend, Lord, and Savior had gone away.
What, we may well ask, is this all about? Well, it’s not about geography or cosmology. We don’t look up, imagining that heaven is somewhere in the sky. To confess that Jesus ascended into heaven is to claim that Jesus of Nazareth, once crucified but now raised from the dead, has returned to his Father. The resurrection establishes Jesus as Lord; in the ascension, Jesus is exalted by the Father and begins his reign. The ascension marks the final return of the One who emptied himself for our sake and took on our frail human flesh that we might be redeemed.
In ascending into heaven, two other things are made possible. The first is that in leaving our reality, bound by space and time, Jesus is now able to occupy all space and all time. In his ascension, the still-human Christ becomes ubiquitous. He reigns over a cosmos that is shot through with his presence. The first gift of Jesus’ ascension is the promise that Jesus is with us always, no matter where or when we are.
Just as Jesus is here with us always through his ascension, he also promises that we will be with him always. Jesus does not return to heaven as he once left it; he returns with resurrected humanity. Christ, in his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, has reclaimed and remade humanity in his image, returning us to God. Martin Luther writes, “He became a human being, now he is in heaven,” and, “He proved what love he had for us, so that we can say, ‘We have a brother in heaven.’” The second gift of Jesus’ ascension is the promise that we will always be with Jesus, no matter what else might befall us. Not even death can undo this promise.
In his ascension, Jesus doesn’t go somewhere. He goes everywhere. Which brings us back to the missional implication. Before he departs, Jesus tells his disciples: “Thus is it written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:47-48). The Holy Spirit, which will fall upon the believers ten days later, will enable and empower the believers to do this work, this holy task of preaching repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name to all nations – which is precisely where Jesus, in his ascension, already is.
On the fortieth day after the resurrection, Christians gather to give praise to the Christ. He is exalted by God; he sits and reigns at the Father’s right hand; he is with us everywhere and every time, until the end of the age. And then, in the grace of God, Jesus will return to us, a new heaven and a new earth shall emerge, and the Christ who already fills all in all will be all in all.
This year at Grace, we will gather for worship on Thursday,
May 30, at 7:00 p.m. to celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord. I hope you’ll join us, as together we sing these words by
Proven equal to our need,
Now for us before the Father
As our brother intercede;
Flesh that for our world was wounded,
Living, for the wounded plead!
“Up Through Endless Ranks of Angels” LBW 159