“As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.” Luke 24:51, CEB
Today is the fortieth day of Easter. According to Luke’s Gospel, this is the day that Jesus ascends to heaven. As Jesus ascends, his hands are stretched out, blessing his disciples.
I do not remember celebrating the Ascension much as I was growing up. I’m sure that there was some mention of it on the Sunday after the Ascension. The bulletin may have even proclaimed that a certain Sunday was Ascension Sunday. However, I do not really remember any sermon or celebration of Jesus ascending into heaven.
I think it was in seminary that I first began to understand Ascension Day as a festival in its own right. In keeping with Luke’s chronology of the resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, I began to see how important it was to recognize that Jesus is taken up into heaven and the disciples have this time of expectant waiting between the departure of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The longer I continue in ministry, the better I understand the theological significance of the Ascension. For me, this importance is conveyed in the image of Jesus ascending with his arms stretched out in blessing. The blessing of Jesus reminds me that he does not merely vaporize. The Ascension is not just a disappearance of Jesus or a vanishing of Jesus as if the resurrection is over and done with, the power has run out. The Ascension proclaims that Jesus is still alive and still ministering.
Jesus is alive and still ministering. The language of some of our ancient creeds may mislead us when we say, “He sits at the right hand of the Father.” Jesus is not just relaxing, hanging out, waiting until he is put back in the game by coming back to earth. No, even now he is ministering. He is interceding for us and stretching out his hands in blessing us.
Part of Jesus’ blessing is the gift of the Spirit, empowering us to participate in his ongoing ministry. No wonder this scene moves the disciples to worship.
I remember reading this story when I was younger and thinking, why aren’t the disciples sad that Jesus is leaving? Luke says they worship and are overwhelmed with joy. Now I believe it is because of how the Ascension allows them to join in the ongoing ministry of Jesus. Surely that can evoke our praise and gratitude.
In his book, The Resurrection of Ministry, Andrew Purves says he believes the Ascension is just as important for our faith as Christmas. We celebrate Christmas, the coming of God to us in Jesus, with giving gifts and throwing parties. Purves longs for the day when we will also turn the Ascension, the time when Jesus takes our humanity back into the presence of God, with parties and gifts.
Maybe a good place to begin, is thanking Jesus for his ongoing ministry for us, to us and through us as he blesses us from his current location.