May 21, 2020 is officially Ascension Day in the Christian calendar throughout the world. Ascension Day always takes place on a Thursday, as it occurs 40 days after Easter Sunday. In that time frame, the story of Jesus’ ascension sits between the stories we’ve been hearing of Jesus’ Easter resurrection appearances — and the story we’ll hear, one week from Sunday, of the Holy Spirit stirring within the new followers of the risen Jesus –at Pentecost.
Jesus on a Cloud Elevator
Jesus’ ascension certainly gives us a visual image that artists have depicted for centuries. The ascension of Jesus into heaven has been depicted in paintings by Rembrandt to Dali. It is also a simple enough image that Sunday School coloring pages offer Jesus pictured in his robe with hands outstretched, standing on a cloud going up in the air. For most of us, that is pretty much all we know about Jesus’ ascension. This picture of Jesus going up a cloud elevator into heaven or a Star Trek concept of Jesus almost saying to God; “Beam me up, Scottie!”
Jesus is Now With God
But when we can shift our attention from that coloring page image to what these verses are really saying, then the ascension gives us some hints as to why it’s important to know that Jesus ascended into heaven.
The greatest lesson is the most obvious one, but it gives us food for thought. By ascending into heaven, Jesus Christ moves back to be completely with God. And this opens for Christians a new understanding of God. Think about that for a second.
One detail often overlooked in this ascension story is that the first action the disciples take, is to worship Jesus Christ after he was taken away to heaven.
These followers of Jesus were all pious Jews. They knew that God alone was to be worshiped. But as the risen Jesus now ascends, the disciples worship Jesus Christ along with God. From this point forward, when we’re thinking or talking about God, we are including Jesus Christ in our understanding of God. Jesus Christ, who lived as a human being, who was crucified and was raised from the dead, now goes into God’s existence and is a part of God whom we worship.
A Glimpse at the Theology of the Trinity
While this might seem obvious to those of us who say the Apostles Creed nearly every time we gather for worship, the story of Jesus’ ascension is one of the earliest places from which our theology of the Trinity begins to take shape. In more practical terms, here’s what that means.
Many of we Christians, still today, hold a big picture view of God. Should we be asked to describe God, we imagine God as unchanging, all-knowing, eternal, bigger than time and space, creator of all. The Bible supports all those images of God.
But now, when the disciples worship God at Jesus’ ascension, God’s image includes Jesus Christ. Believers now worship a God who has experienced humanity first-hand. Because of Jesus, our image of God now shifts. When we think of God, those thoughts now include God’s intimate understanding of pain, sorrow, betrayal and even death. We’re no longer worshiping a God who is far away and removed from us. God has also come near to us and knows us. God knows our joys and sorrows more intimately, because Jesus, who has always been a part of God, has now also been a part of us.
That makes God more approachable. In our worship and praise. And in our prayers. Because God has known our human experience through Jesus, there is nothing in our own experience that we can’t lay before God in prayer. Hold that thought as you pray this week. Our human experience has been drawn into God Himself in Jesus Christ. That brings us closer to God and it brings God closer and closer to us.
The one other great insight I’d like to highlight from this story of Jesus’ ascension is a strong emphasis on forgiveness that is offered. Remember that ever since his first resurrection appearances, Jesus Christ brings a message of forgiveness to his disciples. The risen Jesus does not reappear in resurrected form in order to shame or be furious at his friends who were afraid and ran away at his death.
Rather Jesus’ first words to his confused and fearful followers are, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36).
Then, what we’re told in this ascension story, is that the forgiveness Jesus Christ extends to this little group, is now to extend to all people, everywhere. Offering forgiveness and mercy is to be the entire purpose of the next mission for Jesus’ disciples. Jesus literally tells them, at this moment, that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).
So, go back in your imagination to that visual image of Jesus ascending into heaven. There is an interesting physical description that is helpful. We are told that Jesus and his disciples go to Bethany. And there, just as he ascends, just as he starts to go up to be with God, Jesus looks at his disciples and the Bible tells us, quote, “…lifting up his hands, he blessed them.”
I read a devotion about this text which invited us to picture those lifted hands of Jesus that give this blessing. I’d never imagined Jesus hands in this scene until the author wrote this:
“These are the very hands that still bore the wounds of one who was murdered on a Roman cross. He has commissioned the first witnesses of his ascension and then he provides them with a remarkable message of forgiveness. Let us remember that these witnesses themselves were complicit in his execution. But the last image of their betrayed leader is a dramatic sign of mercy.” (Mark Tranvik, 2013 Working Preacher.org, Commentary on Luke 24:44-54)
Jesus disciples are now blessed by the wounded, lifted hands of Jesus. They are forgiven for being part of the reason those wounds exist in the first place.
As Jesus was lifted up, think of the burden of guilt that was lifted up and taken away from those who received that blessing. Think of that burden of guilt still taken away from those of us who received this blessing today. Let the release of Jesus’ blessing wash over you.
Forgiveness releases us from guilt and shame and it reconciles us in relationship. Why is it important to Jesus that we continue a mission of forgiveness? Forgiveness reopens relationships, it opens hearts. Forgiveness gives us a fresh start with God and with each other. What a life-giving mission that is!
As you live into Ascension Day, may you see our risen Lord’s wounded hands lifted up and blessing you. You and I are empowered to lift our hands and hearts to extend Christ’s blessing of forgiveness to others. We are called into a mission that extends the life-giving freedom of forgiveness from the Jesus Christ to all people.
Keep extending that blessing to those you meet. Thanks be to God. Amen.