by Nate Sutton
Jesus’ ascension “up into heaven” is indeed a mystery. Text-critical questions are joined with both cosmological and theological questions, leaving us with more questions than answers. To focus too narrowly on the image of Jesus’ departure, however, is to neglect the big picture. Jesus’ ascension does not signify his absence, but rather his exaltation. It is God’s final seal of approval. But the living Christ is not confined to the sky. The incarnation bears witness to a God deep in the flesh, deep in human life, and Jesus’ ascension does not nullify God’s commitment to enter into lived experience. Christ is present in each member of his living body, in the faces of the vulnerable, in water and word, bread and wine. And Christ is present wherever our own departures take us. So may he bless us and keep us, may his face shine on us with grace and mercy, may he look upon us with favor and give us peace.
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” See note f. “Other ancient authorities lack and was carried up into heaven.” Hmm. I’ll just consult my trusty commentary. “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 145 New Testament.) “This final scene is plagued by numerous text-critical problems, and the NRSV text represents the current scholarly consensus.” (Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 859.) Excellent.
Maybe you experience this final scene in Luke’s story as being “plagued by numerous problems,” text-critical or otherwise. If you do, you’re not alone. Contemporary interpreters struggle mightily with the ascension, noting the tensions between the biblical account and our own post-Enlightenment perspective. In addition to text-critical questions, the story raises cosmological ones. For the ancient mind, it was natural to identify the direction “up” with God. Of course, God is “up,” above the dome of the sky, beyond our capacity to reach or even to imagine. Jesus’ exodus from the earthly plane, therefore, is upward, as God-with-us takes his leave in order to be reunited with God the Father “in heaven.” But our cosmology has changed. On a spherical planet, no single direction is “up.” “Up” for us is “down” for those on the opposite side of the globe. And even if we were able to travel far enough in the “right” direction into outer space, past hundreds of billions of galaxies, do we believe that we would eventually reach a place like heaven?
And if we could, what would it say about God? Cosmological questions about the ascension, it seems, are complicated by theological ones. Somewhat surprisingly, in Luke, the disciples respond excitedly to Jesus’ withdrawal into heaven, returning to Jerusalem “with great joy” and remaining “continually in the temple blessing God.” But isn’t it only a matter of time before they experience some separation anxiety? If Jesus’ ascension signifies his definitive departure, then how long before his followers begin to miss him? And if he’s been gone all this time, then where is Jesus to be found when we need him? How can we rely on a Jesus “up in heaven” if heaven is so far from our lived experience?
As is often the case with the biblical narrative, it seems as though we’re left with more questions than answers. And these questions have a way of nagging at us like a dull ache. Lest we get bogged down in the difficulties of the ascension, however, let me suggest that we take a step back and get a little perspective. To focus too narrowly on the image of Jesus’ departure, brothers and sisters, is to neglect the big picture. Jesus’ ascension does not signify his absence, but rather his exaltation. It is the crowning moment of God’s story in and through the Christ. If on the cross, Christ repudiates oppressive power, and in the resurrection, he reverses the hopelessness of death, then in the ascension we witness God’s final seal of approval. If the Messiah, “being found in human form, … humbles himself and becomes obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross,” then in the ascension “God also highly exalts him, and gives him the name that is above every name.” It is in this name, this ascended name, according to Luke, that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed… to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” The breadth of God’s purpose for the world is embodied in the zeal of Jesus’ love, in the humility of his cross, and in the joy of his resurrection. His ascension is God’s finishing touch.
But Jesus cannot simply ride off into the sunset, can he? After all, the curtain has not gone down. Indeed, the closing scene in Luke is only the end of Act One. In the Book of Acts, Jesus’ commission to his disciples takes root, and the gift of the Holy Spirit empowers his followers to courageous and compelling acts of witness, of power. And so, in the birth of the church, we witness that the living Christ is finally not confined to the sky. To borrow a phrase from Cuttino, Jesus has gone up, but Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. The incarnation bears witness to a God deep in the flesh, deep in human life, and Jesus’ ascension does not nullify God’s commitment to enter into our lived experience. Christ is present in each member of his living body, in outstretched hands, in listening ears, in open minds, and in generous hearts. Wherever two or three are gathered, there, too, is Christ. In the face of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the captive, there, too, is Christ. In water and word, bread and wine, there, too, is Christ.
Sisters and brothers, wherever we go, there, too, is Christ. In the midst of our own departures – to CPE sites or summer projects, to internship congregations, to first calls, to sabbaticals, or to other ventures – whether or not the destination feels like heaven, we trust that the living Christ meets us there. For those of us who remain in this community, whether or not the departures of others cause us to rejoice like the disciples, we trust that the living Christ meets us here. So now may he bless us and keep us, may his face shine on us with grace and mercy, and may he look upon us with favor and give us peace.