They say that distance makes the heart “grow fonder,” meaning that times of distance or separation make us realize the deep need we have for one another. However, it does not mean that distance is easy or that the growth of our fondness for one another comes without intentionality and work. Because of the pandemic, we have all felt the effects of distance and separation. Has it made our hearts grow fonder? This remains to be seen, and the results likely vary. The feeling the Church of today has of distance may come from social distancing, changes away from how things used to be, deep griefs, anticipation of a “new normal,” or other hardships. Our hearts and our faith is challenged by this, but the ascension of Christ reminds us of a time that the apostles had to wrestle with deep changes due to distance and that God responded with a closeness and faithfulness beyond what could have ever been imagined.
The story of the Ascension of Jesus in Acts is a more detailed glimpse into the brief event that closes the Gospel according to Luke (Luke 24:50-53). As we assume the “previous book” to Theophilus was the Gospel, the second volume picks up with details the cliff-hanger ending left out. The scene is set – Jesus had suffered, died, and was buried. He rose from the dead and appeared to the apostles. He dwelled with them and continued to teach them and convince them that all they were seeing was true. Their rabbi was now their Lord. He was resurrected from the dead and their hopes and his promises had been fulfilled beyond expectation! Jesus gives further instruction to them to stay in Jerusalem, and we are reminded of the phrase John the Baptist said about Jesus in Luke 3:16 when he said of Jesus, “He will baptize you with Spirit and with fire.” Jesus himself affirms that the fulfillment of this is coming – the Holy Spirit will baptize them soon and they will be his witnesses to the whole world.
The apostles must have been overwhelmed. They thought Jesus was dead, now he was not. They thought their journey with Jesus was all over, and now it was like it was just beginning. Everything had changed! Thankfully, Jesus was there. Just how were they going to get along without him being around? Yet, Jesus could not stay there. His time on earth was ending and as he was speaking to them, reminding them of the promised Holy Spirit, the Kingdom, and their mission, he was taken up in the clouds out of their sight. What a sight this must have been! One imagines the group of apostles standing awe-struck and perhaps even slack jawed at what just happened. Jesus had ascended into heaven before their very eyes. We too hear this story year in and year out and stand in awe, wondering like them, “What does this mean?” and, “Where do we go from here?” Let us explore those two questions.
One way to think about what the ascension of Jesus means for the apostles and for us is in the way it further vindicates Jesus as Christ the Lord. A good description of this is given by the apostle Paul who writes in Phil. 2:9-11, that, in response to Jesus life and death on the cross, “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” For all who saw Jesus’ death on the cross as a sign of his being cursed or forsaken by God, the resurrection and indeed the ascension stand to proclaim otherwise. Jesus was indeed at one with God the Father, was indeed faithful to the death, “even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8),” and is now to be worshipped as one highly exalted. Luke even affirms that the apostles respond in this way, as they worshipped Jesus and rejoiced after the ascension in Luke 24:52. The angels remind the apostles in Acts 1:11 that Jesus will return. Upon his return, the Kingdom will be fully established, creation will be renewed, and every knee will bend and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord! The ascension is the point in which Jesus goes to take his seat at the right hand of the Father in heaven. The King of Kings is on the throne, and this throne will last forever! So then, there is work to do! As the apostles stare into heaven where they saw Jesus go, messengers of God turn their eyes forward toward their mission. Just as they said as the women came to Jesus’ tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen (Luke 24:5),” the angels ask the apostles why they continue to look toward heaven. Jesus will return just as he left. Though the time and dates are known only to the Father, Jesus will establish the Kingdom and bring restoration to creation. In the meantime, there is work to be done.
This brings us to the question, “Where do we go from here?” For the apostles, this was a turning point toward deeper trust in Jesus’ lordship and his promise to send the Spirit. They had to trust the ways that Jesus had taught them and the convincing proofs he had given them. They had to trust that he was Lord and that he was coming back, just as he said and as the angels remind them. They had to trust that the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to send to them was coming soon and that the Spirit would guide them to be the witnesses Jesus wanted them to be. What was their response? They trusted and believed! They stopped looking longingly toward heaven and the place where they saw him go and set their eyes toward the mission Jesus had sent them on to be his witnesses to the earth God so loved. They worshipped, went on their way rejoicing, and continually prayed in anticipating of the baptism of the Spirit that later happened at Pentecost.
Likewise, on this celebration of the ascension, we too are faced with the choice to keep looking longingly upward and doing nothing or trusting the Lord and walking in mission. It will be difficult in these days of uncertainty and change, distance and isolation, division and hardships of many kinds to allow our faith in Jesus to lead us in mission to the world that God loves and is restoring. We too will need to move in faith and obey Jesus’ command to rely on the Spirit, to go and be witnesses to the world. This may seem daunting, but, the good news is that Christ ascended to sit at the right hand of God in heaven and has sent the Holy Spirit to comfort and to guide the Church. The ascension of Christ anticipates the day of Pentecost. So, we can rest assured that God is always close beside us and will guide us in our mission to bear witness to Jesus everywhere. It is upon going to the Father that Jesus sent the Spirit. It is through the Spirit, that the “ends of the earth,” come to know the Lord and have a closeness with God that would not otherwise exist. Therefore, the time of distance from Jesus after the ascension is in anticipation of the promised Holy Spirit, whose presence will bring God’s people into relationship with God like never before. Faith in the victory and reign of Christ leads to true intimacy with God through the Spirit.