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Luke 24:44-53

My guess is that a many Protestants, of at least a certain variety, do not spend a lot of time thinking about what the ascension of Jesus means, why it is important, that it is one of the central beliefs we affirm in the creed, namely, “he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” or that it is be included when we refer to Christ’s work of atonement, wherein we should refer to the whole Christ event as the salvific work of the Triune God — birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and parousia. As one Orthodox priest says, the ascension is the goal of the incarnation and completes what began at Christmas. Crucial to our theology of the ascension is our confusion of God’s incarnation in Jesus. The incarnation doesn’t end in resurrection, but it is Christ in his fleshly, redeemed, new creation body who ascends into heaven. Perhaps it is enough in a sermon to remind us the significance of Christ’s incarnation throughout the whole Christ event and that our salvation is tied to his fleshly ascension into heaven. Another preaching path for some would be simply to invite people who are unfamiliar with this to remember the scope of Christ’s salvific work and to see the ascension of Jesus not merely as an addendum, but an important moment in God’s atoning work.

One important the thing that may need to be unpack is the way we understand the relationship between heaven and earth. According to Robert Barron, part of our problem with the ascension is that we embrace a Greek rather than a Hebrew view of the relationship between the material and spiritual realms, or heaven and earth. He refers to Plato’s parable of the cave as the classic example of how the dichotomy works. Inside the cave people are in chains only able to see flickering images on the wall, except for one person who manages to escape out into the light and into reality. The cave is a metaphor the material world as a prison that we must escape for the spiritual, non-material world, which happens only in death. For God’s people, though, heaven and earth, while different realms are not pitted against each other or seen as distant spaces far apart. Rather, they are very close and at interplay with one another. Salvation is not about escape from this world, but about the transfiguration of it, which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NASB). The salvation or transfiguration of the world from corruption to wholeness comes only as heaven and earth come together. No doubt to preach along these lines would require a sensitivity to popular end times eschatology that have appropriated Plato rather than the biblical narrative and some need pastoral sensibilities in addressing these things.

Another preaching path is to highlight that Christ’s ascension is not about his absence from us, but his “sovereign presence throughout creation” as Ben Myers says. For Myers, it is the artist Shirley Purdie who interprets Christ’s ascension well, portraying a Jesus whose ascension is actually a descending into the earth because the ascension is not about God’s absence but an “entering into the depths” in order to rule over all things. We also see the connection between ascension and Pentecost. In a sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi kind of way, if you strike Jesus down he shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. Where he ceases to be physically recognizable as a human, his church is now present in the power of the Holy Spirit to bear witness. Where Christ is present in the heavenly realm, the Holy Spirit empowered church is present in the material, earthy realm. Christ ascends, the Spirit descends, and heaven and earth are interlocked. All of this happens through Christ incarnate in creation and in ascension. Christ is Lord over creation of which we are called to bear witness. Here the connection is between ascension and lordship, which also connected to the Ephesians passage in this Sunday’s readings. N.T. Wright draws on the image of the Son of Man or Human One in Daniel, language not used here in Luke, but important within a theology of ascension. Here Daniels dreams of a stormy sea out of which four beasts emerge. The sea is symbolic of chaos and evil, the beast’s are symbolic of power corrupt. But then Daniel sees God on the throne, holding court, sovereign over all, giving all authority to the Son of Man. Reading the Daniel passage in full would make for a powerful sermon, unpacking all the parts and developing the imagery. The point is that when Jesus ascends into heaven, he is being established as the one who rules and reigns over the creation. One preaching path to consider is how power works in our society. As Wright say, “God’s exaltation of Jesus vindicates not only him and his cause, but his way; and that way is the way by which his followers too must walk.” This might also lead one to draw a connection between incarnation and the image of Christ as priest lifting his hands up to bless them, the priest’s symbolic role being the mediator between heaven and earth, a role which now properly belongs to Christ. Here we see both the prophetic role of the Church, as well as the priestly, advocating and intervening as witnesses.

References:

Ben Myers, The Apostle’s Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism.

Hieromonk Herman (Majkrzak), “Recovering a Full Theological Vision of the Ascension”. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2016/06/02/recovering-full-theological-vision-ascension/

Robert Barron on why the ascension of Jesus matters. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxDTY_9w6ws

N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship.