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Luke 24:44-53 New International Version UK
44 Jesus said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Thoughts for the Day:
The story of the Ascension of Jesus is one of those things that seems ready-made for sceptics or anyone looking for reasons to ridicule Christianity – how can it be that the end of Jesus’ risen life on earth ends with the disciples staring at the soles of his feet as he disappears into the heavens?
To be fair to Luke this isn’t quite as he describes it, but any number of artistic representations choose to portray the Ascension in this way. One of the most literal I have witnessed is in the chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham which has a large pair of pale feet disappearing into the ceiling.
From any logical or scientific point of view it might be described as anywhere between improbable and unbelievable; to argue for the Ascension on the basis of the laws of physics therefore would seem difficult to say the least, so what are we to make of the way Luke (or Mark, who tells it slightly differently ) describes Jesus’ return to the Father?
In thinking about a response, and being well aware that I might be accused of avoiding the question, it’s important to remind ourselves that the gospel writers were not historians, biographers or scientists. Which is not to say they wrote about things that were untrue or that they were composing works of fiction. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each wrote from the perspective of faith, using the information available to them, to portray the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus in ways they hoped would affirm their belief that he was the true Son of God, the long-anticipated Saviour (Messiah, meaning ‘Anointed’ of Judaism) for the whole world.
Each of the evangelists had their own context and audience, with differing nuances therefore in the way they arranged their gospels and spread over a period of perhaps 40 or more years, so it’s not surprising they differ in the stories they use and the way they arrange their material. It also helps us understand why, for example, Mark and John say nothing about the Nativity, Matthew and John don’t include an Ascension narrative, Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t describe the wedding at Cana or Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
John sums up the role of the evangelist most clearly at the end of his gospel,
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Understanding this as the purpose of any of the gospels may not be an acceptable answer to everyone, but it does help us frame the question of the Ascension more appropriately within its context, not how did it happen, but, is it true?
For example, we might ask Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles as well as his gospel, was there really a Samaritan who was good, or a son so prodigal that he wasted his inheritance only to discover how much his father loved and forgave him anyway? How did Luke know these people, what were their names, where did they live?
Does knowing or not knowing make any difference to the truths of these stories through which Jesus, by means of the gospel, teaches us?
Perhaps we need to see as those disciples saw, and look through their eyes? What is it that the story of the Ascension is telling us, and how do its truths speak to us today?
Luke has been leading us to this point ever since the stories of Jesus’ birth, when Shepherds watched their flocks by night ‘and glory shone around’. Now, at the conclusion of the story another group of people, this time the disciples, are gathered with the risen, adult Jesus on another hilltop, and once again ‘glory shone around.’
To the Jewish theological mindset these are not clouds as we know them, the sort that descends on hill-walkers, or rolls in from the sea. These clouds are ancient, potent religious symbols, for they are the sign of the ‘Shekinah’, the presence of God. It is the same presence that surrounded Moses on Mt. Sinai when he ascended to meet with God, face to face, and receive the Law.
It is the same ‘fiery, cloudy pillar’ that led the Israelites in the wilderness. It is the ‘earth, wind and fire’ experienced by Elijah as he hid from the forces of Ahab, and in the chariots of fire that carried him ‘into the heavens’ at the end of his life.
And it is the same presence of God that enveloped Jesus, Peter, James and John when they found themselves fleetingly in the presence of Moses and Elijah at The Transfiguration.
Now, at the end of the story, they find themselves caught up once more in the presence of God, wondering if this is the great event they have been waiting for, the entry of the kingdom of God into the world?
For them it’s not an unusual or unlikely expectation; they’ve seen and heard Jesus announcing the kingdom is at hand, they’ve witnessed signs of the kingdom Jesus performed, healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind, blessing the poor, even raising the dead.
In the very moment Jesus is to be taken from them, is this the moment of fulfilment? Well yes, and no, it is and it isn’t…
Jesus says it is not for them to know the moment God has chosen to inaugurate the kingdom.
BUT: It is the moment when the task of revealing the kingdom passes from Jesus alone to the disciples. From this point on it will be their responsibility to share the task of bringing good news to the poor, releasing those who are captives, restoring sight to the blind and bringing new life to those who mourn. In fulfilling this vocation, Jesus promises, they will be empowered by the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, the event we call Pentecost we shall celebrate next week.
When the presence of God, the Shekinah, departed from the disciples after the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were no longer physically with them, but they were in no doubt about the reality of their experience; it didn’t frighten or alarm them; it simply reaffirmed all they believed about Jesus.
Luke’s task in Acts was to tell how this small but determined group of disciples, men and women, carried on the story of the kingdom of God Jesus had proclaimed and made it real as Jesus had commissioned them to do.
Perhaps this is where the power and the significance of the story of the Ascension lies, in the possibilities it offers for us in the here and now. Jesus said the kingdom was at hand, he did not say when it would be fulfilled. The promise of God’s kingdom seen in Jesus passed to the community of believers, which would become the Church, and has passed to each subsequent generation of faithful believers.
The Lord be with you.
24th May 2020, the Sunday After Ascension.
Collect for Ascension Day: (Book of Common Prayer)
GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.