Why Does Jesus Ascend?
I remember my first Ascension Sunday at church followed by a Bible study where I got to ask questions of my priest. I came to church with desperation for a holy world, even though I had very little idea about what this meant. My biggest question was why did Jesus have to go away like a parent going off to work, leaving the other parent to attend to us. This is of course what we hear in our reading from Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
I knew from reading history and anthropology, that the idea that a parent would go off to work wasn’t universal and that it was fairly modern. Most parents either took their children with them or worked from home for the majority of human history. So certainly this wasn’t about God setting some precedent for how relationships should be. I also knew enough about God to know that even though we speak of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we cannot separate these three as if the Father does some work then gives it over to the Son and then the Son gives it over to the Spirit to complete … even if it might sound that way when we first read this passage.
As we discussed this matter of Jesus’s Ascension in our Bible study, my priest gave me the first key to interpret what was going on here. First he asked me, “what does Jesus do for the disciples?” Following the Gospel’s first lines, along with the reading from Ephesians I answered, “When he fulfilled the Scriptures in his death and resurrection, their minds were opened to understand the scriptures. They were struck, shocked, maybe, because of how the reality of what Jesus did in his earthly life, aligned with what God had promised to Abraham: to gather all nations, even the gentiles, to him; they were probably also dumbstruck by how Jesus’s suffering and death, aligned with the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, but how his bodily resurrection, wasn’t just a foretelling of something happening to a mere human, but the actual power of God overcoming the power of death and the hold it had on all people. I would be shocked, anyway, I said to my priest.
My priest said to me, would you really just be shocked? I thought about it for a moment. I didn’t quite understand what he was driving at with his question. It felt like a trick. Knowing me and my profound use of imagination he said, “put yourself into the Disciple’s shoes for a moment. Go up on the mountain at Jesus’s transfiguration or stand in the waters at his baptism. Now draw into that moment the whole story, Jesus’s death and resurrection, that releases him and so all humans united to him, from death. Who is there at the transfiguration and at his baptism? The Father and the Spirit I said. And how do the disciples respond? They want to stay there up on the mountain in that moment of baptismal cleansing where they can be with Jesus forever: no tears, no suffering no pain, no loss, no anguish, no confusion, no sickness. What don’t they want to do, my priest asked me? To leave him and have to come back down into the world. Why not, my priest asked me. Because to behold God in his fullness, when he is all in all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, when all things are gathered to him and all the brokenness of this world is put under his footstool, as Ephesians puts it, why would I want to leave this and go into a broken world?
Because while you have seen, so many in this world have not yet, he said to me. Would you pass these beggars by on the street, or cross over and take them to the Inn where your Father with his Son will give you his Spirit to help them see this fullness of God through you? I burst into tears of simultaneous understanding and Holy fear and prayed, God grant me the courage because I don’t have the ability to cross that road. And the reply that came, not from my priest, but from the Spirit driving me to the Christ in my heart and soul: one step at a time, my child; one step at a time. Paul says, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
What I have learned, over time, is that Jesus does not depart from us because he has to. He departs from us because to see God face-to-face is to be drawn into a reality of perfection that we cannot leave. It is not yet your time, Jesus says to the gathered Apostles in Acts. It is not yet the time for all things to be consummated, for Israel to be restored. It is time for you, one step at a time, to be a witness to the things God is doing to gather all the people whom he made. So you will receive the advocate, the Spirit, to continuously draw you back to Jesus as you inevitably are drawn astray by temptations and distractions in this world. The Spirit will remind you of the Christ whom you know, and empower you not to presume you are him, but that he is working through you to witness to the works and calling of his Father. So make your paths straight that you might bear his likeness to all of us who are beggars in deep need of his perfect love. AMEN.