In my first book I wrote about all the things that Jesus did and taught from the time he began his work until the day he was taken up to heaven. Before he was taken up, he gave instructions by the power of the Holy Spirit to the men he had chosen as his apostles. For forty days after his death he appeared to them many times in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive. They saw him, and he talked with them about the Kingdom of God. And when they came together, he gave them this order: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift I told you about, the gift my Father promised. John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
When the apostles met together with Jesus, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time give the Kingdom back to Israel?”
Jesus said to them, “The times and occasions are set by my Father’s own authority, and it is not for you to know when they will be. But when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After saying this, he was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They still had their eyes fixed on the sky as he went away, when two men dressed in white suddenly stood beside them and said, “Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way that you saw him go to heaven.”
For a contemporary Jewish audience, Jesus’ farewell to His disciples would be recognised as a clear parallel with Moses who ended his days on the top of Mount Nebo, where he commissioned Joshua to be his successor. In the Gospels of Matthew, John and Luke, and in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is doing the same thing: He is commissioning His disciples to carry on His work.
On one level, we can look at the Ascension as a farewell event. It was a painful human moment, filled with emotion. If we go to any railway station or airport, all around us are people saying goodbye: some for a short time; others for a longer time; and others still for whom it is probably farewell for ever. This man, this Jesus, whom the disciples had lost once when He was crucified; they are losing Him again. The emotion of painful separation, grief, is palpable in the story. And into this fragile human moment, God acts supernaturally: Jesus is taken up into Heaven and became hidden from their sight.
The 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, called the Ascension “an historical turning point”. The Ascension is Jesus re-gathering His followers. Jesus did not choose learned or powerful people to be His disciples: He chose every day, working people; He chose the outcasts. And just as He called them the first time, He calls them again.
For the disciples Jesus was hidden from their sight at Ascension; they knew they would never see Him again in the flesh and stood there in shock and amazement. Like we can be, there were paralysed into inaction. The Disciples needed a nudge, for they were staring into the sky. The angels speak to them, assure them and they begin their descent of the mountain to begin Christ’s Church.
The Ascension is about Jesus is completing His journey and us beginning ours. Jesus becomes human, is born as a baby, lives His life, is tried and executed. He rises from the dead, and in the Ascension, Jesus is going home. Jesus who is fully human, in the Ascension forever changes the doorway between Earth and Heaven. This is the truth: Jesus, a human-being, entered heaven – a human-being entered heaven!
That is the amazing mystery of the Ascension: a human-being entered glory and is with God. And because Jesus did, we can, too.
Loving God, today as we recall Your Son’s return to glory, we give You thanks that, in Your Son, we, too, now have our home with You. As the disciples came down the mountain and began the work to spread the news of Your love, fill us anew with Your Spirit and revive Your Church. Amen.
Walt Johnson is an Elder of Wilbraham St Ninian’s URC in South Manchester.