Luke 24:44-53

I’ve always found the story of the ascension rather odd. As with many of the accounts of Jesus after the resurrection, the imagery used by the gospel writers is a strange mixture of the real and surreal. Jesus, Luke takes pains to tell us, presented himself to his friends as alive, with many convincing proofs – he left them in no doubt that this resurrected Jesus was no illusion, no spirit, no ghost, but a real physical reality: more real than reality, that in him heaven and earth had been brought together, that in him the barrier between God and humanity had been broken down.

But then we come to his mode of departure.

He withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.

If you are looking for a sort of screen direction describing the events, that’s not a big help. The story isn’t found in Matthew or John, and Mark is even less specific:

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God

But Luke gives is a little more, in the opening of the book of Acts (Acts is generally reckoned to be by the same author as the gospel of Luke):

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 

Not a lot of detail to inspired countless works of religious art, but it’s clearly important to Luke. And set at the beginning of Acts, I think we get a sense of why. Jesus has died, and then is with them again, not just in the “they are always with us” sense that we say – truly – of a loved one who has died, but physically alive again.

But the book of Acts is all about how the early Church take on the baton of Jesus’ mission; how Jesus sends them as God sent him, to make known and make real the reign of God.

So Luke wants to explain why Jesus isn’t still around, visibly leading the work. And he explanation is in two parts: this week, the ascension, Jesus returns to heaven; and next week, Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is sent to inspire and empower the people of Jesus across the world and throughout history.

But I think the ascension is more than a clearing of the deck, or a convenient disposal of the body, as it has been derided. It could even be a central part of what Jesus was actually all about.

Like most people, I have an instinctive dislike of being labelled. In Church circles, in theological matters, we’re especially good at doing it: we speak of evangelical or liberal, high and low church, traditional, contemporary, sacramental, reformed, creedal, charismatic, progressive, affirming, missional – in fact, we in the Church are probably even worse than politicians at labelling one another.

But to the limited extent that such labels are useful, one that I would be ready to apply to myself, is ‘incarnational’. I think this dates back to an argument I had with a school religious education teacher when I was about ten. We were asked to draw a sort of graph of the year, with the height of the line representing the importance of the season in the Church year. The line we were told to draw had a small bump for Christmas, and then a long climb up to the peak at Easter. And I argued, with that annoying confidence of the ten year old child who goes to Church and knows everything about it, that that didn’t make sense, that you couldn’t say Easter was more important than Christmas, because without Christmas, and Jesus coming into the world, none of the rest would have even happened.

And of course, that logic doesn’t really hold water. But years later I found the idea that I was reaching for expressed in the words of C.S. Lewis:

the Christian story is the story of one miracle: that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into God’s own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with him into God.

This is the incarnational faith: that in Jesus Christ, God the creator entered into creation; that his life and teaching and miracles proclaimed the arrival of the Reign of God, in which heaven and earth would be ever more closely integrated; that his death and resurrection broke the power of death to separate what his life had joined; and that in his ascension, that reconciliation (while not yet fully realised) was made an eternal reality.

This is why the Christian faith places – or should place – such a high value on creation, why Christian should be the most passionate of environmentalists. For it takes the refrain of the creation poem – “and God saw that it was good” seriously.

And it declares that we, each person, was and is “made in the image of God”, that it is somehow possible that this collection of molecules, this thing of flesh and bone and blood and brain that we call a person can reflect the image of the creator God.

The Christian faith takes, or should take, this world seriously. Our lives here are not a practice run, or a test to see if we can get into heaven, but a part of God’s creation, the creation that Jesus came to reunite with the creator.

And a faith which places the great story of the incarnation at its core also places great value on human relationships. Far from seeing the faith as essentially something between each individual and God, we see in the model of Jesus’ life that the way we treat one another is of the utmost importance. For the reality that we inhabit, the reality that Jesus entered into in the incarnation, is a web of relationships. In becoming human, Jesus became a son, a brother, a friend, a colleague; he became entangled in the lives of others just as we are. For that is what it is to be human.

So it is that the greatest command, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength and mind, is immediately echoed by another commandment: to love your neighbour as yourself. That love for God cannot be real, cannot even exist, if it is not also expressed in love for neighbour, those connected to us in the web of creation.

And of course, famously, that web is extended out by Jesus to include not just the neighbour we know, but the stranger, and even the enemy. For if we are to hold to the claim that we are made in the image of God, we cannot deny that same claim to any man or woman alive.

If the great story of the incarnation is true, we dare not deny its meaning to anyone – or anything – in all creation.

And in this story, this one grand miracle, the ascension is the final phrase – he rose again, bringing nature up with him. For as the Christmas story speaks of the divine entering into creation, so the ascension is its mirror; this physical part of creation, this man Jesus, made of the same stuff, the same molecules and chemicals and stuff as us, enters into – and we struggle for words here – into the presence of God. Into what Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, calls ‘the heavenly places’.

And not just enters into, but takes a place at God’s right hand, as the head of all things in creation – and most especially, as the head of God’s movement, God’s body, God’s people, the agents of the Reign of God to whom Jesus entrusted his message and his mission.

God was, in Christ, reconciling all things, and reconciling all things to God. This is the heart of the good news, the work of Jesus, the proclamation of the reign of God, the shalom intended for the whole of creation.

And in the ascension we see a crucial piece of that puzzle: Jesus, the one who was the most truly human person ever born entering into the presence of God, the ultimate symbol of that reconciliation between God and creation, God and humanity.

So maybe Luke had no idea how to describe what it looked like. But he told us about it – twice – because it matters.