The narrative of the Ascension is about how the disciples, and the church, came to know Jesus differently.
A reflection on Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53.
Luke tells us that 40 days after Easter Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s a story that’s clearly important to him; he tells it at the very end of the Gospel of Luke, and again at the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (which is volume two of his two-volume narrative we often call Luke-Acts these days).
It was an important story to the early church too. It made it made its way into all the ancient creeds, and so for hundreds of years Christians have been affirming that Jesus “ascended into heaven.”
But what does it mean?
Every painting of this event looks ridiculous to me. I haven’t yet found an artist who could draw a picture of the Ascension in a way that didn’t look like a Photoshop mistake, with Jesus floating above the ground like a helium balloon. Surely that’s not what Luke had in mind!
Further, if you trust that the Earth is spinning like a tennis ball in flight (not something Luke would ever have dreamed of!), then a person rising like a rocket could end up at a very different part of the cosmos, depending on the time of day. NASA is really precise about its lift-off times so that rockets get to the moon instead to Mars; what would have happened if Jesus had missed his launch window? The whole metaphor collapses if you try to take Jesus’ ascension as a trajectory to God’s throne room.
But I don’t think either Luke or the ancient creed writers were very worried about aerial trajectories. This really isn’t a story about how Jesus got to heaven, or what direction to fly to find the pearly gates. This is a narrative about how the disciples, and the church, came to know Jesus differently.
I think it’s interesting that the first time Luke says the disciples “worshipped” Jesus is at the end of this story. Before this, Jesus was teacher, guide, and companion; but nobody in Luke’s gospel ever thought of him as an object of worship. This is the story where Jesus’s status ascends from teacher to Lord.
I think it’s interesting that the disciples realize they need to pick up the threads of his “Reign of God” movement after this story. It’s not enough just to feel relieved that Jesus isn’t dead anymore; this is the story where their focus shifts from relief to responsibility, from celebrating his resurrection to knuckling down and doing the work that he used to do. This is the story where the disciples’ status ascends from students to teachers.
I think it’s interesting that the disciples get the responsibility to carry on Jesus’ work, but have to wait another ten days until the power to do it comes to them. Luke is right on the money here; I often know what I'm supposed do, without having the first faint clue how to do it! This is the story where the disciples’ workload ascends, and retreating to obscurity in Nazareth becomes unthinkable.
We make a big deal out of Easter, as if Jesus coming back from the dead were the end of the story. As far as Luke is concerned, Easter is only the end of volume one. The bigger adventure, and the more monumental tasks, come after Jesus passes the torch on to us, and the disciples (now graduated) start doing all the same kinds of things that Jesus did in volume one. It takes the whole book of Acts to kick off even the beginning of that story – and we in our generation are actors in that same drama even now.
— The Rev. Stephen Fetter is the minister at Forest Hill United Church, an intercultural congregation in Toronto. He’s also the coordinator of United-in-Learning, the General Council’s online continuing education program.