Today is Ascension Day!
Hooray! Let’s celebrate by exchanging gifts. Or let’s at least hide plastic eggs filled with candy. But don’t put in any of those Peeps. I believe God created and called all of creation good, except for Peeps. Those things are not good. At all. They are disgusting.
According to Scot McKnight, one of the most important Christian theologians ever thought the Ascension was crucially important. “St Augustine thought Ascension Day gave meaning to all other days in the church calendar…”
According to Augustine, the Ascension of Jesus gave meaning to Christmas and to Easter. Yet, our culture doesn’t celebrate the Ascension nearly as much as the birth and resurrection of Jesus.
Why is that? I’m not exactly sure, but I think it’s time we reclaim the Ascension.
Clearing Up the Ascension
Let me clear some things up about the Ascension. In the Acts of the Apostles, the resurrected Jesus hangs out with his disciples for 40 days. They ask him when he will restore the kingdom. He tells them that it’s not for them to know, but that he’s going to the Father. Then he ascends to heaven.
Okay. That’s weird. Part of the weirdness is that Jesus flies up to heaven. Look! It’s a a bird…it’s a plane…no, it’s Jesus!
Off he goes…Into the wild blue yonder…
Okay. I’m done.
This story is weird if we take it literally. If we think this is a literal story, then Jesus traveled up to outer space and if we just had a telescope that was strong enough, we could see Jesus’ feet dangling from heaven.
But we moderns know that’s silly. And you know what? Luke, who wrote acts, would have thought that idea was silly, too. For the early Christians, heaven was not somewhere way up in the sky. Heaven and earth intertwined. Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven in among you. So, Jesus wasn’t literally lifted up to another location up in the sky that we call heaven. It’s more like he was lifted up into another dimension. Another reality. One that we call heaven that isn’t somewhere way out there. Rather, it’s here, present among us.
The Politics of the Ascension
The Ascension has political implications. Ephesians claims that after the Ascension, Jesus was seated at the right hand of the Father “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come.”
Interestingly, in the first century Roman world, if you told a story about someone ascending to heaven and seated in a position of power, you would think of the Caesars. But the Ascension of Jesus makes a bold claim that Jesus is the true Lord who ascended unto heaven, not the Caesars.
The Ascension means that all political authority is relative to Jesus. Jesus is our lord. Caesar is not. Donald Trump is not. The Democratic Party is not. The Republican Party is not. But if Jesus is Lord, that means we follow the way of Jesus.
In Acts, when Jesus ascended the disciples stared into the heavens. Two men in robes came to them and asked, “Why are you standing here staring into heaven?”
The point of the Ascension is not to stare into heaven. The point of the Ascension is that Jesus is still Lord. I know “Lord” language has been abused and many people reject it. And for good reason. But I want to reclaim it. Jesus is not an abusive Lord. He’s Lord in the most un-Lord like way. He’s not a Lord like the Caesars who gained power through violence. Jesus is Lord in that he orients our lives toward relationships of love, forgiveness, and nonviolence.
Why Did Jesus Have to Leave?
The Gospel of John also talks about the Ascension. There, Jesus says he had to leave in order for the Holy Spirit to come. That’s weird. I mean, hasn’t the Holy Spirit been here the whole time? Wasn’t it the Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation? And wasn’t it the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets? Wasn’t the Holy Spirit active in Jesus’ ministry? So why did Jesus need to leave in order for the Holy Spirit to come?
Commentators usually give a circular argument that makes no sense to me. Jesus had to leave so the Spirit could come, and the Spirit could only come if Jesus left.
What? I don’t get it.
But here in John, Jesus talks about the spirit in a new way. He uses the word “Paraclete.” I think Jesus had to leave so that we could understand this new dimension of the Holy Spirit. The word Paraclete means to stand alongside someone and cry out. In other words, the Holy Spirit is our Advocate. Like an attorney for the defense, the Holy Spirit stands with those who are being accused by the forces that stand against Jesus. The Ascension makes room for this new understanding of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus says that the Paraclete proves the world wrong about sin. You see, the “world” thinks it uses violence for a good purpose. Caiaphas justified killing Jesus because, “It is better for one man to die than for the nation to perish.” The Holy Spirit reveals that idea for the scapegoating lie that it is. It is not better that one man die than for the whole nation to perish. It is better for us to find better ways to manage our sin, or our violence, than to crucify and otherwise kill people.
Jesus had to leave in order to make room for the Holy Spirit to do her slow and steady work of convincing the world to follow in the ways of Jesus’s way of love and nonviolence.
Reclaiming the Ascension
So I believe we need to reclaim the Ascension. It means that Jesus is still Lord of our lives. And it means that the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth about our scapegoating practices. The Holy Spirit reveals our tendency to scapegoat, but she also leads us in a different direction as we imitate the nonviolent love of our true Lord, Jesus.