This year, the texts of the Ascension arise from Acts 1:1–11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15–23 and Luke 24:44–53. While Sundays are customarily reserved for preaching the Gospel text, Ascension Thursday offers opportunity to explore other texts related to the event, as well as Luke’s two accounts of the Ascension: Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:6-11. When the One Year Lectionary is considered, there are a host of biblical passages germane to the proclamation of the Ascension’s main theme: The establishment and nature of Christ’s Kingdom. The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, thus, offers to preachers abounding texts, a major gospel theme, and essential Scripture doctrines codified in the Creeds.
It begins with the opening scene in Acts 1. There Luke says this sequel to his Gospel concentrates on, “everything Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1), opening with the account of when Jesus ascended (1:2). Acts, then, self-presents not as the, “Acts of the Apostles,” but truly as what Jesus continues to do, teach, and be for the Church and the world. Because, even though we are reading about front stage characters (Peter, Stephen, Barnabas, and Paul), the presence of Jesus inconspicuously permeates Acts’ 28 chapters. Luke announces Jesus as King, not as an increasingly distant memory but as a living and powerful presence. He is the Sovereign, who is known and loved, obeyed and followed by an ever-expanding kingdom citizenry; a true person who continues to act within the world we inhabit on behalf of the Church. Preachers have powerful content here for heralding a present Lord who cares.
Acts, then, self-presents not as the, “Acts of the Apostles,” but truly as what Jesus continues to do, teach, and be for the Church and the world.
A curious question from the Apostles sets up the Ascension event, its meaning, and implications. They ask the risen Lord: “Is now the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus does not answer the question directly but tells them to linger in Jerusalem (praying and keeping watch) until they receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Then Jesus ascends before their eyes, tipping off readers to a double transition for Jesus: enthronement in Heaven but also His abiding Word-and-Sacrament presence with His people (constituting the presence and nature of God’s Kingdom on Earth) and the giving of the Holy Spirit who reveals this same Jesus is present with His people and for His people.
Now, if Easter is about Jesus as the prototype of the new creation, then the Ascension is about His enthronement as the One who rules forevermore on Earth as it is in Heaven. Easter tells us Jesus stands as the firstborn of the New Creation. His Ascension depicts Him running the New creation in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Preachers need to get this picture right if they are to get it out. The Ascension is not about Heaven, about thinking of Jesus in Heaven above calling the shots. Because as soon as we say, “Heaven,” most people today think about a timeless, nonphysical, immaterial place where spirits collect like thoughts in some mind. That is not the biblical scene. When the Apostles, when the Church Fathers, when Luther and the Confessions talk about something “spiritual” they are taking about things that have to do with the world of God’s Spirit, and God’s Spirit works most definitely within, not apart from, the world of space, time, and matter. So, when Luke recounts Jesus going up to Heaven in a cloud, forty days after His resurrection, and when Paul writes of Jesus being “exalted” to Heaven (Philippians 2:9-11), the one thing preachers should not think of is, after His death, Jesus is now, “Going to Heaven,” and not seen until the Last Day. In fact, that is the reason for the “cloud.” It is not the cloud of Jesus’ absence, but a New Covenant fulfillment of an Old Covenant type: the shekinah or glory cloud presence of the Lord. Normal Nagel explains, the cloud as, “A guarantee of the presence of God.” So, at the ascension a cloud is used to mark Jesus’ entry to the realm of God, which we can neither understand nor measure with our present little thoughts and limited experience. We cannot push our little measuring tapes into this cloud and say how things have to go on there. They go on as God says, and that is the way with Jesus now. Jesus did not travel thousands of miles like a space rocket. He rose up a little way above the earth and a cloud received Him out of their sight. All that was gone was the sight of Jesus. The cloud means He is no longer within our ordinary limits. Jesus is now present and does things in the whole range of God’s way of being present and doing things while remaining a man, but a man fulfilled and glorified.
The Ascension, then, is essential to our Christian faith because, along with Pentecost, this event signals a shift for how God, in Christ, is continually present with His people, with the Holy Spirit illuminating this reality through the gift of faith.
The Ascension of our Lord teaches how Heaven and Earth are not separated by the expanse of the universe or an impenetrable brass ceiling. They overlap and interlock and finally will be visibly joined together forever. The whole point of Jesus’ identity, all along, asserts He has been a one-man, walking Temple — the place where Heaven and earth overlap, where grace and nature meet, where the invisible is made visible, where eternity and time are manifest in a single person whose blood atonement perfectly avails. So, He sits at the right hand of God with all the authority of Heaven and earth given to Him. Having undergone the transformation process called, “Resurrection,” Jesus embodies where people on earth encounter the life, power, and authority of Heaven.
The Ascension of our Lord teaches how Heaven and Earth…overlap and interlock and finally will be visibly joined together forever.
Heaven and earth are not the same kind of space. They are not merely continuous, like Arizona with New Mexico or houses next to each other on the same street. Heaven permeates the earth. Heaven will be on the Earth and the Earth will be permeated with Heaven; so that the terms become synonymous and tautological. So, if Jesus is now in “Heaven,” He is present to every place on Earth. Had He remained on the Earth in a non-resurrected body, then He would not have been present anywhere except the one place He was present. The Ascension following the resurrection—which gave Him a transformed human body capable of moving seamlessly between Heaven and the Earth—enables Him to be present everywhere heaven breaks through according to His promise and probably many other points as well. But where He has most certainly promised to break through is in the holy Gospel, holy baptism and holy communion. This should give every Christian great comfort because it eliminates guess work in trying to find Jesus. He is here, like this, for you, just as He promised, and in those things, He welds Heaven to the Earth. For something so full of mystery, at least this aspect of the mystery is gone: He is here for all who seek Him where He promised to be found — in His Word and Sacraments. Auditors should take comfort in these words for God’s Kingdom, in fact, has come.