1517 Contributor and Pastor Brian Thomas once lamented that the ascension has been treated like “the ugly stepsister of the church calendar.” The celebration of Christ’s bodily ascent into heaven, forty days after Easter, rarely happens in congregations. When it does, it’s usually transferred to the following Sunday, swallowing up the appointed readings for that week.
St. Luke ends his Gospel with one ascension account and starts Acts with another. This fact alone tells us how significant this event was. Instead of ignoring it as the ugly stepsister, we should see it as the Cinderella story in the life of Christ, worthy of being celebrated.
The ascension is included in each of the ecumenical creeds and recognized as a cardinal doctrine of our holy faith. In times like these, when people are wondering, Who’s in charge? What’s the Lord doing now? Where can we find him? the ascension gives us the answers. These are the answers that preachers need to proclaim and believers need to confess.
In the middle of the spring, on a run-of-the-mill Thursday, the ascension interrupts the mundane to herald the extraordinary: Christ is in charge and is present on earth as he is in heaven, guiding history for the sake of his church.
The ascension is an essential part of Christ’s saving work and ministry for us. He comes from God as the divine Son and becomes human. Then, having redeemed humanity, he returns to the Father as a human. This elevates humanity back to the image of God. Indeed, it goes further by taking humanity to a place that even Adam could not go or ever attain. And he goes there as our Advocate, for us and from us. From there—as the God-man—he sends the Holy Spirit for the renewal of humanity in the proclamation of the gospel and the waters of baptism.
The ascension leaves us with no doubt as to what Christ Jesus has accomplished, as well as his status and relationship to the world. His conspicuous positioning is over the earth. This signals the scope of his domain, that over which he is king. Our Master has been “taken up” (Acts 1:2) where he is “seated at the right hand of God” (2:33). To be at the right hand of God is not to be in a location but to be given a status, a positioning. It means his accomplishment of redemption is complete. His atonement is perfectly sufficient and totally avails before God. Jesus, therefore, has been given “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18). Consequently, after the ascension, when Christians speak of God, they speak of Christ, for Christ now reigns with God. Indeed, Christ is the God who reigns.
But where exactly is he? Luke reports that Jesus was lifted up and “a cloud” took him out of their sight (Acts 1:9). There’s a widespread misunderstanding that sees this as Jesus' complete departure from the earth; he will not return until the Last Day. The Lord's disappearance into the cloud tells us that Jesus is gone. But no! This entirely misses the point of this far-from-ordinary cloud.
This cloud of glory appears throughout the Old Testament as the visible manifestation of God’s abiding presence, often referred to as the Shekinah. It is the pillar of cloud by day during the Exodus (Exod. 13:21-22). It fills the temple at the moment of its dedication by Solomon. And it was present during the transfiguration of our Lord (Matt. 17:5). It is not the cloud of the Lord’s absence but, as Normal Nagel explains, the cloud was “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 can’t push our little measuring tapes into that 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 didn’t 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 that 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. (Selected Sermons, 145).
The ascension, then, is essential to our Christian faith because this event signals a shift for how God, in Christ, is continually present with his people.
If we suppose Jesus is confined in heaven, then it’s easy to reject the real physical presence of Christ in holy communion. But listen to what Jesus himself says about ascending, about assuming all power and authority in heaven and earth: “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you” (John 14:18); “I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20); and “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). These words become all the more precious to us because, through them, we understand that Christ is alive, ruling, and present with us.
Yes, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit. And Jesus also promises to be present with us himself. We get the Holy Spirit, and we also get Christ. The resurrection and ascension of the body of Christ are about the transformed presence of Christ. He is now present to us, for us, and with us in a sacramental presence. Where is Jesus? He is no further than the grace and mercy given to us in the holy gospel, holy baptism, and holy communion. He is here as the king who possesses all power and authority by way of his real voice and real presence. He is ruling on earth with the reign of heaven having broken into our midst.
And that’s the point of the cloud, the point of the ascension itself: They signal that heaven and earth now overlap wherever Jesus, the God-man with two natures in one person, is present. Heaven, then, isn’t far away. Rather, it is manifest on earth in Christ. Christ is present in his word and sacraments, in his holy church. The ascension tells us that heaven is not up there or out there somewhere, but precisely where the Lord is present with and for his people. It is a domain that is visibly and invisibly contiguous. Heaven is among us who are alive no less than among the saints who have died.
One faithful pastor summarized the truth of Scripture this way: “The Ascension did not take Jesus away…. It brought heaven near…. His homecoming has made heaven a home for us who still walk far from home,” (O. P. Kretzmann, Homecoming in The Pilgrim, 14-15).
The role of the temple has been fulfilled. It has given way to the word and sacraments in the midst of the people of God—the church—in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the greater reality since God has been glorified in the exaltation of Jesus his Son.
When Christ ascends, he takes us with him, for “when he ascended on high, he led captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8). What great hope! What great news for us! Amidst disease, death, economic struggle, social chaos, and all other forms of ruin, Christ has raised our human nature, on the clouds, to the right hand of the Father. There we are represented by our King. We are ever in the favor of God Almighty through Jesus Christ. As one hymn puts it: “There we sit in heavenly places // There with Thee in glory stand” (“See the Conqueror Mount in Triumph”).