5 May 2016
Acts 1.1-11, Luke 24.44-end
Daniel’s vision of a heavenly court where God sits, enthroned and where the Son of Man has a place; the prophet Elijah who was taken up to heaven after leaving behind a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha; and Jacob’s dream where he sees a ladder going between earth and heaven with angels moving up and down it. What do all these have in common? Put that question on the back burner. I’ll come back to it.
I’ve just returned from visiting our daughter in Sweden. Sweden likes having special days to celebrate something; they include cinnamon bun day and crayfish day. While I was there they had a day which I think may be special to all the Nordic countries – 1st day of spring day. It involves having a huge bonfire in the evening and, in our daughter’s village, traditional songs sung by the church choir. Everyone turns out for this – it’s a community celebration. The arrival of Spring is a big event when you’ve been through the dark and cold of a Swedish winter. It was unseasonably cold on my first few days there, but the weather on Spring Day was co operatively spring-like (even warmer than here!) and I enjoyed seeing everyone come out of their burrows, as it were. Babies in buggies were being pushed along. The odd looking man with long grey frizzy hair was once again fishing by the lake. 2 boats were out. People were greeting each other in the street. Camper vans appeared.
The big bonfire is a way of marking a significant shift in the seasons. Now, I want to suggest that Luke’s account of the Ascension serves a similar purpose in his gospel narrative; it signals the end of something and the start of something. It marks a transition, in other words. The transition from winter to spring is particularly apt because suddenly people are looking up and out, rather than huddling against the cold as they scurry down the street with barely a glance at passersby. They look up at those immensely tall Swedish trees just coming into leaf. At the sun (especially the sun!), and at each other. Just as the disciples are all looking up as Jesus is taken into heaven.
Luke is the only gospel writer to include the Ascension. It serves as a hinge between his gospel narrative and the book of Acts. It helps to explain why Jesus’ presence with his disciples after the resurrection changes after a while (40 days is the given period which in bible speak means ‘a certain amount of time’). For Luke, alone among the gospel writers, it serves to kickstart the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the sending out of the disciples.
Someone said to me recently that writers are artists. I find that helpful when considering Luke’s narrative. He is attempting to put into words something that is beyond words – a mystery – and he does it by painting a word picture. The mystery is this turning point , this transition– the resurrection appearances coming to an end and that explosive looking up and going out that happens soon after. What is it that has happened?
Luke uses words that tap into moments of revelation in the Hebrew scriptures (all of them vivid pictures) and here we return to that question I asked at the beginning – about the connection between Daniel’s vision of a heavenly court where God sits enthroned and where the Son of Man has a place, the prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven after leaving behind a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha; and Jacob’s dream of the ladder going between earth and heaven. It is likely that the first hearers of Luke’s gospel would have experienced resonances with all these events from the OT as they heard the account of Jesus ascending into heaven. These resonsnaces would have helped them understand what was happening.
Ok what was happening? Daniel’s vision connects with Jesus now at the right hand side of God, in heaven. The Elijah story reminds us of someone else who disappeared into the clouds and who left his disciples with a portion of his spirit. So, we can say that Jesus, having completed his mission, now returns to his rightful place in heaven, leaving the disciples to carry on what he was doing. Jesus is up there, the disciples (and us) are down here. But what about the ladder with angels moving up and down? This conveys something more.
For that we need to consider how another gospel writer understands the mystery of what is happening after Jesus’ resurrection. We turn to John’s gospel. Jesus talking to his disciples at the last supper, giving reassurance because he knows he is facing his death and therefore leaving them. John 14.3 – I go to prepare a place for you so that you be where I am. Jesus’ ascension is about more than his departure into heaven, leaving his friends to carry on the good work (although that is part of it). The truly astonishing feature of the Ascension is that we are taken up to that heavenly place with Christ; because of his death and resurrection we can be where he is (John). Or, as Paul puts it (Eph 2.6), God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms, and, ‘our life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Col 3.3). So, we’re up there and we’re down here. We dwell constantly at the centre of the Trinity whilst carrying out our daily routine here in Reading or wherever. This is what the Ascension is telling us.
In the Chronicles of Narnia CS Lewis puts it another way. When the children are at school or staying with their uncle in Cornwall they are to everyone who sees them just ordinary children. However, their hidden identity is as kings and queens of Narnia and as soon as they travel to Narnia that is how they are treated – as kings and queens. St Augustine uses the language of citizenship – we are citizens of earth and citizens of heaven at the same time.
In John’s gospel the coming of the Holy Spirit is Jesus breathing on his disciples (John 20.22) and saying that they can now forgive sins. When human beings were created God breathed his breath into them. Now Jesus does the same. We have his breath in us. We are a new creation. We have Christ inside us. If he is at God’s right hand then so are we.
So, Jesus was not simply ascending into heaven so that the disciples could be left to get on with his mission (rather the way a good trainer leaves their trainees to go and do the job themselves), but so that he could take them and us there too, to re-imagine our humanity as totally shot through with the divine because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And it’s all our humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly.
In Sweden there isn’t a bank holiday on Spring Day. Instead the bank holiday is on the Thursday the same week – Ascension Day- a day to celebrate the connection made by the early Christians there between spring and the transforming power of Christ’s victory over death. The Ascension is good news. It’s not only Fairtrade chocolate that is Divine; all human being are too!