Today, the calendar of the church year marks the Feast of the Ascension. It’s a day that is celebrated within Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, but not so much in Protestant churches.
Of course, the story of the ascension of Jesus is premised on the ancient worldview, which saw heaven “in there” and earth “down here”; as Jesus leaves his earthly followers to return to his Heavenly Father, then of course, he was ascending, rising upwards!
The ascension is an event in the story of Jesus that is referred to only in one Gospel—that of Luke. This Gospel reports the ascension of Jesus into heaven (24:50–53) as the climax of the whole Gospel. This brings the whole Jesus saga to a head. Yet it’s not narrated in John’s Gospel (although there appears to be a hint of it in the words of Jesus in John 20:17).
Nor is it told in Matthew’s Gospel where the ending explicitly affirms “I am with you always” (Matt 28:20). And no sign, of course, in Mark, whose account ends at the empty tomb, even before the resurrection (Mark 16:8). And Paul (who barely refers to any of the key moments in the life of Jesus) may well be alluding to it in his letter to the Romans (Rom 10:5–13), but not in a direct and unequivocal way.
For Luke, it is also an important pivotal event, for it is repeated at the start of the second volume (Acts 1:6–11). This second version provides more details; it fills out the story in narrative form, and appears to incorporate details that have significance for the author of the work.
Also crucial is to note Luke’s version of the commission which the risen Jesus gives as a parting word to his disciples: in the Gospel, he declares that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, “beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47).
Another version of this commission introduces the second volume (Acts 1:8): “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This verse sets out the programme for the rest of this volume.
Immediately after this, Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:9-11). This is the pivot from the earthly period of Jesus into the time when the movement of those who followed Jesus in that time will begin to form the customs and practices that led to the creation of the church.
Luke presents the whole sequence of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as both the climax to his earthly life and the foundation for the time of the church.
That final point is what we really ought to take from this doubly-offered story: the departure of Jesus by means of his ascension into heaven is actually the moment when Jesus charges his followers to be engaged in mission. The departure of Jesus heralds the start of the church. The (physical) absence of the Saviour brings in the impetus for engaging wholeheartedly with the world which he has (physically) left.
So let’s get to it!!