What Jesus’ ascension means for us

May 10, 2018 by

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So Christ ascended to heaven. What’s the big deal with that? Workers get Ascension Day off in a few places around the world, and they fly kites in Bermuda. But there are no Ascension Day sales events here in the U.S, like there are for Easter and Christmas. Mothers will get Mother’s Day cards, and maybe flowers and dinners out, and that’s the least we can do for them. (I had to look long and hard to find more than a few Ascension Day greeting cards online.) But Christ’s Ascension to heaven is as big a deal as Christ’s descent to the world in the Incarnation. The Ascension is as big a deal as Christmas, because, together, they form one bigger, glorious miracle.

Why were the disciples so different at this departure of Jesus, than at the first? Consider the stark and startling difference in the disciples between when Jesus first said, “I am going away,” on the night of his arrest, and when he departed this second time, at the Ascension. When Christ predicted his coming betrayal and arrest, a more shocked, confused, dismayed and demoralized mob of men you won’t find. And when it came to pass, they fell apart, they fought, they fled and they hid, for fear, grief and shame. But on this day of Christ’s second departure, the last words of Luke’s gospel say they were “full of joy.” The disciples are a solid, grounded group, united in prayer and purpose, ready and waiting for the event we shall celebrate next week: the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The two reasons for this difference in the disciples’ demeanor and behavior on which I wish to focus are that they understood that: 1) Jesus ascended to supreme kingship over creation; and 2) that Jesus ascended to high priesthood over creation.

Jesus’ supreme kingship over creation

We modern and postmodern people can worry about the physics and the mechanics of Jesus rising above the earth. But no worldly kingdom or country would give him an actual throne to ascend, so he ascended over the world, over all its kings and kingdoms, empires and emperors. No astronaut nor any space probe will ever find Jesus and the saints somewhere above the clouds or among the planets. But for those first-century Jewish apostles, the Ascension settled for them an issue that had long troubled Israel since the Babylonian Exile: Where was the promised, prayed for son of David, the rightful king of Israel? And who was he? The Herod who sought to kill the baby Jesus claimed the title, “King of the Jews,” but that wouldn’t do. But watching Christ ascend, the apostles knew that they were also watching the enthronement of Israel’s rightful king. The promised king of David’s line had finally taken the promised throne over Israel, and they knew who he was, for they saw him ascending his throne over all creation.

So his is not just a throne over Israel. Jesus told the disciples, “You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and even to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Thus would his kingdom spread across the earth, by their testimony. This global kingdom is what the Psalms and the prophets promised for God through his anointed king, and what the disciples had prayed for, as in the words of Psalm 47, ”For God is the king of all the earth… God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God…”

That the whole world now has a king, and his name is Jesus — that’s what the apostles meant with their confession: “Jesus is Lord.” Now, we wouldn’t know that Jesus is Lord by watching the evening news on TV. Nor would we know that Jesus is Lord by reading the Congressional Record, attending White House press conferences, or listening to election campaign speeches. That’s not where I expect to see evidence of Christ’s lordship. We often see well-meaning and noble people trying their best to serve the common good. But there we also see evidence of human pride, rebellion and resistance.

“Jesus is Lord” is not what everyone wants to hear, either, let alone say. A few years ago, the Royal Academy of Ancient Music was slated to leave London for Beijing, China, to perform Baroque and Renaissance music. They were officially disinvited by the Chinese government when it was learned that they intended to perform Handel’s great work, The Messiah. It has effectively been banned from public performance in China ever since. The words of the Hallelujah Chorus, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ,” are just too controversial and too contrary to Chinese government policy.

That confession is becoming increasingly unpopular and troublesome in our still somewhat representative democracies, too. It may help to know that Jesus’ global lordship is exercised and spreads in the same ways that Jesus went about ruling, not by soldiers but by servants, not by force of arms but by force of love, and by the integrity and the winsomeness of his disciples’ witness. But that doesn’t often matter to the powers that be. So the apostles paid dearly for that confession, most of them with their lives. Many people do yet today. But those witnesses to Christ’s ascension would hold to that confession, boldly, even unto death, where they had quailed and failed before — because they knew who was really in charge. They had witnessed the long-awaited enthronement of the promised king over Israel and the world.

Jesus’ high priesthood over creation

Another issue was settled for the disciples as they watched Jesus ascend into heaven, and this also gave them great confidence in God and direction for their lives: Who is Israel’s rightful high priest? And where will he minister? For it was no secret to all Israel how corrupt, self-serving and exploitative the high priest and the priesthood were at the time. They were hand-in-glove with the collaborators and the temple racket profiteers. Not all of them were agreed either that the second temple had been built aright, that the sacrifices were done acceptably to God, or that God even returned there after the exile.

But the writer of Hebrews says in chapter 9: “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. … he has appeared [in that heavenly sanctuary] once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

So the second thing the Ascension of Jesus told the apostles witnessing it, and what it tells us as well, is that God’s rightful promised high priest now mediates between us and God, reconciling earth and heaven, in a rightful, heavenly sanctuary. God has provided this high priest himself. And his name is Jesus. He reconciles heaven and earth, God and humanity, with his reconciling death on the cross. He did so also with his reconciling resurrection. The first words out of his mouth to his disciples, cowering in fear in that upper room, were words of forgiveness and invitation: “Peace be with you.” His high priestly ministry continues even now as he communes with his heavenly Father through the Spirit in intercessory prayer for us.

What this means for us

The apostles grasped what the Ascension meant for Jesus: 1) that he was taking his royal throne as King of kings and Lord of lords; and 2) that he was entering the divine sanctuary, the heavenly holy of holies, to take up his royal priesthood. Good news, of course. But what does that mean for us, 20 centuries later?

What Christ’s ascension to global kingship and high priesthood means for us are:

  1. Those were the roles and the titles originally intended for us at creation;
  2. Those shall be the roles and the titles we share with Christ in the new creation;
  3. Those are the roles and titles we have even now;
  4. Therefore, the Ascension completes the Incarnation.

Christ’s role and title, as creation’s king and high priest mediating were our originally intended roles and places in creation. I dare say that because of the first chapter of Genesis, verses 26-27: ” ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

In the language of ancient Israel’s neighbors, like Egypt, Babylon, Assyria or Rome, only a few certain people were said to bear the image of God: the king and the queen, the royal family. That meant that they alone were considered the viceroys, even the place-holders, of God or the gods above. Allegedly, whatever they did or decreed on earth was as it is in heaven. But Genesis 1 itself tells us that all humans, ever since the very first ones, both male and female, were made to bear God’s image in creation, to rule creation, yes, but as God’s representatives, to reflect the creator’s character, with authority to carry out his policies, and to advocate for his interests, like a viceroy representing the queen or the king to their far-flung subjects. That makes us royalty, too. So the throne over creation, to which Christ ascended, was our original role and title at creation.

It is the same with Jesus’ role as creation’s high priest. When the Psalms call upon all creation to worship; “all mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars,”… so “let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” that’s us acting in our originally intended priestly role between God and creation, through worship. The same with our care for the earth, and our careful stewardship of it. We were made to be this creation’s high priests, to worship the creator and to lead creation in its service and worship of the creator.

But we lost those exalted positions when we surrendered them to the first snake in the grass who introduced fear into our relationship with God, who convinced the first of us that we could rule the planet as gods rather than for God. But God did not abandon us to that mess. Where Jesus has gone, to be creation’s king and high priest, there are we going as well; those shall be our roles and titles too in the new creation. Christ’s glorification on that Ascension Day 2,000 years ago is our destiny as well.

But Christ did not say, “Wait here until I come back some day and then put you to work being my royal ambassadors, priests and representatives.” He told his apostles, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, even to the ends of the earth,” starting then and there. Our witness to Jesus is one way in which we carry out our royal and high priestly positions here and now. John the Revelator was also thinking of the here and now when he said that Christ “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Rev. 1:6). And Paul told the Colossian Christians, “you have been raised with Christ.” So, “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). The titles and roles that Christ would share with us, as rulers and high priests — he’s sharing them already. He is leading us already into our high priestly and royal roles, in our personal realms of responsibilities, in the home, in the church, in the community, with creation.

But let’s not get too swelled up with our titles and roles. We start small. The more we are faithful with the little he has already given us here, the more we shall be given, until the kingdoms of this world are fully revealed as the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. We carry out our royal and high priestly functions now as interns in training for even greater things to come. Our prayers and ministries are practice for what we shall do and become upon Christ’s return.

In our worship, prayers and ministries, we are like children playing dress-up with our parents’ clothing, garments that we have yet to grow into. And God doesn’t say, “Take those off; they’re too big for you!” More like, “How sweet,” and “Yes; try them on because they are meant for you.” But God is fitting us for the clothes, rather than the clothes for us. And ours are royal robes and priestly vestments.

We never know just how our royal, high priestly future will break into the present. Like the orderly in a hospital who turned out to be as effective at healing some patients as some of the doctors. She wasn’t aware of it, but some nurses or some accountant or systems analyst were looking over charts and records and noticed how many patients reported that they felt better or even took a turn for the better after she came in to change their sheets, or their position, to take out the trash, empty the bedpans, bring them food, whatever. And she was just going about her duties peacefully, lovingly, cheerfully, with friendliness, compassion and humorous banter, offering her humble work as a service to God, the patients and the staff. Actually, she was mediating healing grace like a high priest; she was royalty implementing royal policy.

That helps me think about prayer, too. Whenever I find it hard to concentrate and pray, or know how to pray, it helps me to think of Christ representing us, and interceding for us, to the Father through the Spirit, as our high priest. That tells me that prayer is not so much something we generate; it’s something we join. We join Christ in his high priestly role as junior high priests in training. So I wait and ask Jesus to carry me along with his prayer. Or sometimes I read and pray the prayers of others who seem to have heard the prayers of the heavenly sanctuary. The sky does not open, nor do I hear the angels singing, but still it helps me pray.

And should we join a small group, or start one, that’s also a way to exercise a priestly Christian ministry one to another, by listening to one another, sharing needs and strengths with each other, praying with each other, and for each other, and being there for one another.

And so the virtues, the values and the spiritual gifts that God cultivates in us are not for this life alone. We are now in training for our titles and roles of rulership and high priesthood over Creation. In the normal comings and goings of our daily lives, our humble human stuff is being raised heavenward and glorified, along with the Ascended Jesus.

The gospel story that began with God stooping down to enter humanity, when the highest One of heaven descended to the most lowly and humble station on earth, and the divine nature condescended to join and to take on our humble human condition, leads to the exact opposite movement that we celebrate today: when Jesus raised and exalted our humanity up to join God. On that Ascension Day, the best of earth ascended to heaven, bringing our humanity with him. After becoming us, Christ became the first of us to take a place at the heart of divinity, on the throne of God. Both movements — from heaven to earth, and from earth to heaven, from God to humanity and from humanity to God, the Incarnation and the Ascension — were accomplished in and by the same person: Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Son of Mary.

To me, that makes Christmas and the Ascension two sides of the same coin. The Ascension completes the Incarnation, for what we are, God became in Christ; what Christ is, we are becoming. And that makes the kite such a good symbol of the Incarnation and the Ascension. Tell people in Bermuda, “Aw, go fly a kite!” and they’ll ask, “Oh, is it Ascension Day?” because that’s the symbol with which they celebrate it. For a kite unites earth and the heavens, physically speaking, visibly. It rises above us on the strength of the wind, but only as it stays connected to the people on the ground. Its rising up and its attachment below are equally necessary to each other, as you’d know if you’ve ever let go of a kite string. The kite symbolizes how Christ ministers in a heavenly sanctuary, and rules from a heavenly throne “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1: 21). At the same time, the string attaching earth to sky symbolizes how Christ remains connected to us by his Spirit. In Jesus, God entered our humanity. And he has brought our humanity with him back to heaven. In Christ, earth and heaven, God and humanity are one, and ever shall be, on the day that we see him return, “in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

Mathew Swora is lead pastor of Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Ore. He blogs at zionmennoniteoregon.org, where this post first appeared.


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