Note: The feast of the ascension is held 40 days after Easter (cf. Acts 1:3). This year the feast of the ascension falls on May 17th, 2012. Because of declining attendance at midweek services, many churches that celebrate the feast of the ascension opt to do so on the Sunday following the feast of the Ascension. I have chosen to follow suit, replacing the readings for the seventh Sunday following Easter with the readings for the ascension.
The most detailed narrative of the ascension is found in Acts 1:1-11. The ascension is also mentioned in the longer ending of the gospel of Mark (Mark 16:19-20), and briefly in the first volume of the Luke/Acts two volume work (Luke 24:50-53–see the gospel lection below). There is controversy over whether or not Paul mentions the ascension. If we include the letter to the Ephesians in the Pauline corpus (the majority of scholars attribute the letter to the “Pauline tradition/school”, meaning that some later disciple or student of Paul wrote it) then the ascension is mentioned by name (the Greek ἀναβαίνω) in Ephesians 4:8-10. However, contextually it is debated if the Ephesian author is referring to the ascension into heaven in 4:8-10 or the ascension from Sheol (the place of the dead), i.e. the bodily resurrection. What we do know for sure from Paul’s writings is that (1) the resurrected Christ is no longer bodily present with the fledgling Christian movement, and (2) that Paul and the Christian community are waiting the second coming of Christ in the clouds (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 4:13-18).
Acts 1:3 tells us that Jesus’ post resurrection appearances lasted 40 days–a symbolic number indicating sacred time (usually a time of preparation). During this time Acts tells us that Jesus taught his disciples more about the kingdom of God (Jesus’ favorite topic in the synoptic gospels). Jesus also commands the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they receive a “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” The talk about the kingdom and the coming promise of the Spirit prompts the disciples to inquire of Jesus if the time is right for the kingdom to be restored to Israel (a political hope tied to the coming of the Messiah). Jesus puts them off by asserting that it is not the disciple’s place to know the times established by the Father’s authority. However, in the interim the disciples will receive power from the coming of the Spirit and will be witnesses in “Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The order of witness is important because it provides a chronological outline for the Acts narrative of the spread of Christianity to the known world. It is also important to note that in asking about the kingdom being restored to Israel, Jesus points the disciples to their responsibility as witnesses not only to Jerusalem and Judea but also to Samaria and the ends of the earth, thereby deflecting the nationalistic tenor of their question.
After Jesus presents the disciples with a glimpse of their future as witnesses to the kingdom he is mysteriously lifted up and disappears into a cloud. The disciples are then visited by two men in white who tell them that Christ will return in like manner. This is likely an allusion to Daniel 7:13 which Christ himself quotes in Mark 14:62 and Luke 21:27. The image of the Son of Man coming in power in a cloud in the sky had eschatalogical significance for the Jews of Jesus’ day. It pointed to a future moment when God would supernaturally intervene in the cosmos and set the world to rights.
Psalm 93 is one of the so called “royal psalms” that praise God as the great and powerful king of God’s people. The psalm speaks of God in superlative terms as one who is majestic, girded with strength, and everlasting. Even when dangerous floods lift up and the raging flow of water roars as it speeds its way across the ground, the Lord is more majestic and powerful (93:3-4).
The psalm is a fitting response to the ascension of Christ in that the ascension is seen as the final glorification of Christ in which he takes his seat at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20–see below) to rule forever and ever.
Both the authorship (see above) and the audience of Ephesians is questioned by scholars (the Greek ἐν Ἔφεσος “in Ephesus” is not found in the earliest manuscripts). Because of this it is difficult to establish the circumstances that occasioned its writing. Indeed, the letter reads as though it were meant for a general audience and talks of the God’s eternal plan for humanity being revealed in Christ who brought together both Jew and Gentile.
Our section of Ephesians contains a prayer for wisdom for all who read the letter, that they may know the inheritance of power they have received through their faith in Christ. This power originates in Christ who God has “seated as his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named.” The prayer has a liturgical feel (perhaps an early doxological hymn). The point is that Christ is in charge, and Christ is the head of the church. Therefore the church has power in the world to present Christ and to make Christ known. The author of Ephesians wants his early Christian readers to know that they possess this power, and to take ownership and accountability in using it for good.
Luke wraps things up in a hurry. When Jesus finally appears post resurrection to his gathered disciples there is only 18 verses before the gospel ends. In those 18 verses Jesus passes along his peace to his disciples, eats a bite of broiled fish (dispelling noncorporeal thoughts of the resurrection), presents the crucifixion and resurrection as fulfillment of the law and the prophets, commissions the disciples as witnesses to the world, commands them to wait for the Spirit, leads them out to Bethany, blesses them, and then catches the holy elevator to heavenly places. That’s a lot accomplished in a short amount of space. The result is that the disciples worshipped him, and were continually in the Temple in Jerusalem blessing God and waiting on the coming promises. Luke is setting himself up for the second volume to his amazing story (i.e. the book of Acts).
The ascension of Christ became an important element of the faith and found its way into the early creedal formations of the church (the Apostle’s Creed and then later the Nicean Creed). The importance of the ascension was that it placed Christ at the right hand of God in a position of authority, and thus proclaimed him victorious over the powers of sin and death.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the authority of Christ as he sits at the right hand of God. Christ is the head of the church. The Church is the body of Christ. We are the presence of Christ in the world, and we have an inheritance of power to be able to accomplish all that we need in world. We are not helpless victims of lost “culture wars” or an oppressed group hanging on for dear life till the second coming. We are a body imbibed with the power and majesty of the glorified Christ, unless we squander our inheritance in fruitless living, and tepid praise.