Does anyone here, including those joining online, know when Ascension Day is? It’s a rhetorical question, though if you know it without Googling, kudos to you. We are Methodists, and while the liturgical calendar is not as big a part of our lives as it is for our some of our sisters and brothers of other denominations, it is still an important part of our church life. We observe Advent, many of us give up or add things for Lent, and in many of the churches members often wear red on Pentecost. These rhythms, these celebrations of important moments in the history of salvation, are part of our tradition, yet, even as a United Methodist Pastor, I had to look up when Ascension Day is (It is 39 days after Easter Sunday, making it the 40th day of Easter and the official end of Eastertide, just in case you were wondering). I had a professor at PTS, Dr. Edwin van Driel, this somewhat regal, impeccably classy individual with a thick Dutch accent, and air of intelligence, who would say all the time that we should be sending Ascension Day cards, we should be eating ham or turkey on Ascension day and calling our friends and family to wish them a happy Ascension, because the Ascension is that important.
The importance of the Ascension is evidenced in that it is the only story that Luke tells twice. Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and it is the only story included in both. Luke does not retell, or even summarize, the birth, crucifixion, or resurrection of Jesus in Acts, but he retells the story of the Ascension in great detail, so that it is at the forefront of the reader’s mind when he tells the story of the church. This should come as no surprise, because the Ascension tells us something who we are as the body of Christ.
The Ascension is often portrayed as the moment where Jesus leaves the world behind and leaves the apostles to do the work. It is portrayed as the “Bye bye boys, have fun stormin’ the castle” moment, where the miracle worker has done his work, and now the heroes are sent off to do their thing. Sometime times people even say things like “Christ has no hands but our hands.” That is not what the Ascension means. Christ still has hands, and Christ is still very much in the business of doing things, but He has chosen to do some of those thing through us. Christ has commissioned us, but not abandoned us.
When Christ ascended, he ascended as King of creation. Let’s take a look at Hebrews 1:1-4.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustainsall things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. – Hebrews 1:1-4 NRSV
Take note of the end of verse 3 and verse 4 “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” This echoes the vision of Stephen, the first martyr in the book of Acts, who just before he was killed, saw the heavens open and Christ at the right hand of the Father. The ascension is an enthronement. It is Christ ascending to glory as king of creation. Having completed the saving work of dying for our sins and rising victorious over sin and death, the incarnate Lord of all creation ascended to his throne. When Christ ascended into heaven, he ascended as king.
Yet, it is also more than this, for Christ ascended both as king and high priest. For this, let’s turn to Hebrews chapter 9, verses 11 and 12.
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come] then through the greater and perfect ] tent(not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. – Hebrews 9:11-12 NRSV
Hebrews paints a picture of Christ as both sacrificial lamb and high priest, and describes the ascension on the metaphor of the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement was when the high priest would enter the holy of holies, inside the temple and offer a single sacrifice on behalf of the whole community. Hebrews speaks of Christ as both lamb and high priest entering the cosmic holy of holies to present the great sacrifice on behalf of all people. Christ ascends also as the ultimate mediator, true God and true human, to mediate between God and humanity. 1 John 2:1 even describes Jesus as an advocate with the Father when we sin. The incarnate God, the King of Creation, intercedes for us. Christ has ascended as king and high priest, who rules over all and mediates for those he came to save.
As our forbears long ago, who witnessed Jesus ascend to glory, we are called to go, to proclaim the gospel, in both word and deed, and to be witnesses to the message of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We go, not because Christ has left us behind, not because God needs us, but because our King has commanded us, because our God has given us the honor of being witnesses to the good news. When you go, neglecting neither the deed nor word, go with courage, for your king reigns, your great high priests intercedes for those he came to save. We have been called; we have been given the great honor to do a great work. Let’s get to it.