Going Up? Reflections on Ascension Sunday

The Ascension of Jesus (celebrated Sunday, June 5 this year) is a peculiar day in the Christian calendar. In a de-centered, non-hierarchical world, most of us don’t know which way is up! The idea that Jesus ascended to a God “up there” is just as strange as Harold Camping’s image of corpses flying up to the sky along with today’s believers. Some Christians still live in a three-story universe—heaven above, earth between, hell below—but few people believe, as one pastor stated, that if you get into a space ship and fly far enough, you’ll find a place called “heaven.”

What are we to make of Jesus’ Ascension? Of course, it’s not out of the question that Jesus defied gravity, but is that the real point? Is the Ascension about gravity or spirituality, geography or vocation?

Acts 1:6-11 describes the Ascending Christ. First, the disciples quiz him about the fulfillment of history, the restoration of Israel. Jesus’ response is purposely vague, and still remains good counsel for those who seek a precise date for judgment day or the fulfillment of history. “It is not for you to know the times or periods.” Rather, we are to await the coming of God’s Spirit and the missional power that comes from encountering the Holy, whether in the 1st or 21st centuries.

Finished with his counsel, Jesus is lifted up, and the disciples are left gazing into the heavens until an angel admonishes, “Why do you stand looking toward heaven?” The angel promises Jesus’ ultimate return, but that’s not the point. The point is that the disciples’ mission and our own is right here—in our time and place and on our planet not some far off sphere.

The point of Ascension is perspective. Rising to the clouds gives us a broader perspective on our lives and the planet. Rather than individualistic images of salvation and personal well-being, Ascension challenges us to bring heaven to earth, that is, to live Jesus’ values in our world. As the Lord’s Prayer proclaims, “Thy kingdom (or realm) come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When we live from a higher perspective, we can transcend our own self-interest to embrace the well-being of the whole earth, including strangers, enemies, and non-humans.

We catch a glimpse of Ascension living by reflecting on the Day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2. The Spirit Jesus promises will embrace all creation. The Spirit reconciles rather than divides. It promises wholeness and salvation for all people, not just a select few. Revelation is global and all-inclusive, not parochial and limited, in contrast to individualistic and limited visions proclaimed by persons such as Harold Camping and his apocalyptic companions. As Acts 2 proclaims:

God will pour God’s Spirit on all flesh,
And your sons and daughters shall prophesy;
And your young men shall see visions
And your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit;
And they shall prophesy.

On Ascension Day, we are called to “go up”—to find higher ground—not to escape Earth’s crises, but to gain a vision and mission that is larger than ourselves or our communities. We don’t need to look to the heavens to find inspiration. The ever-present God is right here, giving us all the guidance and inspiration we need, if we but look beyond ourselves. Our mission is here—to heal, to embrace, to welcome, and to love. We don’t need to wait for a far off day of perfection and rapture. If God is always with us, then right here and now can be the day of transformation and fulfillment.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He blogs at Living a Holy Adventure. Epperly’s column, “Spiritual Practices for Preaching,” is published every Wednesday on the Preachers Portal.

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

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