Why did Christ ascend into heaven? Out of all the important things Jesus did, it’s one of the few that we recite every week in the Creeds. But Ascension Day itself is often forgotten, sandwiched in on a Thursday (40 days after the Resurrection) and overshadowed by Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.
I want you to put yourself in the disciples’ place this morning. Jesus, the Messiah died, but then He was resurrected. You saw Him, and He taught you on and off for 40 days about the Kingdom of Heaven. And then He tells you to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, and He ascends into heaven. And now He’s gone.
You might be forgiven for continuing to stare into heaven for a long time. (Of course you stop the minute the angels embarrass you by asking “Why do you gaze up into heaven?”)
As His disciples, we might pause a minute and think about the meanings of the Ascension of our Lord. Too often I think we skip from the Resurrection to the Second Coming in our thoughts and imaginations, and we don’t adequately meditate on or grasp the importance of what in the world Jesus is doing now.
We left the disciples, gazing up into heaven, standing in awe of and probably in confusion over their ascended Lord. The angels ask them, “Why do you stand gazing up into heaven?” with the implication that they should not continue to do so. And I want to ask you all, as disciples of Jesus Christ, “Why do you stand gazing up into heaven?” Because if you’re like me, you do that. As disciples of Jesus Christ, there is a sense in which we should and a sense in which we should not be continually gazing up into heaven.
Why should we stand gazing up into heaven? The first response of the apostles in Acts 1:10 was to look steadfastly into heaven. The first response to God’s glory and rising up into heaven should be to humble ourselves and fall down before Him in worship. More specifically, we find just such a response in Luke 24:52. There we find that they worshiped Him because of His kingdom and power and glory. They returned to Jerusalem with great joy: they went home with joy. What a contrast to the Crucifixion, after which they return home with emptiness and meaninglessness.
In Luke 24:53, they praised God because of what He had done for His Son, and for what was therefore promised to them. And they blessed God. This is, of course, after Jesus had first blessed them in Luke 24:50. God blesses us so that we can bless Him. In all things, that is, they followed Christ. They suffered with Him, and one day they would be raised with Him.
So why should we stand gazing up into heaven? Because God is worthy of our worship, and the Ascension is the proof of God’s power: it reveals His glory to us. Therefore, worship, joy, praise, and blessing should be our first response to God.
Do you gaze up into heaven? I hope that you do! (Especially after having just read the book of Hebrews.)
We also stand gazing up into heaven because Jesus Christ is there, and someday we will be too. Jesus Christ descended to earth and then ascended back into heaven so that He could bring humanity to heaven. He ascended that He might prepare a place for us, our eternal home: starting now. One day, my son Charlie was struck by the idea of Jesus reserving a place for him specially. He said that Jesus was taking the “Reserve” sign down on his (Charlie’s) home in heaven and burning it because Jesus already had it ready for him.
But in celebrating Jesus’ Ascension we aren’t merely celebrating a historical event that’s dead in the past: like our celebration of the Declaration of Independence, our historical celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is an ongoing reality for us. In celebrating the Ascension, we do more than just gaze up into heaven, however: we enter into the heavenly places. When we respond to Jesus Christ with worship, praise, joy, and blessing, we are seated in the heavenly places with Jesus Christ.
But there’s also a reason why we should not only stand gazing up into heaven. Gazing up into heaven is the Marian side of our spiritual lives, but there’s also a Marthian side. Our whole life cannot be one interrupted act of adoration and contemplation, otherwise we would be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good (which doesn’t seem to be too much of a danger in this day and age).
What did the disciples do after gazing up into heaven? They started there, as they should have, but they didn’t stay there. They were not to spend the rest of their lives gazing into heaven. There’s a reason why the Acts of the Apostles is called the Acts of the Apostles: if it had been called the Gazing of the Apostles, there may not have been much to write about! There was something for them to do, after they have gazed up into heaven and worshiped.The same Lord who they worshiped in His Ascension now had to be worshiped by a faithful obedience to all that He had commanded them to do. The same Lord who ascended told them to go and do something: to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and then to preach the Good News to the world. After having seen the vision of Christ and worshiping Him, they were to go out and fulfill the Great Commission, to go and preach the Good News that Jesus Christ has died on the Cross for your sins, that He rose again with the power of God, that He has ascended into heaven where He reigns over heaven and earth and is preparing a place for you in heaven, and that therefore you must be baptized and faithfully obey all that He has commanded you if you want to be His disciple.
After gazing up into heaven, therefore, they obeyed Jesus Christ, first by going to Jerusalem and waiting for the Holy Spirit, and then by going and turning the world upside down for Jesus Christ, the Ascended One.
So what we are to do after gazing up into heaven? The same thing the apostles did. We, like Christ, have work to do here on earth. Luke begins Acts by telling Theophilus that in his Gospel he wrote about all that Jesus Christ began to do and to teach. His implication is that the book of Acts, and our lives, are the rest of what Jesus Christ does.
Jesus Christ has ascended (and we have ascended with Him), and we do His work here on earth because we are His body on earth. We are the Body of Christ, and we are the Bride of Christ, truly united to Him and seated with Him in the heavenlies. When Jesus Christ ascended, He sat down at the right hand of the Father. Why? Because He has begun His rule as the King of kings. Being truly united to Him and being His Body here on earth, we are to live out this rule and bring others into it. This is exactly what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come, by thy will being done by us on earth as it is in heaven and by faithfully feeding on Jesus Christ our daily bread.
When Jesus Christ ascended, He ascended that He might intercede for us as our High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16; see also chapters 5-10.) Being united to Jesus, and being His priests who minister with Him, we have our priestly work of prayer. We are to pray as He prayed, and so He left us His Prayer, which we are to pray every day. And we are to live in prayer, a life of prayer, filled with prayer, in which even our work becomes a prayer offered to God.
Finally, Jesus ascended into heaven so that He could send the Holy Spirit to do His holy will through us. Only if Jesus goes to the Father, and only if He sends the Holy Spirit, will we be able to do His will on earth as it is in heaven. When Jesus sends His Holy Spirit to us, and we do the holy will of the Father as Jesus did, we show that He is our King, and we show that His kingdom has come and that King Jesus is ruling in our lives. Having the Holy Spirit, we live as His dedicated, worshiping disciples, gazing up into heaven. And having the Holy Spirit, we are transformed from the sniveling, cowardly disciples who are holed up in the upper room for fear of the Jews to those heroes of the Acts of the Apostles who continue to do and teach what Jesus began, turning the world upside down in the process!
In the Ascension, our Lord Jesus Christ ascends that we might ascend with Him. And so we gaze into heaven, loving God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. Loving Him for who He is and what He has done.
And after we have gazed, we return to earth to have Him do His holy will through us, as we love our neighbor as ourselves.
In the Ascension, our heavenly and earthly missions of worship and work become one, for in the Ascension heaven and earth have kissed.
Prayer: Almighty God, we ask that as Your only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into the heavens, so we may also in heart and mind ascend there with Him. As He perfectly obeyed Your holy will, may we obey and faithfully continue, through the Holy Spirit, the work of His kingdom as His body, through Him who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
Point for Meditation: Are you more of a Mary or a Martha? If you are a Martha, spend more time today gazing up into heaven like Mary. If you are a Mary, spend more time today finding how you may continue the good works of Jesus Christ today.
Resolution: I resolve to spend some time today gazing into heaven and worshiping Jesus Christ. But after I have done this, I resolve to listen for how He wants me to come back to earth to serve Him today.
© 2013 Fr. Charles Erlandson