“The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” (Acts 1:1).
I find this to be one of the most illuminating verses in the New Testament. Yes, it is a little strange to think so, but then if you’ve been reading Give Us This Day you have seen strangeness and oddity (and even weirdness) bubble up from the surfaces of the page, like crude oil, black gold, Texas tea, bubbling up in Jed Clampett’s back yard.
Luke’s “former account,” is, of course, the Gospel According to St. Luke, and if you read Luke 24 and Acts 1 back to back you’ll realize they belong together like man and wife, like peanut butter and jelly (or banana). What does Luke say about his Gospel? That in it he wrote about the things that Jesus Christ began to do and to teach. This can only mean that in his present book (“The Acts of the Apostles”, which some later editor added) he will be writing about the things that Jesus Christ continues to do and to teach.
Which brings us to verse 9. In verse 9, Jesus ascends into heaven, never to be seen in the flesh again until we get to heaven. But this presents an interesting little tension in the lives of Christians: how can Jesus Christ be around to continue to do and to teach when He’s sitting at the right hand of the Father?
The answer to this question is why I think this little, odd verse is so illuminating. In the book of Acts, St. Luke is writing about the words and works of Jesus Christ as the Spirit of Christ lives in the Body of Christ to be the presence of Christ on the earth. The main character of the book of Acts is therefore not St. Peter or St. Paul, the greatest tag team in history, but Jesus Christ Himself, as He works through the Holy Spirit who indwells His Body, the Church.
This is true Christian spirituality: the life of Jesus Christ communicated to the Body of Christ by the Spirit of Christ.
But sacred history doesn’t end with Paul in prison on page 1875 (in my Bible): it continues through our lives. The same Jesus Christ who changed water into wine, healed the blind, deaf, and dumb, and raised Lazarus from the dead is the same Jesus Christ who had Peter and John heal a lame man and had Paul stand preaching on Mars Hill is the same Jesus Christ who helps me to write Give Us This Day every day and helps you to raise your kids. In fact, now that the Body of Jesus Christ has been broken and blessed and is distributed throughout the world and even populates Paradise again, the truth of Jesus words become clear: “he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father” (John 14:12).
The Ascension of Jesus Christ is the turning point in the life of Christ and His Church. The Ascension marks the changing of the guard from Jesus Christ of Nazareth in a local body to Jesus Christ ruling the earth through His mystical Body. In reality, the work of Christ can’t be separated: the Incarnation, His life, His Passion, His Crucifixion, His Resurrection, His Ascension, and His Session are all part of the same centrifugal love that has come down to redeem those He loves.
Sometimes Catholics may over-emphasize the Incarnation, Evangelicals may over-emphasize the Cross, and Charismatics may over-emphasize Pentecost. But they all hang together.
But the Ascension is a very visible and dramatic change in how God works on the earth. At the Ascension, Jesus Christ is glorified and seen for who He is. At the Ascension, man enters heaven for the first time, in the person of Christ, and He is the firstfruit of many more to come. What in heaven’s name is Jesus doing in heaven? He is preparing a place for us (John 14). He is acting as our High Priest and from heaven makes intercession for us. One of the things I’ll bet He’s most fervently praying is that we may do His will on earth as He does it in heaven!
It is with the Ascension, which is but the transition to Christ’s Session or sitting at the right hand of the Father, that Jesus takes his rightful place on the throne and begins to rule. This is why, since we are united to Him, we also are kings and rule with Him. Primarily, we are the kingdom which is ours to rule, and when we rule ourselves and own households well, then we get promoted and can begin to rule other parts of the creation. It is, therefore, through us that Christ now reigns on the earth. This is the significance of the Incarnation and Ascension and all other parts of Christ’s ministry among us and with us.
Christ’s ascension to heaven is also the ultimate reminder that heaven is most truly our home, and His being there is the sure promise that it is our eternal home as well.
It’s because Christ ascended to heaven that He sent the Holy Spirit, and all of the events of Acts 2 and Pentecost and our lives proceed from His life and work. As He sends His Holy Spirit to us, He is with us, as He promised. As His Holy Spirit dwells in us, we become His Temple and Body that do His heavenly will and participate in the establishment and manifestation of His heavenly kingdom here on earth.
The unity and power and glory that comes from Christ’s presence in us by the Spirit is manifested in the dynamic, creative, inspired relationship between the Church and the Gospel. It’s not entirely accurate to say that the Bible came first, is it? If you remember your church history, you’ll remember that Peter, Paul, and others speak of the resurrected Christ and begin acting as the Church before the New Testament was written down. In order for there to even be a Word of God for us to receive, there must have been a Church, a body of God’s people who heard God speak, were gathered together, and who eventually wrote down what God inspired them to write. It was in the life of the Church, and never apart from it, that the Scriptures were written, shaped, and received.
But the Word of God, originally oral but now written down, is not only birthed by the Church but also births the Church. For from hearing the Word of God, as delivered by the Church and her ministers, others receive the gift of faith and believe and bring new life to the Church.
Look for this godly dynamic between Church and Gospel throughout the book of Acts and in your lives.
The Gospels, then, are about what Jesus Christ began to do and teach, while Acts and our lives are about what He is continuing to do through us, by the Spirit. If only we could recognize and remember how close the Lord actually is to us and how united we are to Him, the reputation and power and glory of the Church, and especially of Jesus Christ, might be something more than we see it in our day.
What a wonder: that Jesus Christ, who is my Lord and my God, not only lives in me but has also chosen to work and to teach through me! Such a wonder deserves, demands, a wonderful response of faith and faithfulness, of love and humility.
Prayer: Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord, Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Points for Meditation:
- What was the response of the apostles to Jesus’ Ascension? What should your response be to the Ascension?
- In what ways has Jesus Christ worked and taught in your life?
- In what ways does Jesus Christ desire to work and teach in your life?
Resolution: I resolve to remember to praise Jesus Christ for His Ascension and His work in my life all throughout the day today.
Pentecost, San Marco Milan – By permission of copyright holder