The Ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:6-11) is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic days of the Christian year. To be frank, it’s a day that most progressive and mainstream Christians would just as soon jettison along with literal embodied understandings of the resurrection. It also receives little interest among conservative and evangelical Christians, beyond the judgment that because it is in the Bible, it must have occurred as described. Most churches observe Ascension Day by omission, since it raises many questions, and provides few answers and takes us into the enchanted and often intellectually incomprehensible world of myth and mysticism. Many preachers skip over the Ascension readings on the following Sunday (May 29) for precisely the same reasons. Fewer and fewer congregations hold Ascension Days services each year. At first glance, the apparent otherworldliness of the Ascension seems irrelevant to issues of faith, spirituality, and ethics.
Forty days after the resurrection, according to Acts of the Apostles, the resurrected Jesus ascends into the heavens. Whether or not this event actually occurred, it is a clever literary device to get Jesus off the scene and enable the first followers of Jesus to claim responsibility for his ongoing mission. After all, what do you do with a resurrected, death-defeating Jesus, and what does God do with such a phenomenon? A resurrected Jesus would truly be with us always both spiritually and physically. With the embodied Jesus off the scene, from now on the power of the Spirit will be inspiration of Jesus’ first followers as they take their role as the Body of Christ in the world.
Still, this story, circulated during the lifetimes of those who witnessed it, may refer to some type of group mystical experience, and divine accommodation to human cosmology, the belief in a three-story universe.
The story of Jesus’ Ascension is mythical in nature, describing a three-story universe that is unbelievable, if taken literally. Like the launch of a rocket, the story describes Jesus ascending to the heavens, presumably the home of God and the ultimate destiny for Jesus’ followers, and the template for Jesus’ return. Accordingly, based on today’s understandings of cosmology and astronomy, it is easy for modern thinkers to dismiss the story altogether. Yet, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts, it is more important that a proposition be interesting than factual. While not factual, when taken literally, myths may present us with deeper truths about ourselves and the world than mere fact. Myths speak of our heroic journeys, encounters with the Holy, and our vocations as God’s companions. Myths reveal the wisdom and power that lie beyond the scope of the five senses and observed history. The ascension of Jesus may reveal the deeper interplay of mysticism and mission, and heaven and earth, in our spiritual experiences.
While we can no longer affirm a geocentric or multi-level universe as scientific fact, the Ascension story has a deeper meaning than Jesus’ geographical departure. What seems to be happening in the Ascension is Jesus’ turning over of his mission to his followers. Though I wonder why Jesus had to leave us, and how our world might have changed had he stayed (after all, he has everlasting life!), I realize that for his followers to grow to their full potential, Jesus – like a loving parent – had to give them space to grow. No helicopter parent, God encourages freedom, creativity, and loving interdependence, balancing our initiative and independence with our responsibilities to one another. Jesus’ departure is both an ending and a beginning: the end of his earthly mission and the beginning of the Spirit-filled church.
As Jesus’ first followers gaze to the heavens, transfixed by the ascending Jesus, angelic guides tell Jesus’ followers, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up at heaven?” The guides challenge them to take responsibility for the emerging faith and its impact on the world. “Your life is here on earth and not in heaven above. Your responsibility is to bring heaven to earth and not long for heaven. The future of God’s reign on earth and Jesus’ mission is in your hands, and if the message of God is to flourish, you must take the lead, becoming God’s earthly companions in the quest for Shalom and Salvation.”
The Ascension story reveals the deeper reality that God calls us to vocation and the response is ours. Though our spiritual treasures are fallible, earthen vessels, we are God’s hands and feet, as Teresa of Avila counsels. Though we can do nothing apart from God’s all-embracing and ever-present love, the way of Jesus, and the inspiration of the Spirit, God needs us to heal the world. We can be both heavenly minded, affirming our destiny as God’s everlasting companions, and earthly good, claiming our responsibility to care for the earth and its peoples.
Today, we must claim the deeper wisdom of Jesus’ Ascension in a time in which we are tempted to lose hope in the long-term future of democracy and planetary survival. Though the odds appear against us in our time of protest, pandemic, civil unrest, war, and climate change, we have the promise that God is with us, inspiring, challenging and comforting, promising “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20) and because I am with you, you can claim your place as embodiments of my quest to heal the earth.
Ascension continues the work of Resurrection and is the prelude to Pentecost. Fortified by God’s resurrection love, we can practice resurrection, claiming our place and power as God’s companions in healing the world. We can become the messengers of the Spirit, joining mysticism and mission, in furthering a world in which diversity and unity are married in healing the world.
Bruce Epperly is a professor, pastor, and author of over sixty books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGIES AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; TALKING POLITICS WITH JESUS: A PROCESS PERSPECTIVE ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT; and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.