When I was a child the stained glass window on the back wall of the church we attended was in the form of a triptych. The left hand panel was Jesus in Gethsemane, his face earnest as he prayed with a blood red tear glittering on his face. The right hand panel was Jesus on the cross, his face anguished. And the middle panel was Jesus ascending, his face serene, and his feet on a cloud that was at least a foot off the ground. I sat there as a child wondering all sorts of things. "Why isn't he wearing sneakers?" "How can he hover over the ground like that?" But the most pressing question was "Why can't that peaceful man help those other two men?" My mother's answer, to get me to turn around and sit down, was "Honey, they're all the same man." Well, that really cleared things up for a 4-year-old girl!"
But she was right. And here on the brink of his departure it dawns on the disciples who it is who stands before them. Jesus who was servant is Savior. Jesus who was jeered at is the judge of the living and the dead. Jesus who was mocked and mutilated is Risen Christ, Messiah.
Such a recognition sets the heart on fire to share the message that love is stronger than death. John Wesley once described the effects of a woman testifying in a prayer meeting on behalf of her faith. He said that as she spoke, "a fire kindled and ran, as flame among the stubble, through hearts of almost all that heard." (Paul Wesley Chilcote, She Offered Them Christ, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993, 53)
Jesus now appoints the disciples as his witnesses. They have seen his death and can now testify to his resurrection (Marshall, 906). They are to spread the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins, to all the nations, beginning with Jerusalem (Lk. 24:47).
He clothes them with power. They are not being asked to be "flame among the stubble" on their own power, but with the aid of the Holy Spirit. They are to wait in Jerusalem until they are "clothed with power from on high" (24:49). (Relevant O.T. texts are Joel 2:28f; Is. 32:15, 44:3; and Ezek. 39:29; see also Lk. 12:12; Mt. 10:20; and Jn. 14:16f.)
The present account of Jesus' ascension (Lk. 24:50-51) is not of a different event from the ascension recorded in Acts 1:2, 4-11. It is simply a shorter version of it. Luke makes the departure of Jesus both the climax of the Gospel and the commencement of the Acts of the Apostles. The stress is on Jesus' priestly action in blessing the disciples and on their praise to God in the temple. (Marshall, 907)
The early Christian conviction that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father presupposes the event of Ascension. Matthew's gospel doesn't explicitly mention Jesus' ascension. John gives hints, but doesn't narrate the actual event. In John 20:17 Jesus tells Mary not to hold onto him, because he has "not yet ascended to the Father." He then tells her to go tell the male disciples that he is ascending to his Father and theirs.
Luke intends for us to see in this departure parallels to the great prophets Moses and Elijah whom Jesus both follows and surpasses. (See Luke's account of the Transfiguration, especially 9:31.) Jesus completes the "departure" or "exodus" of his suffering, death and resurrection by being carried up into heaven (2 Kgs. 2:1-18). Like Elijah he blessed those who stay behind and arranges for them to receive a measure of his Spirit (2 Kgs. 2:9). (Byrne, 192-3)
We might expect the disciples to be mournful at his departure. But instead, Luke portrays them as returning to Jerusalem "with great joy, remaining continually in the Temple blessing God" (24:52-53).
I'm always impressed by people who can face endings and departures with equanimity. I'm not always good at that. A show I've watched for a couple of years is cancelled and I feel slightly depressed. The moving truck takes my neighbor's things away. She drives out after it and I stand blubbering at the curb. My son goes off to college, just twenty-five miles from where we live, and I come home and stand in his doorway and cry.
My dad lay dying of liver cancer in his study at my parents' home that afternoon in November of 2002, and I sat in the kitchen staring into a cup of cold coffee. My niece though, was a different story. Ava was then 5 years old. She had hovered near grandpa's bed earlier that day, patting his hand as the hospice worker came to check on him. That afternoon the doorbell began to ring as visitors came to pay their respects to my dignified, dying dad. My mother wasn't sure how to handle this. Not sure that friends would want to visit a deathbed. Maybe they'd prefer to stay in the living room and just verbally express their care and concern. She was showing one couple into the living room, when Ava came up and took the man by the hand. "Want to come say goodbye to my Grandpa? He's leaving soon." She led them back to his bedside. There they simply said, "We love you, Bob." And he was able to say, "You two have been the best friends a man could have. I love you too." Who would want to miss a moment like that? From then on, Ava became the doorkeeper and hostess. She was the best qualified for the job that day. Because she got that this moment was important and that it wasn't all sad.