Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Luke 24:44-53

       He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

     50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Today is traditionally observed in much of the church as “the Feast of the Ascension.” On this day, we remember the day on which Jesus left this world and went back to heaven to take his place at “the right hand of the Father.”

It’s actually the fortieth day after Easter, with the understanding that the Resurrected Jesus walked among us for forty days. You might remember that we’ve said in the past that in the Bible, forty days or forty years is understood to mark a period of transformation. So we might see the ascension as the end of a period in which the church was transformed into a movement that could operate without Jesus being physically present to direct it.

This passage from Luke is the listed Ascension of the Lord reading for many parts of the church, although our denomination lists the Great Commission instead – Matthew 28:16-20. There’s a certain logic in that, since the Great Commission marks the final words of Jesus in Matthew before he ascended to heaven. We Presbyterians tend to be action-oriented, so the Great Commission makes sense to us because it tells us what to do – we’re meant to go into the world making disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey the commandments of Jesus.

But it seems to me that the Ascension is one of those events in the history of our relationship with God that aren’t about us ‘doing something.’ Some observances in church life just invite us to stop and reflect on their meaning. And today’s reading from Luke seems like one that invites us to stop and think about the significance of the occasion.

For one thing, it’s important for followers of Jesus to remember that he did, in fact, return to heaven. Two of the four gospels tell us that with his disciples watching, Jesus left this world and returned to the realm he had come from. He was here among us for a while, he died on the cross and rose again, and then forty days later he returned to heaven.

And by the way, that phrase ‘for a while’ is significant. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus’ time in this world was always intended to be limited. The Gospel of John says, “The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” And the Greek word that’s translated “made his dwelling” is derived from the word for ‘tent.’ So the sense of it is that Jesus came and ‘camped’ in this world for a while. This world was never intended to be his permanent home.

Another thing we should say about this passage from Luke is that it reinforces the message in Matthew that those of us who follow Jesus are intended to be his witnesses now that he is no longer physically among us. The first disciples could bear witness to the healings and other miracles they had seen Jesus do, as well as to what they had heard him say. But for those of us who come after, we are to bear witness to what we have seen Jesus do in our lives and in the lives of others.

It seems to me we’re also meant to bear witness to what we have seen the body of Jesus do in the world around us. The church has certainly committed many sins throughout its history. But it’s probably beyond dispute that the church of Jesus Christ has done more works of charity, has founded more schools and hospitals, has fed more hungry people and defended more abused and neglected people, than any other movement in human history. And we are to be witnesses to those things, as well.

Today’s reading also includes the directions Jesus gave his followers to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. That happened ten days later – on the Day of Pentecost.

It seems significant that Jesus gave his followers that command. The ten-day interval shows that the explosion of spiritual energy that propelled the church out into the world wasn’t human energy, but rather was a shove by God to empower the mission Jesus was giving the church. That mission is what Jesus was talking about in the Great Commission – making disciples and teaching the world his commandments.

We should also remember that by ascending to heaven, Jesus was leading the way for the rest of us. He had come into the world to share in our humanity. Now he was going before us to allow us to share in his divinity. Rising from the dead on Easter, Jesus established a way to eternal life for us. Ascending to heaven on the day of the Ascension, Jesus was going before us to prepare a place in his Father’s house, as he promised. He was returning to his eternal life with God, and giving a sign that we’ll share in that life with God, too.

So you see why I say we really should stop and think about the Ascension of the Lord – there’s a lot of important meaning in this event that we tend to overlook.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for this important reminder of where our new lives in Jesus are meant to be going. As we live in this world and continue the work he gave us to do, bearing witness and making disciples, empower us by your Spirit to live with a hope that comes from keeping his kingdom always in sight. Amen.