The meaning of the ascension of Jesus

A blog post for ascension day

The east window at Holy Trinity Church, Huddersfield.
The East Window at Holy Trinity Huddersfield, the top section depicting Jesus ascending into a cloud watched by the eleven apostles.

When they were together for the last time they asked, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?”

7-8 He told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

9-11 These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, “You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left.”

Acts 1:6-11 The Message

I have divided this post into three, If anyone wants to steal the format for Sunday’s sermon steal away, it is not original.

Jesus will return

This passage from Acts is written in the form of a sandwich. There is a double filling, but the overall context, the bread, is that Jesus will return. This is the focus of the passage, Jesus is coming back. Whatever else you get from this passage, without this context it does not do justice to the passage.

It starts with a question from the disciples, does this last meeting mean that the kingdom will be returned to Israel. Yes that’s right. to Israel. They are yet to realise that Jesus’ mission was not to kick the occupying Romans out, the story of salvation and redemption is much bigger than that, yet can be summarised as, “This is God’s world, and God wants it back.” The answer Jesus gives looks like a cop out, but it is one of the most important statements, It was not for his followers to know when the kingdom would be returned to God, only the Father knows, not even Jesus knew, he made that clear when he was speaking to them shortly before his crucifixion. This message is the same for us. We do not know. We must live as if Jesus could come back at any time, he could, but also not neglect working for the kingdom of God on earth by feeding the hungry, tending the sick, welcoming foreigners (even in a pandemic, how to do this without being irresponsible is the hard bit). We are to live so that if Jesus returns he will find us already living by the values of his kingdom.

The return of Jesus is emphatic. The men in white, usually presumed to be angels, said as much. The disciples have just seen him go, his return is just as certain.

We are promised the Holy Spirit

Wait!

Earlier in the chapter Jesus has told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit has come. They are not to go out preaching under their own power. They are not to go our healing in their own power. They are not to go out feeding the sick, clothing the naked or standing up for those who society would rather forget. Not yet. They were to wait for the Holy Spirit to come and then under the guidance of the Holy Spirit all this, preaching, miracles and social work, were done by the church.

Jesus said that the Holy Spirit was given so they could witness. Not preach, witness, Acts 6:7 says that the fair distribution of food to the widows was the cause of the number of believers to increase. Preaching is good, but witnessing is about saying what we have seen, we do it in word and actions.

There is someone in heaven who understands

I write this, dear children, to guide you out of sin. But if anyone does sin, we have a Priest-Friend in the presence of the Father: Jesus Christ, righteous Jesus.

1 John 2:1 The Message

We have a Priest-Friend, That is how the Message paraphrases the Greek παράκλητος, paraklētos. This word is more often used for the Holy Spirit but here it is used for Jesus. In its simplest form paraklētos according to the online Greek dictionary contained within the Blue Letter Bible means someone who is called to your side, a helper or friend, though it also has a legal meaning of a legal advocate who pleads a case before a judge. When in doubt I tend to go with the simple explanation: We have a friend in Jesus who understands what it is to be human who is in heaven. He will not let us down, in fact he taught us of how the love of the Father means that he is always ready to forgive. We can bring our cares and needs to God knowing that he hears. We also know that this righteous Jesus will return, in love, for all who are his and to return the world to God, its rightful owner.

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