Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who came and loved and died and rose again, then left so we could become his reflection here on earth.
It’s that leaving that we reflect on today. Today is Ascension Day, a little known and largely ignored date in the Christian calendar. Ascension Day commemorates the way Jesus left the earth, and it marks a crucial shift in the way God interacts with Creation. Up until the Ascension of Jesus, the Bible’s narrative is focused on “place”—literally, on where God lives and where the people of God reside. A garden, an Ark, the Promised Land, the Temple—you get the idea. Jerusalem becomes the central place in the story of God’s love for humanity…that is, until the Ascension.
We see the story of Christ’s Ascension in Luke 24:50-53. Some background will help here. The events of Holy Week come to their big finish with the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross. The disciples are amazed and emboldened—the same people who run away or fall asleep when the chips were down suddenly become brave preachers and healers, even at the risk of their own lives.
The Bible tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus spent 50 days with his followers, spending virtually all of it talking about his favorite topic: the Kingdom of God. We know (because I keep going on about it) that the Kingdom of God is actually the reign of God—God’s demonstration of ongoing sovereign power over all times and places and things, even death. The values of the Kingdom are the focus of Jesus’s teaching in the parables, and they are the values we’re called to live as disciples of Jesus.
With me so far?
So why is the Ascension so important? It would have been easy to leave the risen Jesus on a throne in Jerusalem for all time. So many things would have been simpler—Jews would have come to see Jesus as their Messiah. People of other faiths might have seen how the deities of their religions point to the loving gospel of Jesus. We all would have been making peaceful pilgrimages to Jerusalem to see Jesus, because the place where he lived would be the most important place in the world. The holy land would have become The Holy Land, and everything and every person would have been focused there.
I think that’s why Jesus chose to leave the way he did.
Between the Ascension and its partner day, Pentecost, God does something dramatic—God changes the way we understand our relationship to the one who made us and loves us.
After the Ascension our relationship to God is no longer rooted in a place. Once the Holy Spirit comes to empower and energize the church, the presence of God isn’t limited to a box or a Temple or a country. Each of us carries that presence with us, which is meant to be a blessing for every person and nation in the world. That has huge implications for us and for the rest of the world. Why?
Because after the Ascension and Pentecost, there isn’t any specific holy land anymore.
After the Ascension and Pentecost, it’s all Holy Land—every beautiful, troubled, broken, glorious inch of this earth is Holy Land, rich with the presence of God because we’re in it.
How amazing is that?
During this past year of disruption from the pandemic, we’ve learned some new things about what it means to be the church when we can’t have our regular place. As much as I can’t wait to gather again in person, I’m grateful for the ways we’re grown into our new sense of what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world. We’ve continued to gather, continued to worship, continued to grow, and continued to serve. (You should be hearing Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship, and Mission in there.) We never stopped being the church, we only learned what it means to be the church apart from any place.
I hope we keep our Ascension hearts with us when we come back to face-to-face worship. It’ll be great to be together, but we can never forget what we were able to do, and who we were able to be, while we were disconnected from our regular place.
The church is everyplace we go and everywhere we are. That isn’t going to change.
May God bless you and keep you as we remember Christ’s Ascension. Stay safe and healthy.