Christians do a great job of celebrating Christmas and Easter, but it’s really Jesus’ ascension which ‘seals the deal.’ Forty days after Easter, Luke tells us in the sequel to his gospel, Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11), Jesus ascended into heaven in front of the eleven disciples: “…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (v.9) They stood there, watching and waiting. At that moment, similar to Easter Day, two men in white robes appeared and said to them, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” (v.11) Immediately, they set about to work, no longer dependent on Jesus’ earthly presence. Immediately, they did what they knew they were capable of doing, spreading the good news in word and deed.
That’s a great question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” Most of us are conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere, not within. Why do you stand looking up to heaven? Because we’re so conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere we’re also lousy at practicing freedom. When we talk about freedom, then, we tend to think about being free from something — from others, from expectation, from binding laws. That’s not what God means by freedom. For God, freedom is not being free from something. It’s being free for something.
Christianity is a religion of freedom, but be careful: what Christians actually celebrate is that we are free, in fact, to exercise the better angels of our nature, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s phrase. We are free, truly free for the exercise of higher spiritual values.
All of this, we say, is because Jesus took up our nature, our humanity, with him. Without the Ascension, we’d never get around to doing what we’re capable of doing. Without the Ascension, we’d be sitting around, drifting aimlessly, acting like wild-eyed children, practicing the freedom which is really lawlessness, or waiting for another leader, monarch, dictator, self-help guru or diet commercial to tell us what to do.
The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, taught that our material nature is already in heaven, at least in part: “Since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already ‘sit with God in the heavenly places in him’ so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head already possess it.”
And Brooke Westcott, the 19th century Bishop of Durham (England), wrote: “By the Ascension all the parts of life are brought together in the oneness of their common destination. By the Ascension Christ in His Humanity is brought close to every one of us, and the words ‘in Christ,’ the very charter of our faith, gain a present power. By the Ascension we are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration. … He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. We believe that He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
It could be said, in a sense, that Christians gather to re-learn and practice a freedom which this world does not, cannot teach. We gather and enjoy and engage, as Bishop Westcott said, “the surface of things” — we make friendships, build community, serve the needy and oppressed. But we are cognizant, at the same time, that we’re also, everyday, “working beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration.” A freedom such as that is not to be missed.