Luke 24: 44 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.
Why the “great joy?”
- Looking backwards: The vindication of Jesus, his words and his works
- Looking then and there at the present: the enthronement of God over a rebellious, fallen Creation, through Jesus (now we know what all those enthronement Psalmsare about)
- Looking ahead:
- The “healing of the nations” through the gospel of “forgiveness in his name”
- Their own engagement and empowerment for that task through the Holy Spirit.
What were the eleven disciples so joyful about, as they watched Jesus ascend and disappear physically, from their sight? Not long before, their best friend had been taken from them by their enemies, and killed. After the stunning, surprising joy of the Resurrection, now he’s gone again, this time, at his own volition. What’s to celebrate about that? Even worse: he will be gone during a future in which he told them to expect opposition, persecution, even death, for his sake. And then he’s just given them a major job, to preach the gospel of “repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name, to all the nations [of the world].” That too without his presence? Christ’s ascension sounds more like a recipe for deep discouragement, frustration and fear, than for the “great joy” that Luke records.
To understand the surprising, counterintuitive joy of those disciples, we have to put ourselves in their shoes, and look in the same directions they did: to their present, to their past, and to their future. Those, I think, are what they found so exciting. Then we will find that the present, the past and the future they were so joyful about are our present, past and future, as well. We too have cause to rejoice on this Ascension Sunday.
First, for their present, and ours: those who saw Jesus ascending did not think they were seeing Christ’s disappearance from their world; they were seeing Christ’s enthronement over their world. Or, his coronation. Knowing their Bibles, they saw Christ’s ascension as the fulfilment of passages like Psalm 68: 7: “You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men, Even among the rebellious also, that the LORD God may dwell there.” Or from Psalm 47: 5, “God has ascended amid shouts of joy.” Those are all passages celebrating the enthronement of Israel’s God over Israel, over his enemies, even over the whole world. In the years following the Exile, when pagan, Gentile kings and kingdoms still ruled their land, Israel came to understand those verses as applying to a coming Messiah, a Son of David, who would embody the kingship of God.
How comforting and celebrative that would be to those Jewish disciples who had just seen their Messiah killed on a cross of shame, and who lived under the humiliating yoke of Roman imperial domination, corruption and exploitation, and of Rome’s collaborators.
But Christ’s ascension told them—and it tells us—that God has not left his people bereft. It says that even brutal, idolatrous and corrupt kings like Caesar now have a king over them, a righteous, just, holy and loving ruler to whom they must answer, the very one whom they put to death on a cross of shame and pain.
I wonder if that is a major reason why the Amish observe the actual Ascension Day as a holiday as important to them as Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. I could not call any Amish people up on the phone to ask why Ascension Day is so important to them. Nor could I find any Amish websites online to email with questions about the Ascension. But we did have an Amish group from Missouri visit the historical society center here this past Thursday, on, of all days, Ascension Day. Coming forty days after Resurrection Sunday, Ascension Day itself comes always on a Thursday, though we are celebrating it a few days later, today.
I came over to meet and greet them, and wished a few of them “A happy, blessed Ascension Day.” They seemed to appreciate that I knew about its importance to them. But one gentleman looked a little embarrassed and said, “We didn’t know that this would be Ascension Day when we scheduled this trip a while back, but it was the only time it worked out. Otherwise, we would not do any work on this day. We would gather for worship, and we’d spend time with family around a big meal, like on Easter.” Some Amish groups, I learned, might also spend part of the day in prayer and fasting.
I asked the same man about the meaning of Ascension Day for him and his church, and quickly realized I might be getting a little too probing and personal. But I did run across this Amish prayer online for Ascension Day: “O Great God, we worship, extol, praise and glorify Thee because of Thy Ascension, for Thou ascendest with jubilation, and with the clear sound of trumpets.”
There, again, you hear that language of royal enthronement and coronation from Israel’s psalms. Now, the Amish have suffered great persecution and hostility throughout history, they refuse to participate in military service or to conform to many other regular worldly activities, and in worship they sing the songs of their martyr ancestors out of the German language collection called “The Ausbund.” But they don’t do so out of hostility, animosity or a sense of superiority over and against worldly kings, kingdoms and countries. They do so because they believe that over all the kings and kingdoms and countries of this world there has ascended a higher king of a higher kingdom who holds all of us to account, to whom we all shall have to answer, king and commoner, president and the public. This ascended ruler and this realm will outlast and replace all other human dominions and institutions someday. It is the One whose Ascension, or enthronement, or coronation, we celebrate today. His enthronement did not take place in a gilded palace in a royal city like Rome or Jerusalem, but in the plain open air of all Creation. Nor was his coronation witnessed and attended by other high and mighty royalty and nobility from other mansions and palaces; the honored attendees and witnesses were simple fisher folk, farmers, the poor and the lowly of the earth.
The meaning of that overlooked but true, ascended ruler over all realms and rulers finds expression in the words of this hymn by James Russell Lowell, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted, verse four of “Once To Every Man and Nation:”
Tho’ the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong;
Tho’ her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.
This week, then, our Amish friends celebrate the assurance that no opposition, persecution, injustice or suffering inflicted in the world, or by the world, has the last word over them. That Christ is on the throne of heaven and earth, as king of kings and Lord of Lords, “keeping watch above his own,” is why the Ascension of Christ gave the disciples hope and joy for their present. With the Amish, we can share that hope our here and now.
Secondly, the Ascension of Jesus cast the disciples’ past in a positive light. The Ascension, or Enthronement, or Coronation of Christ, vindicates, or justifies, everything that Jesus, their Lord and Master, taught and did and said in his three years of ministry. That had to cheer the disciples, who had seen their Master bear the worst that the world, the flesh and the devil could send him all three of the years they followed him.
Christ’s Ascension also vindicated, or justified, the disciples, for having said, “Yes,” when Christ said, “Come, follow me.” His ascension was the proof that they had given the right answer, to that command, at least. Many other commands and questions of Jesus they got wrong. There were many failures, faults and foibles on their part to forgive. But the Ascension of Jesus proved that the One who forgave them was Lord over all, even over any who might still accuse them. The disciples responded to the Ascension with joy, because the forgiveness they needed was triumphantly, powerfully, and eternally assured by that Ascension. And so is ours. The Ascension of Christ reframed their understanding of the past. It can do the same for our past, whatever our losses or regrets, our failures, our faults and our foibles. Our forgiveness is guaranteed by the One who represents us in heaven, whose throne we share with him.
Thirdly, the Ascension provoked joy and hope in the disciples as they looked to their future, for at least two reasons. One reason had to do with the world’s future. As Christ ascends to his throne, he gives his disciples this charge: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in [my] name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Into the world then will go a message of forgiveness and hope, a ministry of reconciliation, for “the healing of the nations,” in contrast to all the messages and ministrations of despair, division and destruction coming at us from the world. God has a better destiny in mind for this world than what the world has for itself.
The other reason for the disciples’ joy had to do with their own personal futures. They had just been told that they will be heralds and the agents of that ministry of reconciliation. So are we. That might not be, however, quite the good news that it sounds like. After all, they had failed and flopped around at such a calling already, even with Jesus present. Who, then, is up to such a task? Certainly not they, as they have so often proven. How sure should we be about ourselves, with the ministry that our Ascended Master presents to us?
Jesus, however, has not only given his disciples a task; he promises them power with which to carry out that task. Jesus told them to “stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” The fulfillment of that promise we celebrate next week, on Pentecost Sunday, with the descent of the Holy Spirit. Suffice it for now to say that Christ ascended so that the Holy Spirit could descend just a few days later.
For the disciples, theirs is also the joy of anticipation, the anticipation of being “clothed with power from on high.” Then they will be able to do by the power of the Holy Spirit that which they so often failed to do in their own human power. Perhaps they even needed to fail and to flop around in the weakness of their own normal, human strength and wisdom. Then they could be all the more open, eager and willing to let God do for them, and through them, what they had tried so hard and failed so badly to do for God.
Hopefully that helps us think more positively about our own failures, faults, struggles and setbacks, in our present, past and future. Like the insurance sales agent I knew in rural Minnesota. He would sometimes come home dejected and disappointed from a day of visiting farms, businesses, homes and cafes, without making any new sales, or expanding any current accounts. His wife, however, would tell him, “Good for you, honey. You got your nine ‘no’s’ out of the way today, so you can get to your one ‘yes’ another day soon. And every single ‘yes’ is worth more than nine ‘no’s.’”
“Where’d you hear that?” he would ask.
“From you,” she’d say.
For that sales agent, one success to nine failures still puts you ahead, but only if you put in the time and the effort to show up, try and even fail at first. And that’s how it would work out for the disciples: the power of God would succeed just where their own power had so often failed. Because Christ is on the throne and still at work in our world, our own failures and faults, our losses and struggles can be more fruitful sometimes than our “successes” so-called.
So, again, Why the “great joy?” on the part of the disciples, even while it looked like Jesus was going away, physically, at least? And what cause of joy is there for us, 20 centuries later? Let’s remember that what looks like Christ’s disappearance is actually his enthronement. What looks like Christ’s absence from First Century Palestine is actually his presence now, always, here and everywhere, unlimited by time or space.
Then: 1) we can look to the present with trust in Christ’s kingship over a rebellious, fallen Creation; 2) we can look backwards in time, and see the justification and vindication of Jesus, of his words and of all his works; and 3) we can look ahead, as did the disciples, and foresee the “healing of the nations” through the gospel of “forgiveness in his name”, and our own engagement and empowerment for God’s ministry of reconciliation, through the Holy Spirit.