Ascension: Caught Up With Jesus
By: Jerrod McCormack
Today, I opened my Facebook account and it took me all of five minutes to assess that the last week has been one crazy situation after another. The chemical attacks in Syria were responded to by a barrage of tomahawk missiles. There’s so much senseless violence in the world. There are days when I struggle to comprehend how God is present in this hot mess. And make no mistake: humanity is a hot mess. We are a bunch of needy, emotionally tumultuous, sometimes senselessly violent individuals, and our collective history is a mixed record of great accomplishments and spectacular failures. And yet as I look at the news feeds and read the accounts of bombings and mass graves, I know that deep in the very heart of God there is a cry for peace, mercy, and justice.
In the Anglican tradition, there is a beautiful moment during the Nicene Creed during which many bow in reverence to the statement, “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” This is one of the beautiful things that I loved about the liturgy since first becoming an Anglican. It’s full of all these moments when I am invited to participate in the worship of God’s people throughout the ages and to acknowledge the fullness of the mystery of God’s having chosen to dwell among human beings. The scriptures tell us that this is the moment that we have waited for: God has been made man. John 1:4 says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
In order to understand the theological significance of the Ascension, we must first and foremost understand what God has done in the incarnation. Jesus is the God-Man; both fully divine and fully human. Jesus was subjected to all the temptation that men and women are subjected to, as we see in the temptations in the desert. He experienced uncertainty in his relationship with God and doubts about God’s plan for him as we see reflected in his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet ultimately, Jesus was willing to carry the cross, and suffer, and give his life for all of humanity. However, that is not the end of his journey.
Jesus’ journey then continues with his return to the Godhead. Defining the ascension of Jesus might seem a simple enough task; it means that Jesus disappeared through the clouds into the same heaven from whence he came. This answer was the one that I carried for many years. I won’t soon forget the first time a priest introduced me to the idea that maybe the ascension meant something more than just Jesus’ disappearing through the clouds. This new explanation seemed a bit scandalous and yet the more I contemplated the depth and meaning of this concept, the more I found it to hold more truth and theological significance for me. I think somewhere inside I knew there had to be more to this concept of Jesus’s return.
Today’s text tells us that Jesus opens the scriptures to his followers before his ascension: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Jesus leads his apostles and disciples through this time of explanation. I have to wonder what sort of amazing things they might have learned from him during this time. The specifics are a mystery, and yet, Luke points us toward the greater truth when he tells us that Jesus began to explain to them the scriptures. He unpacks the meaning of God’s revealing work in how the Messiah must come, suffer, die, and on the third day rise from the dead. Is it all done now? Is God finished now that the resurrection is complete? The short answer is decidedly not. Luke points us toward the coming of the Holy Spirit in only a few short days. The apostles and disciples having borne witness to God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ and having received the promise of being clothed with power from on high, are blessed by Jesus as he is ‘carried up into heaven (v.51).
The Ascension of Jesus into heaven is as mystical and awesome as the incarnation. In the incarnation, God unites the fullness of Godself to humanity, and in the ascension, God unites the fullness of humanity to Godself. St. Augustine in his sermon on the Ascension of Jesus says, “For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.” Maybe it is a little scandalous to believe that the fullness of humanity has been drawn into the very heart and nature of God, and yet God has never shied away from us. God has continued to draw humanity closer and closer to Godself. That is the awesome story of the ascension. It is one of God’s continued drawing of humanity into God’s own heart.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke about the scandal of God’s drawing the fullness of humanity into Godself. He says, “Jesus ascends to heaven. The human life in which God has made himself most visible, most tangible, disappears from the human world in its former shape and is somehow absorbed into the endless life of God. And our humanity, all of it, goes with Jesus. When St Paul speaks of Christ ‘filling all in all’, as we heard in the epistle (Ephesians 1.15—end), we must bear in mind that picture: Jesus’ humanity taking into it all the difficult, resistant, unpleasant bits of our humanity, taking them into the heart of love where alone they can be healed and transfigured.”
Today, right in the very heart of God, Jesus cries out for all of his brothers and sisters. God hears their pain and knows their heartache. The scriptures remind us that Jesus’s role in heaven is to serve as the great high priest making intercession for us to God the Father. It cannot be underestimated how we need to remember that in moments when we are nearly overwhelmed by the terrible things in the world. God hasn’t shied away from the unpleasantness of humanity, but in God’s lovingkindness, God has reached out to understand. There will be justice, but God’s justice is tempered in perfect love and perfect understanding.
May Almighty God have mercy upon all of us.
Jerrod McCormack is the Youth Leader and Ohana Community Cafe Coordinator at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is also a Spiritual Care Provider for the Alberta Health Services. He earned an A.Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, a B.Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tennessee, and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. He is married to Ali and in their spare time they love to drive through the rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.
 “U.S. Cruise Missiles Strike Syria Airbase as Trump Reverses Position After Gas Attack”, CBC News http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/trump-us-cruise-missiles-hit-syria-airbase-1.4059761
 Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Alternative Services, (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1985) 188.
 St. Augustine, Homily on the feast of the ascension of the Lord, http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/bread_on_the_trail/2011/06/st-augustines-homily-on-the-feast-of-the-ascension-of-the-lord.html
 Rowan Williams, Sermon on the Feast of the Ascension, May 21, 2009. http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/883/a-sermon-by-the-archbishop-of-canterbury-at-the-ascension-day-sung-eucharist