The ascension is the climax of the story of Jesus and the key to understanding the church. The ascension effectively connects the story of Jesus with the story of the church.
The early church recognized the significance of the ascension. It is found in every major creed. For example, the Apostles’ Creed:
He ascended into heaven,
He is seated at the right hand of the Father,
What, then, is its significance?
Jesus and the Ascension
The Ascension of Jesus back to the Father is utterly crucial in salvation history, although perhaps the least understood.
We can typically grasp the importance of Christ’s death for our sins and know that it is of the utmost significance that he is risen from the dead. However, the Ascension can tend to elude our grasp.
When Jesus ascended to the Father he did so with the fullness of his humanity which he took on in the Incarnation. This means that when Jesus goes back to the Father he does so with his body.
This means that Christ reigns in heaven with his body. If we get to heaven Jesus will have the resurrected, glorified body. At the end of time when each person experiences the resurrection of his or her body, we will be able to touch the glorified body of the Lord.
This is how much God loves us. The Father sends the Son to become like us in all things, taking on a human soul and a human body, never to get rid of them. What the Second Person of the Trinity does in the Incarnation is irrevocable. He has become like us in all things, and will stay like us.
Also fundamental to contemplating the mystery of the Ascension is to recall that when Adam sinned the Garden of Eden was now closed. This represented the fact that heaven was closed to all humanity. No one in the history of the world had entered heaven. Jesus, true God from true God, takes on human nature and ascends into heaven so that we now might have access to the true Promised Land.
In Jesus – the Word-made-flesh – God fully shares in our humanity, bearing our sin, in order to raise humanity to the heights of divine glory. Now, BECAUSE OF JESUS, a human can fully share in the divine life and love God and making it possible for us to go to heaven.
Jesus after his Ascension sent the Holy Spirit to be with us. We are still united to Jesus, through the Spirit. It is “in Christ we have access to the Father through the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18). Our salvation, therefore, depends upon our continuing union with the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit. In the Holy Spirit, the distance between us and Christ is collapsed. The Spirit unites us with Christ in the “heavenly places” (see Ephesians 1:3; 2:6; Colossians 3:1-3). This collapsing impacts our entire experience of time, space, and matter:
- In the Spirit, time is collapsed in that we presently possess eternal life.
- In the Spirit, space is collapsed in that the presence of the risen Christ is available everywhere, although we await the time when we will see him face to face.
- In the Spirit, matter is collapsed in that the presence of the risen Christ is experienced in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, although we await the final marriage feast of the lamb.
Where is the Church?
“Where is the church in its relation to the ascended Lord?”
Jesus is alive and continues his kingdom work in the church through the Spirit. The church derives its primary identity and mission from its ongoing relationship with the risen and ascended Lord through the Spirit.
Jesus’ marching orders are simple and succinct: “You are my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). “The church’s essential calling and task is to bear witness to what God has done and is doing in Jesus.”
The message is for all people and all nations: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). But we must begin by proclaiming and living the message in our own backyard. Our goal is best stated in the prayer our Lord Jesus taught us: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Through obedience to Jesus, our longing is not simply to “go to heaven” but to bring heaven to earth through our faithful witness in word and deed. We are not on our own. Jesus is alive, present among us through the Spirit and in the church.
We must never forget this. It is easy to fall into the error of believing that because the Lord is not visible, he is not present – that we are on our own. But the truth is that Christ is present here today. He is the head of the church. This is his church – Christ’s church. It’s not my church or your church. We must answer to Christ, and seek to faithfully follow him in all things.