Commentary on Luke 24:44-53
As a pastor I used to dread preaching assignments on Ascension Day.
The texts seem so fantastic and otherworldly. How could I help people relate to the story of Jesus being taken away from his disciples and being lifted up into heaven? Would it not be better to move quickly past the Ascension and on to Pentecost and the founding of the Christian church? But this might be a bit rash. Properly considered, the story of Christ’s ascension can lead to a powerful proclamation of the gospel.
Lost in Space
Many interpreters get stuck on Luke 24:51 where it says Jesus “withdrew from them (his disciples) and was carried up into heaven.” This seems to imply that in order for the Ascension to make sense we need to embrace the three-story universe of the Bible. This reminds me of the Soviet-era cosmonaut who returned successfully from a mission in space and declared that he didn’t find God “up there” and thus all religion must be false. If we insist on operating within this framework, then our preaching on the Ascension will limp along and have very little impact on our listeners.
It seems this text will make sense only when we shift the focus from a Jesus floating away on the clouds to what these verses are now saying about the relationship between Jesus and God. This implies a new understanding of heaven. Heaven is not so much a “place” but rather the human expression for where God resides. In other words, the meaning of the Ascension is wrapped up in the significance of Jesus now being with God. Just what are we saying when we affirm that Jesus is “sitting at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19)?
Jesus and God
It can even be said that a new view of God is emerging in the biblical texts describing the Ascension. This is hinted at in Luke 24:52 where we read that the first act of the disciples was to worship Jesus after he was taken away to heaven. These followers of Christ, all pious Jews, know that God alone is to be worshiped. There is obviously a strong hint of the Trinity here. But for our purposes, it means it is no longer possible to talk about God without talking about Jesus. Our lens for thinking about God must always include a crucified, risen, and living Christ.
Most people (Christians included) seem to naturally lapse into a view of God that makes “sense” from a reasonable point of view. That is, God is imagined to be perfect in the sense that God is beyond all limitations of time and space. God is unchanging and all-powerful. God is majestic and sovereign and eternal. Of course it is possible to find Biblical passages to support these claims about God. It is not that they are wrong but rather they are incomplete. The God now being worshiped by the disciples in our passage is also one who knows loneliness, betrayal, rejection, thirst, and even death.
The ascension of Jesus into heaven alters our picture of God. We can no longer define God in a way that leaves God completely detached from human experience. The ascended Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, reveals a God who is vulnerable and even approachable. When we turn to God in times of distress or temptation we are not addressing a deity aloof and unfamiliar with our struggles. God knows our trials intimately well and not only comforts us by identifying with our pain but also assures us that affliction will not have the final word because it is the risen and ascended Christ who intercedes for us and nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:34).
A Word of Forgiveness
Finally, a strong emphasis on forgiveness is implicit and explicit in our texts on the Ascension. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the very appearance of the resurrected Christ to his disciples is first and foremost a message of forgiveness. The ones who fled and denied Jesus are not reminded of their cowardice and faintness of heart. Rather his first words to his confused and bewildered followers are, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). Moreover, this is not a word meant only for his closest companions during his earthly ministry. This radical word of mercy is to inform the entire mission of the disciples for he tells them “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).
And the ascension of Christ himself underlines this mission of mercy. It is often overlooked at the actual way that Jesus took leave of his followers. We are told that Jesus and his disciples go to Bethany where “…lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). Jesus’ departure to heaven is accompanied by a blessing of lifted hands. These are the very hands that still bore the wounds of one who was murdered on a Roman cross. He has commissioned the first witnesses of his ascension and then he provides them with a remarkable message of forgiveness. Let us remember that these witnesses themselves were complicit in his execution. But the last image of their betrayed leader is a dramatic sign of mercy.