Any serious student of the Christian Scriptures quickly realizes only one of our four evangelists - Luke - describes a definitive ascension of the risen Jesus. But because we eventually created a “solemn feast” revolving around his theological insight, most of us overlook the fact that Mark, Matthew, and John end their works with the clear indication the risen Jesus is “still out here among us.” Of course, given Paul’s belief that this “new creation” Jesus can no longer be categorized as slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female, the quest to surface this particular Jesus in our midst might create some practical problems. Some days we’d prefer he/she actually were eons away in heaven so we wouldn’t have to spend a lot of our valuable time and effort trying to discover him/her in the people and situations we encounter in our daily lives.
It’s interesting that even Luke describes Jesus’ “definitive” departure only in Acts. Today’s Lucan gospel passage, though it includes an ascension, doesn’t seem to present it as a permanent departure. Once we understand that Luke composed both his gospel and Acts, then we must turn to chapter 1 of Acts immediately after we finish chapter 24 of the gospel. When we do so, we can then surmise his gospel ascension is similar to the ascension John speaks about when his risen Jesus tells Mary to stop hanging on him because he’s about to ascend to his father. But, as we all know, he ascends, then returns both later that night and a week later, appearing to his disciples in the upper room. In other words, Luke can be talking about a temporary departure to heaven in his gospel, but “change of zip code” departure in Acts.
Our sacred authors’ use of the ascension isn’t so much a tool to get rid of Jesus as it is a way to look at his unique, post-resurrection relationship with God and us. The disciple of Paul responsible for the letter to the Ephesians, for instance, employs an ascension to show how pleased God is with Jesus’ successful ministry. The author equates God “raising Jesus from the dead” with God “seating him at his right hand in the heavens . . . “ Jesus carried out God’s plan so well that he’s now superior to “every principality, authority, power and dominion. . . He put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” The privileged position the risen Jesus now has in the eyes of God is shared by those who follow him: those who dare to imitate his death and resurrection and have become other Christs.
Throughout Acts, Luke also joins the risen/ascended Jesus to his disciples. Their experience of Jesus, alive among them, impels them to do things “normal” fishermen would never even think of accomplishing. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” Jesus assures his disciples, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
With such a demanding ministry before them, no wonder they’ll need the Holy Spirit to point the directions into which this small community is to go. But no wonder also, they’ll need Jesus sitting next to God, interceding with God for them as they start down those unmapped roads.
Perhaps one of the reasons we look at Jesus’ ascension from only one perspective is that many of us hesitate to carry out the God-given ministry which his earliest followers accepted. Only when we start doing so, will our experiences of the risen Jesus also become “multi-dimensional.”