Frances writes :- There is often a tendency to wonder precisely why Jesus left us at the Ascension, why at the moment of his resurrected triumph over death he did not stay put. It is only when we really spend time with the implications, both of what his remaining would have meant, and what his departure implies, that we can begin to experience the enormity of his ascension gift to humanity.
This is an issue explored by our reading from Acts (1:1-11). It appears that the disciples, so like us, want to cling onto the risen Jesus and, despite all his talk to the contrary, are still thinking in earthly and very Jewish terms. “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Despite all his teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God they, like their fellow Jews who rejected Jesus’ teaching and understanding of the Father, are still stuck with him as a Roman basher; someone who would gather a huge army and come in power once and for all to throw any would be conquerors out of Israel. In their thinking, the reign of God on earth would still be a very worldly thing, about power and control, and making sure that Israel finally came out on top. The disciples, like us, cling to familiar concepts, and what they think they know, and they cast God in this image too.
This is precisely why the risen, glorified Jesus must leave them. It was time to move on – their time to move out into the great adventure which was to be Christianity. Had Jesus remained they and we would be incurably handicapped, forever overshadowed by the risen Lord, trapped in a world in which his power would have become absolute. There would be no need for any to search for God, for there he was, no need for us to think for we would be trapped; infantilized by his very presence. Instead, we notice that Jesus is looking forward to their baptism in the Holy Spirit, the coming of age of the disciples, and all that that will mean.
In Luke’s gospel (Lk 24:46-53) we get a rather clearer picture of all this, as Jesus instructs the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they had been “Clothed with the power from on high.” Significantly, he reminds them of his death and resurrection, and their task, “That, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Our, and I suspect the disciples’, problem was and is that few of us really take on board the gift of the Father to us. Sure, we have that wonderful promise of eternal life, of even sharing divinity with him in heaven, but in general, we fail to discern the real meaning of the ascension of Jesus.
The whole purpose of the incarnation, of the sending of God the Son in flesh and blood like ours, was to reveal to the world the true relationship between Father and Son and their intention for us. This is made clearer precisely by the ‘loss’ of the physically present Jesus. For in that we experience the full extent of the divine trust in us, in the human creatures God has made. Jesus’ mission is completed by his saving death and resurrection; the divine invitation to believers is that they trust us to make it known, shared and lived out in the world. Had Jesus remained, such a trust, any such call, would have been superfluous, void of meaning; humanity would have remained at best willing and obedient followers, at worst, puppets. But by his ascension, Christ gives this supreme honour to the disciples. That it is our task, our mission, our great act of willing and freely given collaboration with him, to make it known and available to the whole of humanity. God, it appears, is supremely optimistic about humanity. We may not be so, and from our perspective on the world, things can look pretty bleak, but we must remember that God has placed his trust in us, and knows that we will not fail.
The writer of The Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 9:24-28.10:19-23), written for what was obviously a predominantly Jewish convert audience, was at pains to take his readers beyond their commitment to God through Jewish temple worship. He may have deliberately seized the opportunity of the Roman destruction of the temple at the end of the great revolt in AD 70, when the void this created gave him an invitation to show how belief in Jesus could transcend the Jewish faith. He points out how the Jewish priests had to offer atonement sacrifices continually, because the sins of the people were constantly reoccurring, and shows how Jesus’ sacrificial death occurred only once and reconciled the entire creation to God for all time. In a spectacular piece of imagery he speaks of Jesus’ sacrificed body as the curtain of the temple, which has now been symbolically torn down, as God and humanity are now inexorably joined. Under the old and now defunct temple system, a huge embroidered curtain hid the people from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. In the synoptic gospels this curtain is ripped apart at the death of Jesus; God and man are now no longer veiled, cut off from each other, but open, redeemed and accessible to each other. The writer of Hebrews picks this up, insisting that every Christian has the free access to God formerly only accorded the High Priests, that our access to God is open, and only limited by our own bad conscience. In principle, he says we are at home with God, familiar with him and he to us, that is the gift of the ascension.