I used to feel a little ambivalent about what we’ve just done – the ritual after the Ascension Day Gospel. You know what I mean? Where the priest snuffs out the flame on the Paschal Candle. The light of Christ, kindled on Easter Day, the flame of Resurrection, is extinguished because Jesus has returned to heaven.
I suppose the inevitable sadness might reflect the disciples feelings as Jesus leaves them. We get the impression from the Acts reading that they are standing staring wistfully at the sky until the angels reassure them. But Luke tells us in v.52 that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Why?
Because when you snuff out the candle, the wisps of smoke rise up and spread throughout the room. It mingles with the air we breathe. Yes, Jesus is no longer physically present on earth – so that he can be spiritually present with us always and everywhere. Ascension Day is not about the absence of Jesus – it’s about his presence. That’s why the disciples rejoice, that’s why Ascension Day sends out in mission.
The church takes the message of a God who has made himself known. A God who has revealed himself in Christ. A God who is intelligible – not that we can totally understand him, not to say that there is not mystery. But it is to say that God chooses to communicate, that when he reveals himself he does so in a way we can understand.
In verses 44-48 of the Gospel Jesus explains how the law, the prophets and the psalms are fulfilled in him. Even in the actual act of the Ascension we get a sense of how God communicates with us. He comes down to our level, he accommodates himself to what we can understand.
For when Jesus ascends, it doesn’t mean that he keeps going on up and up until he reaches something higher than the sky. We know that beyond the sky is space, and that goes on and on. Heaven is not a place in our Universe, up there just at another higher level. Heaven, God’s reality, exists beyond this creation. And yet we still use ‘going up’ to heaven as a kind of shorthand – it’s a useful way of thinking about it. Everyone can grasp it.
In the way that he takes Jesus up, God accommodates himself to our level. He allows the Ascension to happen in a way that can be understood very simply and also very profoundly. This shows us that God wants us to understand what he is doing, he sends out his church in mission.
The Ascension also motivates us for mission with the promise that God will send his Holy Spirit. Jesus alludes to the Spirit in the Gospel, but makes his words plain in Acts chapter 1 verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.’
I know that I cannot fulfil my part in God’s mission in my own strength. I know that if I try and do the things God calls me to by relying on my own abilities, I don’t get very far. I know that I need the Holy Spirit. I try to remember at the beginning of every day to pause and ask God to fill me with his Holy Spirit – to get that orientation right at the start of each day. I know too that prayer is absolutely essential – we cannot achieve much for God if we are not praying – and certainly for me, in the final analysis, that’s question of priorities – what really matters to me? Is there a limit to how far I am prepared to go to make time for prayer?
The book of Acts tells us that the disciples devoted themselves to prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost. They needed patience, and so will we, to persevere in prayer and service while the Kingdom of God grows. If you read stories about great revivals or missionary movements, you almost always find that for a long time before a few people were praying steadfastly. Often they are patient through considerable difficulties, they persevere despite little apparent result. Then suddenly something happens, and the Kingdom of God grows.
That is the final motivation to mission and prayer in this Acts reading. The disciples ask when Jesus will restore the Kingdom to Israel. He tells them, in v. 7 ‘It is not for you to know the times of periods that the Father has set by his own authority’ – but the implication is it will come. And then the angels say, in v. 11: ‘This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way’.
In other words, the Kingdom of God will come. It is a promise that one day the world will be conformed to God’s will, that one day the petition in the Lord’s Prayer will be answered – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. There’s no sense of if or but about this. Instead there’s the assurance that when we pray and work for God’s Kingdom, we are joining in with a project whose outcome is certain. There is no risk God’s Kingdom will not come to pass – we can be confident in God’s plan. So let us live serving God, prayerfully listening for his call to further his mission in the world. Amen.