The Ascension is one of those stories I’ve never quite known what to do with. I mean, the theme is clear – the resurrected, eternal Jesus leaves Earth in preparation for the next phase of the story, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But I just can’t picture it without having questions – Jesus physically goes up into the sky? But we know Heaven isn’t somewhere in orbit, right? Add to that art’s tendency to make the scene look at little odd and we’re left with a narrative I don’t really ‘get’.
But I’m British, and we have a monarch, and so the answer was there in front of me all the time. Because while you can ascend into space, you can also ascend to a throne. The Ascension is all part of Jesus leaving his physical interaction with Earth and (re)taking up his divine lordship over the universe.
Paul knew this. In Ephesians 4 he draws a connection between the Ascension and Psalm 68. This Psalm is basically a musical history of Israel, the people singing it as part of a liturgical parade. Verses 15-18 talk about God taking his throne in the Temple, on Mount Zion; here, on different mountain, Jesus also ascends to his throne.
There’s something going on here that’s directly relevant to us today. Psalm 68 talks about the triumphant king receiving gifts, but Paul interprets that in the sense of give-and-take; he gives gifts as well. The king takes his throne, and then he empowers his subjects to build his kingdom.
I’ll make a confession, here and now – I find it difficult to appreciate that the King of the Universe is on my side. Oh sure, I accept it in a general sense – Christ died for us all – but the idea that the divine strengthens us? I know the theory, but I struggle on with my own limited strength and resources. And then I get tired and frustrated and wonder why God doesn’t seem to be helping me.
Well, maybe he is helping – it’s not like I’ve ever gone under, after all. Or maybe it’s because I don’t quite know how to leave something at the foot of Christ’s throne. It’s probably a failure of trust, or maybe a fear of losing control. Letting go is an act of will – sometimes it’s not like dropping a possession, it’s like giving up an addiction. Maybe one of the first gifts some of us need to ask for is the gift of letting go.
That’s all very negative though; let’s end with a positive. The king lavishes gifts on us, making us prophets and teachers and leaders, musicians and writers and artists and artisans. Some of us can preach to a stadium full of people, some of us make an awesome cup of tea. Whatever they are, we’re given those gifts to build up the kingdom.
On Ascension Day, Jesus rose to the throne of heaven and released the Holy Spirit to turn his followers in the builders of the Kingdom. That work is on going.
And the King is on our side.