Why did Jesus leave us? After all, think of what he could have done if he had stayed on earth.
Imagine Jesus showing up in Pilate’s home. Or Caiaphas’ house. Or Herod’s palace. Or, even better, the palace of Caesar Augustus! “Remember Me?” he says. (Or perhaps, “Hasta la vista, baby!”)
All kidding aside, Jesus could have changed the world in a fortnight. We’d be living in God’s new creation right now. (Well, not really, for we’d never have been born.)
Still, that’s the screenplay we would have written, right? But it’s not the story Jesus was writing. Instead, he appeared only to his followers, only at unexpected times, and most surprising of all – after only a month or so, he left them.
Why did he go? Where did he go? And what difference does it make for us in our day-to-day lives?
It makes a world of difference.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus said, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Following his resurrection, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples…. And behold I am with you always….” Then he left them. Why?
When Jesus ascended, he didn’t go away. He ascended to his throne at the right hand of the Father. He assumed his rightful place as Lord of Heaven and Earth.
Having done so, he could now distribute his Spirit freely to all who would call on his name (that’s what happened ten days later, on Pentecost Sunday). This is how Jesus is “with [us] always.”
It is through his Spirit-empowered (new creation) church that he is able to exercise his rule over this world. People of all nations and backgrounds are brought into his family by recognizing that Jesus is, in fact, the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Jesus’ Spirit-infused family seeks to orient their whole lives (social, ethical, political, moral) around that truth. They are, as it were, “living witnesses of God’s new creation in Christ Jesus.”
It is a simple fact of history that the world turned a fundamental corner following Jesus’ ascension and the subsequent birth of the Church.
Having no political power, the political landscape was conquered by Christianity within two hundred years. Despite derision and persecution, their revolutionary ethic of servanthood, suffering, and sacrificial love ultimately prevailed over the power-hungry, money-driven, sex-addicted culture which surrounded them and sought to squeeze them into its mold. Instead, the life and witness of the Church, often at the cost of their lives (just like Jesus), literally changed the world.
It was the ascension of Jesus which unlocked the treasure of New Creation, a treasure which he had purchased at the cost of his life. This is why he could say, “It is for your good that I go away.”
Today is Ascension Day, the third of the four great events in the life of Jesus: Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. The fact that many of us never knew it until right now reveals something sad about the state of affairs in the Christian church. We have, perhaps, forgotten our true citizenship and neglected our higher calling – to live and die as witnesses to the true King of the Universe: Jesus, the Messiah, our Crucified, Risen, Ascended Lord.
On this Ascension Day, then, let us spend less time bemoaning the sad state of affairs in our country and instead, let us do what Jesus told us to do: be living witnesses of God’s new creation in Christ Jesus. For, as the ancient Creed reminds us:
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.
And as the Scriptures proclaim:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And as we gather for worship this Sunday:
We will honor our mothers, of course. (I’m not stupid!) But our primary focus, as it is every Sunday, is on Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”