Mark Warburton, the manager of Brentford FC, has enjoyed a successful two seasons in charge, taking the club to promotion from Division 1 into the Championship during his first year, and into the Play Offs for a place in the Premiership during his second year. Acknowledging that Warburton’s team play in a particular attacking style, a reporter recently asked Warburton if he had a Plan B if Plan A failed. ‘Yes’, replied Warburton, ‘Plan B is to do Plan A better!’
This week (on Thursday, 14 May) the Church celebrates ‘The Feast of the Ascension’, which commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter (following the count given in Acts 1:3). Luke tells us in his Gospel that on the day in question Jesus led his disciples out to the region around Bethany. He then lifted up his hands and blessed them and ‘while he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven’ (Luke 24:50,51). In his follow up book The Acts of the Apostles, Luke expands on this remarkable event (Acts 1:1-11), not only filling in the detail somewhat but also placing it within the context of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (which was to be poured out upon the early church in a matter of days at Pentecost) and the promised return or Second Coming of Christ (which we still await).
Over the years I have heard very few sermons (apart from those I have preached myself) about the Ascension. Perhaps this is due to my spiritual roots being in the Baptist-Pentecostal tradition, rather than the Anglican or Roman tradition, where the Church Year is only followed by a few of us. The bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven, however, remains, for me at least, a very important event with much to teach and encourage us. Malcolm Guite suggests that ‘In the mystery of the Ascension we reflect on the way in which, in one sense Christ leaves us and is taken away into Heaven, but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. He is no longer located only in one physical space to the exclusion of all others. He is in the Heaven which is at the heart of all things now and is universally accessible to all who call upon him. And since his humanity is taken into Heaven, our humanity belongs there too, and is in a sense already there with him … In the Ascension Christ’s glory is at once revealed and concealed, and so is ours.’
Properly understood, the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven is a great encouragement to all who truly believe in Jesus. To begin with Christ’s Ascension into heaven, where he is right now ‘seated at the right hand of God’ (Hebrews 12:2) is, in many ways, the culmination of his saving work on our behalf. The Writer to the Hebrews also tells us elsewhere in his Letter that as a result of his Ascension, Jesus ‘is [now] able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them (Hebrews 7:25). There is right now, at this very moment, a man in heaven whose very presence is intercession before God for sinful people like us. On that Day when we all have to stand before God, and give an account – on that Day when God will ask us all ‘why’ he should let us into his heaven – we will not have to say a single word but only point to the One seated next to him in Glory, the One who through his sacrifice on our behalf on Calvary’s Cross has made salvation possible for all who will turn to Christ!
Christ’s intercession on our behalf can also be understood in another way. Right now, this very moment, Jesus is praying for us. If nobody else prays for us, ever, we can be sure of this – Jesus himself is praying for us. As we have already seen, the Writer to the Hebrews tells us, ‘[Jesus] always lives to intercede for [us]’ (Hebrews 7:25). It is because of his prayers for us that we are enabled to ‘keep, keeping on’ in the Christian walk. Jude (one of Jesus’ brothers) commends us ‘To him [Jesus] who is able to keep you from falling away, and who will present you before [God’s] glorious presence without fault and with great joy’ (Jude 24). And part of the reason why we can faithfully continue and complete our Christian journey is because of the ongoing prayerful intercessions of Jesus for us!
This, however, is not the only benefit of the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. The Apostle Paul tells us that by becoming Christians, God has not only ‘raised us from the dead along with Christ’ but also ‘seated us with him in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 2:6). We ourselves are now able to see things in a completely new way. We see things from God’s point of view. We are now able to truly ‘have the mind of Christ’ (Philippians 2:5). We are now capable of really understanding that God has not only saved us from ‘an empty and wasted way of life’ (1 Peter 1:18) but that he has a meaningful plan and purpose for us (Romans 8:28). What is more, being ‘seated with Christ in the heavenly realms’ means that we have a new power to overcome all that which would stand against us. Earlier on in his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us that when God raised Jesus from the dead, and seated him in the heavenly realms, he also ‘placed all things [every earthly and spiritual power and authority] under his feet’ (Ephesians 1:22). Seated with Christ in those same heavenly realms means that we too, in some way, share (in Christ) that same power and authority over everything that would oppose us fulfilling the plans and purposes of God!
How does this work itself out? Well, the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven also helps us to understand this. Once again, in his Letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul explains that one of the reasons Christ ‘ascended on high’ was so that he might ‘give gifts to his people’ (Ephesians 4:8). Paul goes on to single out the specific ‘ministry gifts’ of ‘apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers’ (Ephesians 4:11). We know, of course, that these are not the only ‘giftings’ mentioned in Scripture – there are many others listed, elsewhere – and (as a result) we can be assured that every Christian has at least one gift that he or she can use for the glory of God and the blessing of others. In fact Paul goes on to speak in terms of God’s people being ‘equipped for works of service’ (Ephesians 4:12), as a result of Christ’s gifting.
The greatest Gift of all, however, and the source of all these other ‘giftings’, is that alluded to here in the earlier part of the Ascension Day passage in Acts 1:1-11. It is the ‘gift of the Holy Spirit’ himself. As Jesus tells us here ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses’ (Acts 1:8). Previously, during various conversations in the Upper Room Jesus warned his disciples that he would soon be leaving them, but promised them also that when he ascended into heaven he would not leave them alone but would send them ‘another Comforter’ (John 14-16). Jesus was speaking here of God the Holy Spirit. ‘Comforter’ or ‘Counsellor’ (titles used to describe the Holy Spirit’s role here) literally translates as ‘One who stands alongside us in order to help us’. What a good description of the way in which the Holy Spirit both empowers us and enables us to live out our lives effectively for God!
All this, of course, is also in the context of the promised Second Coming of Christ. As the disciples witness the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven they are joined by two angelic beings who tell them that one day (well into the future, in turns out) ‘this same Jesus … will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:11)! That day will see the glorious culmination of everything God has been working towards in time and eternity. Until that day, however, we can affectively live out our lives for the glory of God and the good of others. The bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven assures us of this!
An old legend imagines Jesus arriving in heaven right after the Ascension, welcomed by all the angels. Then the angel Gabriel asks Jesus, ‘You suffered much, dying for the sins of humankind. Does everyone down on earth know it? ‘Oh, no,’ replied the Lord, ‘just a handful of people in Jerusalem and Galilee know about it.’ ‘Well, Master,’ continued Gabriel, ‘what is your plan for everyone to know of your great love? Jesus replied, ‘I asked all my disciples to carry the message into all the world. I told them to tell others, who will in turn tell others until the last person in the farthest corner has heard the story.’ Gabriel’s face clouded over as he spotted a flaw in the plan. ‘What if after a while Peter forgets, and goes back to his fishing on Galilee, also James and John and Andrew? Suppose Matthew returns to his tax booth in Capernaum, and all the others lose their zeal and just don’t tell others. What then?’ After a pause came the calm voice of the Lord Jesus, ‘Gabriel, I have no Plan B!’
‘We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.’
~ Malcolm Guite