18 May 2023

The Ascension is one of those significant days in the Liturgical Calendar that is also really difficult. There is so much meaning, so many ways of approaching the readings, and yet so many questions that can potentially bog the day down in controversy, theological debate or heavy academic discourse. Yet it remains a day of celebration and an invitation to deeper encounter with God.

Whether we choose to remember the Ascension on the Day (18 May) or wait until Sunday (21 May), may our worship invite us into the mystery and the majesty of the embodied and glorified God.

Acts 1:1-11: Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to his disciples. Then he is taken up into heaven, with the assurance of the angels that he will return.

Psalm 47: A celebration of and call to praise the God who is high over all.
OR Psalm 93: A psalm celebrating God’s reign and majesty

Ephesians 1:15-23: Pau’s prayer for the Ephesians that they may know the power of Christ who is over all and fills all.

Luke 24:44-53: Jesus reminds the disciples of how he has fulfilled the Scriptures, then he promises the Holy Spirit, blesses them and is taken up to heaven.

If the Ascension has led us to faith in a disembodied, removed God who is watching us “from a distance”, we have missed its message. Whatever the disciples actually saw happen that day, the facts of the experience are far less important than the meaning. The Ascension certainly does not mean that heaven is “up”, hell is “down” and God is looking down on us from some far removed place. Rather, the Ascension offers us a number of crucial truths that, in this world of injustice and inequality, we desperately need to reclaim. First the fact that Jesus did not die, but was seen to “return” to the Godhead physically is a continuation of the story of incarnation. God does not despise the human body – rather God embraces it, inhabits it and glorifies it, making human flesh part of the Godhead! This means that the needs of the body – for food, clean water, sanitation, shelter, and loving, intimate touch – are all part of the Gospel and are included in God’s gift of salvation. Secondly, the Ascension declares as clearly and loudly as can be that Jesus, and not Caesar (nor any other Empire, government, system or social hierarchy) is Lord over all. This means that our ultimate allegiance must be to Christ first, and that our lives are called to be a reflection of Christ’s reign in the midst of the other forces and ‘lords’ that influence and control our world. Finally, the Ascension always comes with the promise of the Holy Spirit’s power which tells us that God is not absent and removed from us, but continues to be completely immersed in the world and in the lives of human beings. The gift of the Spirit also assures us of God’s resources and God’s inspiration and God’s guidance to strengthen and enable us as we seek to live as faithful followers of Christ. It may be tempting to make this celebration about Christian triumphalism, but that would be to deny the meaning of Christ’s earthly life. Rather, the Ascension is the necessary next step in that life, ensuring that God remains involved with human beings, that God’s presence continues to be available to us, and that we know that everything that makes us human – including our physicality – has been embraced and welcomed into God. It’s less about “Christianity” defeating all, and more about Christ drawing all things into the life of God.

GLOBAL APPLICATION: In the face of global conflicts that are so often framed in religious terms – in particular the tendency to view all of the Muslim religion in the light of a few radical, militant fundamentalists – the Ascension has a lot to say. In the face of global inequality, and the “might is right” claim to authority and control that is often exercised by business, political and religious organisations, the Ascension has a lot to say. In the face of the devaluing of our embodied humanness through the trivialisation of sexuality, the control of health care and medicine for maximised profits, and the shaming of any body type but the lean, muscle bound, athletic image which is promoted by the diet and fitness industries, the Ascension has a lot to say. In the face of global inequality and the divisions we create between those who are “us” and those who are “them”, those who have value (in our eyes) and those (usually in other countries) who don’t, the Ascension has a lot to say. We cannot celebrate Christ’s Ascension and view power in the militant terms of domination. We cannot celebrate the Ascension and believe that the Christ who is now “Lord of all” is only concerned for some and not for others, only includes and welcomes some (like “us”) and not others (like “them”). We cannot celebrate the Ascension and abuse or idolise the body or its sexuality – our own or that of others. No, when we celebrate the Ascension, we affirm our belief that God is committed to humanity – including our physicality – to equality, to justice and to compassionate inclusion of all. And if we believe that Christ really is Lord of all, we cannot help but express this through living our lives according to the gracious, embodied, just and compassionate values of Christ’s reign.

LOCAL APPLICATION: In every organisation, every community, every family, every church, power has the potential to turn into a struggle. In every human collective there is the potential for abuse, exploitation and exclusion. But, the Ascension calls us to a different way of being. It begins with a personal recognition of the value that Jesus places on every human being – including ourselves. That Christ would take on our flesh, live our life, die our death, and then rise and take the place of authority over our human world, indicates the extent to which Christ is concerned to change the human system in which only some are valued, and others count for nothing. Then, celebrating the Ascension calls us to work, in our own small corner of the world, to embody the reign of Christ – the justice, equality, compassion and inclusion that Jesus demonstrated in his life, and that he expresses as Lord of all (not just Lord of some). This means that we must strive for collaborative leadership in which power is shared and all have the capacity and the facility to participate if they so choose. This means that we must strive to celebrate all people and their humanity, not just those who are “special” or “important” in some way. This means that we must learn to value every part of our humanness and teach others to do the same – honouring the beauty and dignity in every person, and seeking to preserve the sacredness in the most intimate of human connections – hospitality, identity, and sexuality. This means that, as church, the Ascension calls us to be a community of liberation not condemnation, of celebration not judgment, of this-worldly concern and compassion not other-worldly. In what ways can you express some of these realities in your Ascension Day worship?

Cosmic Community
A New Vision Of Power
Set The World To Rights
In Name Alone

Hymn Suggestions:
Be Thou My Vision
The Head That Once Was Crowned
Hail To The Lord’s Anointed
At The Name Of Jesus
God Of The Moon And Stars (Link to YouTube video)
Above All (Link to YouTube video)
Everlasting God (Link to YouTube video)

A Liturgy for the Foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet

Video Suggestions:
The Ascension & Jesus Christ
The Ascension & The Church