Recently my sister-in-law called my wife and asked for helped on a sermon. (This is a commonplace in a family full of ministers.) My wife cordially offered her services: "Sure, I'd love to help. What's it on?" a question to which my sister-in-law replied, "The Ascension." "Oh, can't help you there," was the response.
What's up with the Ascension? It is narrated in Scripture. It is in the Creed. It is part of the church year. But what does it mean? What significance does it have the identity of Jesus? What difference does it make for the Christian life?
I must confess that have little help to offer on this matter. Such a confession, of course, merely compels my curiosity to investigate the matter. I started by simply re-reading on the relevant portions of Scripture. As yet, I do not have a worked out presentation on the doctrine of ascension. But I do have a number of theses I would like to share to spur comment and discussion.
Thesis 1 - The ascension is conditioned by the resurrection. Whatever it may be, the meaning of the ascension is theologically dependent on the resurrection. The ascension of Jesus signals the completion of the 40-day Easter history and therefore its meaning is co-extensive with the meaning of the resurrection.
Thesis 2 - The ascension is linked to final judgment. At the ascension, Jesus takes his place as lord and judge of the world. This status is in effect immediately, though it awaits execution. The time between the times is for Christ the time of being ascended to the Father.
Thesis 3 - The ascension is linked to mission. Jesus commissions the Disciples unto a universal mission immediately prior to ascension (Acts), in conjunction with ascension (John) or in place of ascension (Matthew). For some reason, the ascension institutes the mission of the Church.
Thesis 4 - The ascension is the precondition for the outpouring of the Spirit. In Luke-Acts, Jesus must ascend to the Father in order for the Spirit to be outpoured. John narrates the outpouring on the evening of Easter, possibly from an already ascended Jesus (who tells Mary not to touch him because he has not yet ascended but invites Thomas to touch him, implying that he has). The Spirit functions in both as the mediator of Jesus' presence and power for the Disciples post-Easter. However one harmonizes the narrative details of accounts, the ascension and the Spirit are theologically linked.
Thesis 5 - The ascension contributes to the universal scope of the cross. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, one reason why Jesus' sacrifice is once-for-all is because he offers his blood in the heavenly tabernacle. The metaphorical nature of this priestly language does not preclude it from having theological significance: the ascension of Christ (narrated by Hebrews chapter 1) "relocates" his blood to a place where it can be shed on behalf of all.
Thesis 6 - The ascension signifies our eschatological ascent to God. As the recapitulation of human history, the narrative of Jesus is a compressed version of the history of humanity. On the basis of his work, we too will be resurrected and ascend to God.
Would you be able to affirm any of these theses as true?
Would you object to any of them?
Can you help to nuance these ideas?
Do you have theses to add?