Today is Ascension Day. It’s a day that doesn’t get as much attention as some of the bigger holy days like, say, Christmas or Easter. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Here’s why: “To embrace the ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless" (NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 114).
For some, the Ascension is just a clever way of saying that after Jesus’ death he became “spiritually present” with his followers much like I might say that my grandfather, for instance, continues to be present in the world even after his death as he lives on in me. When my family gets together and enjoys big servings of ice cream, we might even say his spirit is present with us. But the truth we all know is that no one literally lives on in this sense of the word, and neither is their “spirit” really present in the world.
And sadly, this is what some people, even in the church, believe as well. Jesus the man who lived 2000 years ago is dead and buried. He longer exists except in so far as we live in the spirit of his teachings and continue on in his mission and vision for the world.
What does exist, however, is the church, which in this view then becomes synonymous with Jesus. To quote Wright once again, “If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord… then the church effectively presents itself…instead of presenting Jesus…”
This has resulted in what many have called the “Social Gospel”; or the idea that Christianity is all about good works. The problem is that far too much of what the church says and does and even is is NOT good. It hardly serves as an adequate or satisfying substitute for Jesus.
Of course good works will inevitably and dramatically flow from a life devoted to Jesus. And yes, those good works are vitally important. But the heart of our faith as Christians isn’t about the good things we do; it’s about our relationship with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who has ascended into Heaven and is still very much alive in the fullest and realest sense of the word possible. That is the starting point, the foundation upon which everything else is built. And this is the truth that the Ascension affirms.
Jesus is alive. Have you talked with him today? Have you listened for his voice? Have you followed his leading? Have I?