Ascension Day – Jesus is Not on Vacation!
Christians make a big deal about the birth of Christ (Christmas), his death (Good Friday), and his resurrection (Easter/Resurrection Sunday) – and rightly so, as these are key events in Christ’s life and his work on our behalf. However, Christians often overlook another important event, which is the Ascension, when Jesus departed from the earth while his disciples watched after appearing to them and teaching them for 40 days (you can read about this in Acts 1:6-11). Some traditions do celebrate the Ascension 40 days after Easter Sunday (so this year, it is May 5 – always a Thursday!), or the Sunday after this day (Ascension Sunday), but the fact and significance of this event is often not clearly proclaimed or understood (for example, growing up I never really knew what happened after Jesus’s resurrection – maybe I just didn’t listen close enough!). The early church viewed this event as important, as it made it into the Apostles’ Creed (“he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”).
Why is it worth remembering? The Heidelberg Catechism notes three benefits of this event for us. “First, he pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven – a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members, to himself in heaven. Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee. By the Spirit’s power we make the goal of our lives not earthly things but the things above where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand” (Q and A 49).
The third element, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, is something that is highlighted in John 14-16, when Jesus says it is better for the disciples for Jesus to depart (John 16:7) because he would send the Holy Spirit, who will be in and not just with God’s people forever (John 14:16-17) and will convict people of sin (John 16:9-11) and guide God’s people in truth (John 16:13-14). These things are important and true, but I realize that they may convey the idea that Jesus’s ascension means he has “gone on vacation,” sending the Spirit to continue his work. There is a sense in which the Spirit does this work on earth, but we also read in the Catechism how Jesus continues to work, as he is praying for his people (“pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of his Father”).
This idea that Jesus continues to pray for us is found in Romans 8:34 and 1 John 2:1, which note that God can’t be against us because we have Jesus Christ standing before God in our place! In fact, the writer to the Hebrews says Jesus “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus presented himself as a sacrifice before God so that we can be made right with God and have a relationship with Him, but he also continues to pray for us in front of the Father. This means that we have one who defends us against the accusations that we might level against ourselves or that the devil might lay in our consciences – he defends us because he says he has died for us, once and for all. There is nothing else that needs to happen! He never has to defend himself because he was sinless – so he can be our continual advocate and help! Therefore, it is good that Jesus left, both to send us the Spirit and now to intercede for us!
So Jesus is not on vacation, but is interceding for us, giving us assurance that we will stand right before God at the end of our lives and defending us from any accusations right now. Let’s celebrate this truth that comes from the ascension!