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Church News Volume 7, Issue 5 (June 2006)

Dear friends,

Ascension day was celebrated on Thursday 25th May

"While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven." (Luke 24:51)

There is an ancient mosque built over a rock on the Mount of Olives, outside the old city of Jerusalem. It is not used for services and is completely empty except for a glass case over a place where the bare rock forms part of the floor. In the rock is an indentation of indeterminate shape, said to be the footprint left by Christ as he ascended to heaven.

Jerusalem is a holy city for the three great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The footprint in the rock is a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims, who may light a candle and worship silently at the site where Jesus was last seen on earth. For Muslims, the site gives a memory of Jesus, a great prophet, but for Christians this small, unassuming place bears witness to the continuing life of the risen Christ, God incarnate.

What are we to make of the story of the ascension as told in the New Testament? Did it happen as Luke says? Is it true? Or should we regard it as a legend?

Interestingly, only Luke the storyteller gives any details about the ascension. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke, the writer who brings us the delightful details of the Christmas story and the excitement of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, elaborates on the story of the ascension and adds plenty of flesh to the bare bones.

Like Mark, Luke too ends his Gospel with the briefest of statements, "While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven." But Luke begins his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, with a much more colourful account of what might have happened. In a style reminiscent of the story of the ascension of Elijah in the Old Testament (2 Kings 2:11), Luke pictures a cloud which gathers up Jesus and removes him from the disciples sight. The bemused disciples then see two angels in white robes, who ask enigmatically, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

Clearly whatever happened had a profound effect upon the disciples, for they all returned to Jerusalem to the Upper Room and together with "the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers" (Acts 1:14) devoted themselves to prayer.

Perhaps the disciples learned more during their weeks with the risen Jesus than they did during the years of his earthly ministry, for when Jesus disappeared for good they were no longer the shrivelled, terrified human beings that they had been after his execution. Even before the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, Peter, the disciple who had denied that he ever knew Jesus, was boldly and openly preaching the Gospel (Acts 1:15-20).

Luke may have used his imagination to fill in the gaps left by Jesus final disappearance from earth, and to appeal to the mindset of first-century people who lived in a world of magic and myths and legends. Or the ascension may have happened exactly as described. The factual details are perhaps less important than the truths conveyed by the account, for a vivid story enables us to remember truths easily.

When Jesus died, the disciples were distraught. But after he ascended, they were full of confidence and deep spirituality. What made the difference? On both occasions Jesus had gone, apparently to be seen on earth no more. After the ascension he would definitely be seen no more, so we might perhaps have expected the disciples to be even more distraught than they were after his death. But somehow, meeting with the risen Christ transformed their lives. Terror and anguish were replaced by prayerfulness, enthusiasm and confidence, as they realised that a new dimension of life continues after death.

Nothing changes, for meeting with the risen Christ today still transforms lives. Those who meet with the risen Christ no longer fear death. And deep prayerfulness enables God the Holy Spirit to nurture us to our full potential and so we can blossom in confidence and enthusiasm. God loves each of us individually. Those who meet with the risen Christ know that for themselves.

Revd Ian M. Finn

News Letter Archive.

Last Modified Sunday 04 March 2018