Ever wonder why Jesus left this way?
I mean, he left the disciples now and again after his resurrection, but he always just appeared and disappeared. This time is quite a bit different. Why did he rise up into the air like this?
Luke says he was ascending to heaven, to be at the right hand of his Father. That’s because Luke, like most of the people who lived in that place and time, believed the world was flat, and that above it was another layer called heaven, where God lived (if you were Jewish or Christian) or where the gods lived (if you were some other religion). Below it was a third layer that made up the underworld – and which also looked different depending on your religion.
So naturally, Luke as well as the disciples who saw the Ascension and told him about it, believed that when Jesus rose into the air, he went to where his Father lived.
What about us, though? We know the world isn’t flat and the universe doesn’t have three layers. We know that we’re standing on the surface of a sphere, and that “up” is different for each one of us. Say we all went straight up from where we stand or sit right now. People who are next to one another would stay that way for some time, but eventually they would separate. People farther apart would just shoot out in different directions.
So we know that even though heaven is real, it’s not literally “above” us. And even though Luke didn’t know that, Jesus did. After all, he came from heaven, so we can guess he knew “where” it was.
All this is to wonder what Jesus meant to do by leaving the disciples this way. And I think he meant to put some finality to it. He had appeared and disappeared, so I have to think that if he just disappeared again, then people might very well have looked for him to come back sometime in the same way, even though he said he was leaving to be with the Father.
Of course, it would be neat to think that the disciples decided to go about their daily lives and watch for Jesus to show up somewhere in the middle of them. It would be neat, but what we know about human nature makes it more likely they would all stay together to wait for him to show up again. And the gospel isn’t going to be spread if the only way people learn about it is to walk by that roomful of people and ask, “What are you guys doing in here?”
No, I believe Jesus left the way he did – “ascended into heaven,” as we say – to emphasize the finality of this going away. He wasn’t going to be back in the same way as he had been here before. His presence and power remained with his followers, but in a different way, because his physical body was gone.
And I believe he planned to do that so his followers could grow as well. They’re still followers of Jesus, but what else does he call them to do in this passage? To become his witnesses as well. They will now follow Jesus by telling others about him and doing his work in this world, rather than just by trailing him around like little puppies.
I don’t know about you, but when I understand the ascension in this way, it asks me a real sharp question. You and I probably know people who look at some awful situation, like violent conflict or people in need or something else and wish out loud that Jesus would just show up and fix all that. Maybe you’ve been that person – I know I have.
And this story reminds us that Jesus has gone to be with the Father. His work on earth continues in a different way than it did when he was here. The physical body of Christ has left, and in its place stands the church.
We’re called the body of Christ for a reason. We are to do as a corporate body the things that Jesus did when he walked the world in a physical body. He taught, and he healed, and he helped…he did what God called him to do. If we are to live up to the name “Body of Christ,” then don’t we need to do those things too?
So when we look at the wrong things in the world and we wonder and ask why Jesus doesn’t show up and do anything about them, I think our answer is another question, asked by the same Jesus we direct our questions too:
“Yeah, you're right. Why isn’t the body of Christ there?”