Ascension: Fairy Tale, or King of the World?

[This post is part of an Easter series: President [fill in the blank] and King Jesus.]

My lowest grade in college was in Art Appreciation, so I really don’t have any authority to say what I’m about to say. But…I’ve concluded that most of the art that shows up if I do a search for Jesus’ ascension serves to hinder my ability to follow him rather than to help it. For example, doesn’t this make Jesus look less like the king of the world and more like Peter Pan?

If I can look at it with some honesty, I suppose that my issue isn’t ultimately just with the ways that this story is depicted in art, but with the story itself. It’s one that I sometimes have trouble swallowing. 

I feel like I can get behind the Jesus who is compassionate toward the outcast and welcomes children. I can sign up to be a student of the master teacher. I can even, when I take a good, long look at him, be willing to follow along when he issues the call to deny myself, take up my own cross, and follow him.

But the Jesus floating off into the sky? What are we supposed to do with that?

I’m really grateful for the help I’ve found (particularly from N.T. Wright’s Acts for Everyone) in being able to re-read this passage, and so much of the book of Acts, in a way that makes more sense. When I’m able to take off the lenses through which I’ve normally read this story and take a fresh look at it, I can start to see it as being less like a fairy tale and more like a report of deeply good news about the reality in which you and I live our daily lives.

Perhaps it might make a difference for you, like it has for me, to shift from seeing Jesus' ascension as “Bummer….There goes our hero, floating away off to heaven…”, to seeing it as representing a firm establishment of Jesus’ rule. In other words, the assurance coming our way through Jesus’ ascension isn’t so much about Jesus going off to heaven, and therefore we’ll get to be there with him too after we die. Rather, the assurance is that on the day he ascended, just like today, there is still a vindicated and embodied Jesus ruling as king of our world, and one day there will be no separation between his kingdom in heaven and on earth. Our embodied king will return, bringing all heaven with him, and heaven and earth will finally and fully be joined together.

Yet…I still have trouble seeing that, and therefore I also have trouble entrusting myself to it. For example, I have a sincere love for Christ, yet I also have trouble really entrusting myself to him. It often feels easier and seems to make more sense to take things into my own hands and see what I can do for myself, by my own resources, than to put practices in place in my life that might predictably lead me to live in ever-greater, moment-to-moment dependence on Jesus as the source of my life. In other words, it often seems more reasonable to be my own king than to trust this king whom I can’t see. 

(Let’s pause and be practical about that: consider how hard it is to practice some intentional un-productivity for the sake of being with God–such as taking a day off of work just for the purpose of solitude, prayer and reflection. Where does that immense resistance come from? Hint: if we dig deep enough, the blame probably won’t end up being placed as externally as we might like to think. It isn’t your boss’s nor your spouse’s fault. It ultimately hits closer to home.)

If thoroughly entrusting yourself to Christ is your difficulty, as it is mine, at least two lines of thought may be influencing us. 

1) We may not be thoroughly convinced that Jesus is entirely good. Regardless of what else we may believe about Jesus, we can only trust him to the degree to which we really believe he is good. Or, to say it conversely, whatever degree of doubt we have at any level about his goodness is inevitably the limit of the degree to which we are able to trust him. (So–do I believe that what Christ would do with me if I were completely at his disposal would absolutely, out of all conceivable circumstances, be the best possible thing that could happen to me?)

2) Even if we believe to the core of our beings that Jesus is good, the next question is whether or not he has the actual power to act on our behalf. Is he really able, or is he really impotent? In other words, is there any real, realiable sense in which Jesus is king?

Is he just king of that ethereal “heaven” to which we’ll also fly away after we die? Here’s the crux of this story, which has made a tremendous difference for me, because it doesn’t allow us to think that: Jesus didn’t leave his body. The same Jesus who stared every possible threat in the face, took upon himself the very worst that violence and injustice could do, then defeated death by going through it and and walking out the other side in a body, has not ceased to live. He lives and reigns with incredible, self-sacrificing love and power.

The remainder of the book of Acts, which we’ve explored parts of in this series, is the beginning of the story of how he continued to reign with the same incredible, self-sacrificing love and power, although he was no longer seen (in other words, as he reigns in heaven and on earth from the heaven-side of the curtain). That same self-sacrificing love and power came to grow in his followers then, and it does so now, as we learn to wait on God, recognizing that the kingdom of heaven is not distant–but is here, now, open and available to us.

Yet, of course, we can always stay with the Peter Pan version of the story, run our lives on our own, and have our actual beliefs about Jesus stay in the realm of fairy tales. Perhaps today the best thing you and I can do is to determine with all honesty and openness whether Jesus’ kingdom is real, and if so, how we can seek it above all else.