Thirty-nine days after Easter, and 10 days before Pentecost, Christians mark Ascension Day. Frequently we overlook it since it falls on a Thursday. Most congregations don’t have a special service, but on the following Sunday we often have a special set of Bible readings.
Yet Ascension is far more important than that. It joins the dots between the Jesus of the gospels – a walking, talking, breathing human being – and the Jesus who ‘sits at the right hand of the Father, and … will come to judge the living and the dead’ (Apostles’ Creed). Ascension shows, not only who Jesus truly is, but also that the church’s mission is actually the mission of Jesus today. Jesus ascended to heaven so that he could continue his mission through believers, through his church.
Understanding mission from the vantage point of Ascension helps us avoid some common pitfalls. For instance, mission isn’t continually thinking up new strategies to attract people to the church. That approach comes from the law, not from the gospel, and it can easily be a guilt trip. Christian mission is the outpouring of joy. That’s what it was for the disciples when Jesus returned to heaven. Feeling guilty about mission contradicts the very message we want to share. The temptation to ‘do’ mission as a ‘good work’ that earns praise or because we fear declining membership is self-defeating. We want to show people Jesus, not ourselves or our church just so that we can be proud of it.
So what did Jesus’ mission look like in his day? He gathered a small group of disciples and a wider group of followers. Particularly because of his teaching, but also due to some of his miracles, his name was on everyone’s lips.
When Jesus died, however, he died alone. Some women endured and a few men returned, but they were anxious and fearful, even when they heard that he was alive. The ascension, however, as recorded in Luke’s gospel, changes that. When they see him leave, fear turns into joy. They express that joy through attending worship, which is the driving force of all Christian mission (see Luke 24:52,53). Acts tells the same events, but includes angels who redirect the first believers, who are staring into heaven, back to earth. Jesus, while now in heaven, is also here with us (see Acts 1:1–12), and this is where his mission continues.
The joy that motivated the disciples for their mission came from knowing God’s word. Jesus had ‘opened their minds to understand the scriptures’ and the meaning of his suffering and rising. He revealed that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ would spread to the whole world. They had never known a gospel like it before, and he made them his witnesses. Ascension, then, is the birth of the church and the key to its mission.
It all began with the joy of believers who knew the risen and ascended Jesus. They just couldn’t keep him to themselves. Compelled by the same Jesus and the same joy, Christians all over the world are spreading the good news of forgiveness and freedom. Jesus goes on doing what he always said he would do – saving the world.
Our mission, then, is simply to join him and other believers in the gospel work that’s he’s already doing.
‘The Ascended Jesus Active in Mission’, presented by Dr Noel Due, was a major theme at the New Horizons retreat in April.