“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” – Luke24:51
On Good Friday, Christians commemorate and give thanks for Jesus’ self-giving suffering and death. During the season of Easter, we celebrate his resurrection. But there is one more crucial detail of the story of Jesus, one which tends to get overlooked: Jesus’ ascension, or more precisely his departure from our space into God’s space (a.k.a. “Heaven”).
Perhaps one of the most important things for us to remember about Jesus’ ascension is what it does not mean. It does not mean that Jesus went to heaven when he died. Jesus died, the gospels tell us, then God raised him from the dead and over the next 40 days Jesus showed his disciples in various ways that he was fully and completely alive. And then he was taken into heaven. He left our space and returned, while he was fully and physically alive, to God’s space.
The hope of going to heaven when we die has been such a preoccupation over the years that it’s easy for Christians to think that that’s all that the ascension means. But the hope and the challenge that is presented to us by Jesus’ return to God’s space after his time in our space is much more exciting.
First, it challenges our ideas about heaven and its relationship to earth. We tend to think of heaven as being for the disembodied spirits or souls of dead people. But Jesus went to heaven fully and physically alive. We also tend to think that the gulf between heaven and earth is as vast and unbridgeable as the gulf between the living and dead, but again Jesus’ entry into heaven suggests that heaven may be much closer than we think, because, although Jesus has clearly departed our space he has also promised his followers that he will still be with them, all of them, to the very end of the age.
And forget about heaven being up in the sky somewhere. If heaven were a separate location within the same continuum of space that we occupy, not only would that leave us with the rather silly image of Jesus floating in orbit somewhere, it would leave him, once again, too far away for him to honestly say that he is somehow still with us.
The ascension challenges all our assumptions about heaven, including our ideas of what heaven is for. Jesus, we are told, will one day return to our space, but if the only point of heaven is to be a place for dead people after they die, why come back? The reason, which we will explore in more detail on Sunday, is that the real purpose of heaven and earth is to be one, and the real hope is that when Jesus returns there will no longer be anything separating heaven and earth.
‘Thy Kingdom Come’ is a global prayer movement through which the Archbishop of Canterbury is inviting people from around the world to pray together that more people will come to know the love of God in Jesus Christ. Leaders from Churches of every major denomination, including Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist churches, Free churches and Orthodox churches from around the world have all signalled their support.
The wave of prayer is set to run for the 10 days between the Christian festivals of Ascension and Pentecost (May 25 – June 4th), and on Sunday May 28th, as we celebrate Jesus’ Ascension together, we join our prayers with the prayers of millions of Christians, and pledge that we will continue to pray for more people to come to know and love Jesus; that we as his disciples will be given new confidence and encouragement by the Holy Spirit, and that we may be made effective witnesses to Jesus.
Here are a couple of prayers you can use each day be part of the global wave of prayer when you are on your own.
A Prayer for Thy Kingdom Come
Almighty God, your ascended Son has sent us into the world to preach the good news of your kingdom: inspire us with your Spirit and fill our hearts with the fire of your love, that all who hear your Word may be drawn to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A Pledge to Pray for Friends and Neighbours
Loving Father, In the face of Jesus Christ your light and glory shine out. Fill me with your Holy Spirit that I may share with my friend(s) [Name(s)] the life of your Son and your love for all. Strengthen me as a witness to that love as I pledge to pray for them, for your name’s sake. Amen.