Once, while I was talking to my pastor, I wondered out loud why Ascension Day has fallen out of favor. It is a scriptural event, the Protestant Reformation didn’t reject it, and in some ways it is just as important as Easter; for without the Ascension, how could we be assured of Jesus’ authority? He just laughed and said that Ascension Day is no longer enthusiastically celebrated because it doesn’t fall on a Sunday and no one gets any presents! At the time I thought it was funny, but now I just hope that he’s wrong.
According to Acts 1, Jesus appeared to His disciples for forty days after His Resurrection, then He was taken up before their eyes into heaven. So the church has historically celebrated the Ascension on the sixth Thursday after Easter, which according to the same inclusive counting that makes Sunday the third day after Good Friday, comes out to the fortieth day.
Today we read from Matthew:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
—Matthew 28:16-20, NIV
There are a few points I’d like to examine in this passage:
They worshipped Jesus.
This is a very odd thing for Jews to do, for you see, all eleven disciples were Jews. Judaism is a strongly monotheistic religion that affirms one invisible, incorporeal, eternal, and omnipresent God. Even when the Jewish prophets perceived God as visible, corporeal, and local, they taught these attributes were assumed for the purpose of communication, and did not exemplify the nature of God. Worshipping a man was an outrageously un-Jewish-like thing to do. In fact, I recently read a book written by an Orthodox Jew for a Jewish audience in which he revealed that according to rabbinical assessment, Christians are considered idolaters, because we worship Jesus.
We modern Christians have thousands of years of tradition, teaching, and cultural values to nurture this sort of behavior. In fact, even the irreligious use the name of Jesus as an oath—I have never heard anyone say “George Bush!” when they hit their thumb with a hammer!
But the eleven disciples didn’t have all these advantages. What they were doing went against everything they were taught and it was contrary to every value that their society had instilled in them. True, they were surrounded by pagans who worshipped many gods, many of whom were deified people, such as the Roman Emperor, but throughout their upbringing idolatry had been thoroughly ridiculed and discredited.
So we are faced with an astonishing phenomenon: On the one hand, Jews who worship Jesus, giving Him the honor and glory and worship and allegiance which they had been taught belonged to God alone. On the other hand, Jesus, Himself a Jewish rabbi, did nothing to stop it.
Today, through our reading, we are transported backwards in time to that Thursday when Jesus appeared to His disciples, commissioned them, and departed through the clouds. We follow Him upwards, perhaps shielding our eyes with our hand, perhaps doubting the things we see. Is this real or an illusion? Does this mean that heaven is really up? Which way would He have gone if we were in Australia? Or is Jesus acting out a parable, using a visual aid if you will, to demonstrate before our eyes that He is exalted above all things? Or should we perhaps go and lie down for a while?
Well, you can wonder about the mechanics of the Ascension if you will, but I for one am amazed at the spectacle of Jews worshipping a rabbi, and a rabbi accepting the honor due God. If the end of the story is this intriguing, the beginning and the middle certainly bear study as well. I commend you to this task.
Some of the disciples who saw Jesus still persisted in doubting that He had risen from the grave.
Now here we have a startling statement that makes the scene even more real: some of the eleven disciples who were present, whom we call apostles, doubted what they saw! Certainly it would be more conducive to Matthew’s purpose in writing this gospel if he wrote here that the doubting disciples had any lingering doubts removed by Jesus’ appearance, and that all eleven fell awe-struck at His feet in reverent worship. Yet Matthew is quite frank with us: some of the eleven didn’t believe, and by implication they did not worship Him. The only possible explanation why Matthew would describe a mixed reaction was that these disciples were still alive. If Matthew had retouched the picture to give Jesus more glory, the people who knew better could call foul. I can’t imagine any other reason for making this statement that is fundamentally counter to his purpose unless it is true.
Yet we hear no words of rebuke from Jesus’ lips.
There are Christians who run along the side of the church, trying to board it, as in an adventure movie the hero runs along the side of the train until he can jump on. They want to be part of the community of faith, but they have doubts. Others, already on the train of faith, are impatient with them. They urge them to either to make a commitment or go away, quite unaware that running along the side of the train is quite a commitment in itself. Whoever runs along the side of the train will certainly jump on as soon as he gets a secure grip on his situation.
We see both groups of Christians gathered around Jesus in this passage. Jesus accepts the worship of one group, and is patient with the others. So if you are among the doctrinaire, lighten up; and if you are exhausted from running after Jesus, but never quite reaching Him, take heart: He sees commitment in your running.
Jesus said He had been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
Now we understand the worship in the scene before us: Jesus claims an attribute of deity in asserting that He possesses all authority in heaven and earth. The worshipping disciples, having seen the way He walked through angry crowds unscathed, the way He fed thousands of people from mere crumbs of bread and a few fish, and the way He could rebuke the storms and calm the weather, are all too happy to concede Him this point and worship Him as God.
Today, however, we live in tempestuous times, though perhaps not as tempestuous as a few years ago. We no longer have the threat of nuclear annihilation or global conflict hanging over our heads, but there are other distresses which impact us just as badly. It is all too easy for us to slip away from the company of the disciples who worship Jesus and stand among those who doubt. It is easy to disbelieve Jesus and to affirm Satan’s power, to assert that we live in darkness, and to yearn for Jesus’ triumphant return to power.
If you are among the embattled doubters, perhaps you need to climb to a higher place. I don’t think it is without significance that this incident and the transfiguration both took place on mountain tops. From a mountain top you see things in proper perspective. I haven’t been to too many mountain tops, but I have flown in many airplanes—the view is similar. I remember the view during take-off from the airport in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. I could see all the teeny cars and highways and buildings just as usual. I could imagine that here an argument was underway and there another person was vexed, yet their problems were really quite small from my perspective. Then suddenly we passed over the dike that separates the North Sea from the Netherlands, and I gasped in astonishment. The sea was dramatically higher than the land! Only that thin little dike kept all those people and buildings and cars and highways from being inundated and swept away. I was momentarily glad the airplane window was sealed, because it looked as if one little thing, dropped by accident into the sea, would splash all the water over the dike and wash everything away. The North Sea is treacherous and nasty, it wouldn’t make a good house guest.
I am sure that the people of the Netherlands often forget about the North Sea. I am sure that they argue vehemently over what to plant in the garden or how to arrange the furniture, or they fret over paying the mortgage, all of which could be swept away in an instant. Perhaps if they flew in an airplane over their troubles, they would be reminded of the sea and would find peace by placing things in perspective. In the same way, we often become obsessed with the troubles of this life and forget that Jesus reigns and makes all these good things possible.
So climb to a mountain top and witness Jesus’ Ascension, and ponder things from a higher perspective. The truth is that Jesus reigns supreme over all things, just as He claims.
We have troubles in this life, not because Jesus is absent, but because He has extended us His grace. Jesus comes not to enforce obedience upon unwilling people, but to elicit their willing submission to His will. Of course, one of the byproducts of patience is a little messiness, but even those trials and troubles serve His purpose as well, by giving His faithful opportunities to show themselves worthy.
Jesus commanded them to make disciples of all nations, and to teach them to obey all His commandments.
At one stroke Jesus removes any and all ethnic and racial barriers. All people of all nations are to be invited and are to share in the communion of the church. There is also to be no barrier between the apostles and their converts, for all commandments apply to all people. There are no apostolic secrets; all must be passed on.
Jesus promises to be with us to the end of the age.
Here we have an apparent paradox: even as Jesus is seen to rise from the earth and disappear behind a convenient cloud, He tells us that He remains with us here. Well, is He going or is He staying?
For those who worship Jesus, the answer is clear: it is both. For Jesus is the incarnation of the one eternal, invisible, immortal, almighty God. His Ascension signals the end of His public resurrection appearances and also acts out His true nature. In one sense, He leaves us, but in another sense, He remains with us. Nothing has changed except our perception of Him: He demonstrated through His life among us His personal concern about each one of us; He demonstrates now through His Ascension His divine power to take care of us.