If someone asks you, “Do you believe Jesus ascended into heaven?”, what do you say? Do we really believe Jesus goes up to live in the sky? It is one of the first beliefs we discard when we learn about outer space as small children. Yet the idea fits our popular religious language. God is “up.” Heaven is “up.” When my Grandma Leitzke died people told me she was looking down on me from heaven. My grandmother did not believe this when she was alive, and I would respond, “Yeah, like she is in geosynchronous orbit above me, AND above my cousin in San Francisco, AND above my cousin in Iraq.” The idea of God as “up” persists, and it can seem like superstition, (but one that most of us secretly have). What did the ancients mean by “ascension”?
The closest analog to Christ’s ascension is Augustus’ ascension. Augustus brought peace and order after decades of war. The Roman imperial cult declared that both Augustus and his adopted father Julius Caesar were Epiphanies of God. When Augustus died, the propagandists said he ascended into heaven to live with other gods. It was a way of saying, “All the good he brought won’t really go away; he’s always just a prayer or a sacrifice away. He’s with the gods and still able to help us.” This is fairly close to what we mean by saying Christ ascended. Even though his earthly life as Jesus of Nazareth ended, he is always at, beside God and working hard.
The question, then, is why do we pick Jesus? In the First Century it was never a question of offering irrefutable scientific proof of Jesus’ ascension and believing that it physically happened. People assumed it could be possible, and they used this as a metaphor to explain how a divine person kept acting after they ceased to walk the Earth. So the question before us has nothing to do with how we can believe that a Galilean hitched a ride on the cloud train on the Thursday forty days after Easter; the question is why is it Jesus and not Augustus who is our God?
For centuries, the Church just assumed it had picked the right horse because we won. Christianity defeated paganism, endured the middle ages, and conquered the world in the age of European empires. So it’s right. If we’re honest, I think we have to accept that a lot of our frustration, grief, and anxiety over churches being smaller today than they once were derives from our using size and power as proof we picked the right God. We should remember that at the time Luke says Jesus ascends into heaven, the Church is maybe 500 people. They did not have world domination as something they could point to as proof of God’s presence. If anything, the Church’s faith flew in the face of the dominant power.
If Jesus of Nazareth is said to be God in heaven, he is being set directly against the more famous Augustus and Rome. The Roman Republic was known as violent and warlike. It became the dominant power in the Mediterranean, but both the wars by which it grew and the struggles to control what had been conquered eventually plunged the region into chaos. Augustus was one of many vying for power, and when he defeated the last of his enemies, the world-consuming wars stopped. Sort of. The propagandists said they had, and no one was interested in fighting any more. So, the wars are over, the senate made Augustus emperor, and his propagandists declared he was Lord, Savior, and Bringer of Peace. When you keep the peace by holding a knife to the throat, you have to keep the knife to the throat. You can’t let up, or the people at knife point will resist. Wars continued. The imperial cult declares peace on earth because of the Emperor and his armies; meanwhile the armies (and sometimes the Emperor) are out fighting wars.
As it proved harder to keep fighting, and harder to claim harmony within, Augustus shifted his focus. He couldn’t stop war by being good at it (but he wasn’t about to give it up) so he poured his energies into writing and enforcing codes of sexual and moral conduct for Roman families. They were written to enforce Roman class structure, defend patriarchy, and define gender roles. Roman morals had always been easy. Now, certain acts were okay between social equals but not otherwise, laws favored men over women, women’s clothing came under fire. If this seems like an unexpected turn for the sermon to take, imagine how the Romans felt! Once we conquered Egypt! Now the Emperor is deeply concerned about the cut of my daughter’s dress, or that my son likes other men. But that’s the way it goes with empires. They grow for a while by smashing heads, and then when that doesn’t produce heaven on earth they begin trying to control sex and gender codes. And religion usually jumps in to help. It becomes the morality police. The chief head-smasher and chief sex-and-gender-enforcer is Augustus, who ascends into heaven. Jesus, by ascending into heaven, stands over against this. Jesus opposes this directly.
He opposes it from the cross, his act of ultimate solidarity with people. Jesus says in John today, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your son.” What Luke and the Church Year separate into crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, John presents as one great “lifting up” or “glorification.” So, as Jesus begins his final prayer before his passion, he is praying in anticipation of rising and ascending, too. If you think back to the second Sunday of Easter, and John’s emphasis on the permanent nail and spear wounds Jesus has, John really wants us to know that it is the crucified Christ who ascends. The one who ascends—who abides and is always present to us as God in Word and Sacrament—this one is crucified. The cross marks Jesus as different from Augustus. The one who is always at hand is the one whom the world broke, yet who gives birth to a new world from his wounded side; who died at the hands of those promising peace through violence, yet who in dying gives peace such as the world cannot give; who left family when Rome was preaching family values, yet on the cross created a new family by uniting his mother and his beloved disciple; and who challenged the morality and gender codes of his day by preaching at singles wells and by revealing his resurrection first to women.
When we are asked today in our 21st Century world, “How can you say Jesus ascended into heaven?” a good answer is: When we say that, we mean that Jesus keeps giving peace where we would give violence, justice where we produce inequality, life where we make death, love where we spread hate, and freedom where we curtail it.
The ascension of a crucified Christ means you are welcome here in Christ’s church. We worship a crucified Christ, and not a head-smasher who tried to force his hang-ups and prejudices on a world he could not control with his sword. Call this false god what you want. The ascended Augustus. Satan. First Peter calls him a prowling lion looking to devour us in our anxiety. The devil wants nothing more than for you to believe that God doesn’t love you and at least one other person whose life you can make a living hell by telling them God doesn’t love them. The history of the Church is packed with shameful instances of Christians determined to make sure people think God doesn’t love them. Attacking pagan scientists in the later days of the Roman Empire. Forcing Jews and Muslims in Spain to convert, and then murdering them a few years later, because how can you trust someone who changes religions? Banning or burning witches, astronomers, and biologists. Spouting hateful tracts that shame the divorced, the unmarried, the transgender.
From his place at the Father’s right hand, the crucified Christ declares his solidarity with the crucified of this world. He declares that he stands with every prostitute, tax collector, leper, foreigner, pagan, witch, astronomer, biologist, divorcee, unwed couple, dark skinned person or LGBT person the world has ever shamed. He declares that he stands with you. He declares that God is for you. He declares that the Galilean who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and built a community where all were welcome and equal is also the lord and master of the universe and still doing the same sort of work. He declares that you are welcome and loved in his church and in his world.
Do I really believe that Jesus went up into the sky to live? No. I believe Augustus shames and belittles, while Jesus loves and lifts up. I believe Augustus cannot do what he says he can, and that Jesus is already doing what he says he does. I believe that if there is any hope in this world, it comes not from the one who takes life, but from the one who gives life from the cross, from the grave, and from God’s very being.