In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:1-12)
One popular idea that many people profess is that we all are going to “die and go to heaven.” This is an idea of which New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright tries to disabuse believers (See almost any of his books or my blog The Resurrection: Life Beyond Life After Death). I would offer that the Feast of the Ascension also does not support a “die and go to heaven” version of Christianity either.
If Jesus was mostly interested in heaven, it is strange that He taught His followers how to live on earth, and then left His disciples on earth with work to do. Why did Jesus spend time discipling His followers and then later convince them He had risen from the dead if all that was was important was to get them to heaven? Why didn’t He simply take His few disciples with Him and abandon the fallen earth to its own devices?
It seems to me that Christ had an interest in a new heaven and a new earth, not in abandoning the original earth but saving and recreating the existing one. Even if we think back to the story of the great flood in Genesis 6-8, God did not utterly annihilate creation into non-existence and create from nothing again. Rather the story is that He tried to uproot all wickedness from the existing creation and fully intended to repopulate the earth and use the existing cleansed creation to accomplish His will. Heaven was not the goal of God, but an earth on which His will was done as it is done in Heaven.
The Lord Jesus had an interest in convincing His disciples that He had risen from the dead because He fully intended them to continue living on earth. And on earth, they and we are to be His witnesses. And to what are we witnessing? The resurrection from the dead – in other words restoration to the world from which death has taken us. Christ did not simply die and go to heaven, He destroyed death and was bodily resurrected from the dead. Apparently Christ thought the body and this world was part of God’s plan of salvation. Jesus did not abandon the world or His body, but He redeemed them, recreated them. He invites us in baptism and the Eucharist to participate in and become part of that renewed creation.
Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not so much for life in the world to come, but for continued life in this world as His witnesses! We need the Holy Spirit to help us live in this new creation, and to empower us to be His witnesses to the rest of the world. None of this has to do with exiting this world, but rather has to do with how to live in this world.
Note that the apostles were interested in the restoration of the kingdom of Israel – that was their idea of “other worldliness.” They assumed this world was passing away and the Kingdom of God would be the same as Israel restored as a Kingdom. But Christ’s answer to them is “get your heads out of the clouds!” “Don’t worry about restoration and future times and heavenly places. You have work to do on earth and the Holy Spirit is going to empower you to do it!” Christ tells the apostles the time of the restoration is not their concern – their real concern is how to witness to Christ’s resurrection. The place of the apostles is on earth as Christ’s witnesses and their work is with the people of earth to bring them to a knowledge of God’s truth.
Jesus tells them (and us) that we are to be witnesses to the very ends of the earth. Notice He doesn’t mention anything about getting to heaven. Our work is on earth, throughout the earth, to the ends of the earth. Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28, also tells us to make disciples of all nations. Our work is on earth and this is what we must focus on. It doesn’t matter when Christ may come again, that doesn’t change what we must be doing every day while we still have time on earth.
On the very day Christ ascended into heaven, even the angels tell the apostles (and us) to quit gawking into heaven as their and our work is on earth. What we need is not Heaven but the Holy Spirit because Jesus is coming back! Our role is to do on earth God’s will as it is done in heaven, which is not the same as saying we need to do God’s will in heaven. We cannot skip the earth or our life here, but rather are to do His work and will on this planet: to be His witnesses, to talk not only about Christ’s death but also about His resurrection. We have to get our heads out of the clouds of heaven and castles in the sky in order to carry out Christ’s mission on earth. The Feast of the Ascension is very much a call to all of us to be ministers of the Gospel, to be the Church, to make disciples of all nations by being witnesses to what God has done in and through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.