One of the overlooked aspects of Jesus’ ascension has to do not with the continuing materiality of the risen Lord or the “whereness” of Jesus’ glorified body but with the earthly implications of the ascension for the church. Between the apostles’ hopeful question, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” and the promise that “this Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” is the work of the church, a task bequeathed by the master builder to the 120 ordinary women and men who gathered in Jerusalem prior to Pentecost (Acts 1:15).
We might think of these 120, comprising the apostles and the first disciples, as the apprentice builders, whose work begins in earnest only when Jesus physically absents himself from them. Yet Jesus does not leave them without a blueprint for the building project, however schematic it might be. In the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus leaves his instructions for the disciples, saying: “Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” They are given a charge to build up the church, but it is up to them to determine how and when to build.
The Acts of the Apostles continues to build on Jesus’ commission to the church found in Matthew. Jesus says that “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you...you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The whole of Acts is structured on this witness model, which shows how the apostles and the other disciples, expanding in ever greater concentric rings from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth, carry Jesus’ work to the center of the Roman Empire. Again, though, the work is itself dependent upon the ascension, for after giving the mission statement for the church, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The ascension is essential for the church to begin its worldwide mission and discover for itself how the church is to be built.
The master builder still guides and oversees the work, but it is the task of the apprentice builders to build the church by their own witness to Jesus’ teaching and to bring people into the church through baptism. As one reads through Acts, one sees the building project take shape. The work is simple and direct. True, there are stories of “wonders and signs,” empowered by the name of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but more often there are accounts of the church praying together, having fellowship (koinonia) together, breaking bread together, sharing their goods in common and preaching the story of salvation in Jesus’ name. This fidelity to the message and name of Jesus leads in ways miraculous and ordinary to the growth of the church.
These mission statements found at the end of Matthew and at the beginning of Acts are not historical curiosities for us but a blueprint for the church’s continuing mission to construct the church. What is remarkable is the extent to which so much was put in the hands of the followers of Jesus to spread the Gospel message, to be witnesses for Jesus’ life from the baptism by John to Jesus’ resurrection and to build up the church through baptism, the sacraments and living the life of the Gospel. It was the ascension that allowed the project to begin its new phase, in which the one who is seated with God “at his right hand in the heavenly places,” who is “head over all things for the church,” and “his body,” the church, act together. If we see ourselves as the apprentices of the master builder, carrying out the plans Jesus gave us, it is humbling to marvel at the responsibility Jesus gave his disciples at his ascension to build the church, but also exhilarating to continue the work that started in Jerusalem and extends to the ends of the earth.