What the ascension has to say about the value of life
The ascension is a proof of the significance of the incarnation and, as a result, the significance of each of our lives. Certainly, the ascension directs us to the uniqueness of Jesus, as God and man, and specifically to Jesus’ enthronement as Lord, but it also points to the uniqueness and value of each human life. Because Jesus’ human being does not cease with his resurrection or his ascension, Jesus’ incarnation, the particularity of his human personhood, is eternal. But that means our personhood, our individuality, will not just melt away into nothingness with death either. We are intended for eternity as unique instances of human beings.
Jesus’ ascension is the hinge between Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, for Acts is not a new story but the continuation of the story of Jesus’ mission and ministry through the work of his apostles and disciples. As we are told in Acts, Jesus, while physically absent for a period of time, “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” It is not so much the cosmological description of the manner of Jesus’ “coming” and “going” that ought to interest us but the ongoing reality of Jesus’ eternal existence.
As a result, the ascension is not the end of Jesus’ mission but the beginning of the church’s mission. Jesus’ ascension takes place only “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles,” which creates an overlap with the events described in Luke 24 but more significantly reflects a deepening of the encounter of Jesus with his apostles. In both Lk 24:49 and Acts 1:4-5 Jesus promises the apostles the Holy Spirit, “power from on high.”
The apostles understand this promise initially, though, in terms of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, which seems to indicate to them a physical kingdom. Since “after his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God,” it is not a surprise that it would be on their minds.
Yet Jesus’ kingship is not about establishing a kingdom by conquering and destroying the enemy. The only enemies Jesus has are those that have already been conquered through his resurrection: death and suffering. The victory of the kingdom of God is not about building castles and fortifying walls to keep people out, but about inviting others in to enjoy God’s reign. This is why when the apostles ask whether this is the time to restore the kingdom, Jesus’ response is to send them out to the world: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In the last verses of the ascension scene in Acts, two figures from Lk 24:4, the two men who greeted the women at the tomb, reappear. They ask the apostles, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” The Letter to the Hebrews makes the same point, saying that Jesus, who came first for the sins of humanity, “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The apostles are told, in a sense, to get on with their work because while Jesus will return at some point, “those who are eagerly waiting for him” when he returns depends on the church. The apostles have a job to do.
Since each human life, body and soul, is valuable, each person deserves to hear the saving story of Jesus’ life. Jesus took on human life, became incarnate, exactly for this purpose: to save our unique human lives. And Jesus retains his human uniqueness as the ascended Lord as a model for our future life and in order that each of us in our individuality and personhood can share in eternal life. He will come again as the same Jesus, a person like us, to welcome us to enjoy the kingdom of God: life eternal with all of our singularity and personhood intact.