Jesus led His disciples to the town of Bethany and blessed them. Then He withdrew from them, says Luke, and “was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).
Christ went up into heaven like a rocket. You could call Him “Space X.”
No, He did not ride in a Crew Dragon spacecraft on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. That is the technology being developed by the private company SpaceX, which is teaming up with NASA to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station.
Last November, SpaceX launched four astronauts to the space station in a blazing evening lift-off. They took off from launch pad 39A, the starting point of the Apollo 11 trip to the moon, as well as many space shuttle missions.
SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs. His long-term goal is the colonization of Mars.
Speaking of Elon Musk, you know that he is also the founder of the electric car company Tesla. In 2018, he put a cherry red Tesla Roadster on top of one of his rockets. Sitting behind the wheel of the car is a mannequin named Starman, and on the dashboard of the car is the message, “Don’t panic!” Last October, the spacecraft passed the Red Planet and SpaceX tweeted that Starman “made its first close approach with Mars today.”
Now you might think that it is ridiculous to send a mannequin into space. Elon Musk would agree. “Silly and fun,” he says. But Starman’s journey may be the first step toward the colonization of Mars.
When it comes to building and launching spacecraft, SpaceX means “Space Exploration Technologies Corporation.” But when it comes to the ascension of the Lord, it is shorthand for “Space Christ,” with X being the Greek symbol for Christ. You know the shorthand: Xmas means Christmas.
Jesus went up into heaven, like Starman in a Tesla Roadster. He left from Bethany, not from launch pad 39A. But His ascension had a very different mission than the colonization of Mars.
New Testament professor Sarah Henrich points out that this passage is located at the very end of Luke’s gospel. But, she says, “Luke has a way of turning endings into beginnings for new ventures.” Yes, the final promises of Jesus “push into a future that goes beyond what Luke can see.” And beyond what we can see as well.
The ascension occurs at the conclusion of the earthly ministry of Jesus. But at the same time, it is the beginning of a new adventure, one that pushes us into an unknown future.
To understand this passage, we have to look at what led up to the ascension. Like a SpaceX mission, there needs to be a careful countdown before there can be a successful launch. So let’s do it: Three, two, one, blast-off!
Three … Jesus appears to His disciples and to others in Jerusalem. We know the story of the resurrection, and how Jesus reveals Himself to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus. He then appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, and at first they think He is a ghost. But Jesus says, “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and blood as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). Then he asks them for some food. They give him a piece of broiled fish, and he takes it and eats it in their presence (vv. 41-43).
Yes, as we talked about a few weeks back, Jesus has a snack — to prove He is alive.
“While this might seem like an odd or humorous action,” says Professor Henrich, the people of the first century “would have recognized it as proof that Jesus was no disembodied spirit.” When Jesus appears to His disciples, He is “the real Jesus, the real man” — as solid as a SpaceX rocket.
Two … Jesus “opens the minds” of His followers to understand their mission. He knows that He has limited time between the day of resurrection and the day of the ascension, so He stresses that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (v. 44). Jesus presents Himself as the word of God in human form, the one who completes everything that God began to say through the law, the prophets and the psalms.
But Jesus knows that this is a lot for people to absorb — not only for the disciples, but for us as well. So Jesus “opens their minds” to understand the Scriptures (v. 45). Jesus gives them the gift of understanding, so they can better comprehend what God has been doing, from ancient times through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We need to have our minds opened as well. The words of the law, the prophets and the psalms can be confusing and sometimes contradictory, so we need Jesus to give us correct understanding. Fortunately, the teachings of Jesus and the guidance of the Spirit can continue to give us the insight we need.
When Christians were arguing over biblical understandings in the 1500s, a group of Scottish leaders discovered that the interpretation of Scripture “does not belong to any private or public person,” nor to any church. Instead, they encouraged Christians to trust the Holy Spirit to guide them, and to focus on “what Christ Jesus himself did and commanded.”
For example, Moses said, “Kill every male among the little ones” (Numbers 31:17). But Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14).
The prophet Amos said that the day of the Lord “is darkness, not light” (Amos 5:18). But our Savior says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
Psalm 7 said, “Rise up, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies” (v. 6). But Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Jesus can open our minds to what it means to be faithful Christians in the world today. “We dare not receive or admit any interpretation that is contrary” to the Christian faith, “or to the rule of love,” said the writers of the Scots Confession. Every word in the Bible should be interpreted through our faith in Jesus Christ, and through the rule of love.
One … Jesus promises that His followers will be “clothed with power from on high” (v. 49). Jesus knows that He will be leaving soon, and He wants His disciples to be well-equipped to continue His work in the world. He tells them that the end of His earthly ministry is the beginning of a new adventure for them, one in which they will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Sure enough, just a short time later, they receive the gift of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
Blast-Off! Jesus leads the disciples out as far as Bethany, lifts up His hands, and blesses them. While He is blessing them, He withdraws from them and is carried up into heaven (Luke 24:50-51). The disciples are as amazed as any of us would be if we were watching a SpaceX rocket rising into space.
But when Jesus is gone, the disciples do not feel a sense of loss or abandonment. Instead, they worship Him and return to Jerusalem with great joy. They bless God in the temple and prepare themselves to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (vv. 52-53). For Jesus, you could say that His mission is accomplished. Not because He has blasted off into space, but because He has prepared His followers for the continuation of God’s work in the world.
Each of us is a part of God’s ongoing mission. Our job is not to stand around watching for Jesus, looking up for a Savior passing overhead like the International Space Station, 250 miles above the Earth. Instead, our challenge is to open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit and continue Christ’s work in the world.
One of the interesting innovations of the SpaceX rocket is that it has a powerful booster that lifts the spacecraft into space, and then returns to Earth to be reused. In the past, booster rockets were always ditched in the ocean, which Elon Musk said was like throwing away an airplane after every flight.
When SpaceX launched in November, the booster landed safely on a drone ship in the Atlantic and was returned to land for future liftoffs.
Each of us is like that booster rocket, reclaimed by Jesus and used again and again to advance His work in the world. Yes, we have to be filled with rocket fuel, which for us is the power of the Holy Spirit. But then we can be used over and over to share Christ’s grace and love with others.
As the gospel of Luke ends, we watch our Space Christ ascend to heaven in a blaze of glory. That’s a beautiful and unforgettable sight. But as the book of Acts begins, we see the Christian community beginning to move forward into an unknown future, filled with faith and love and joy.
Let’s join the disciples in shifting from “Space X” to “Earth X”: Being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.