The Ascension is among the most puzzling festivals in the church calendar. The contradictory accounts of the event are a puzzle but one thing the accounts by Luke and John’s Gospel share is to connect Jesus’ departure with his sending the Holy Spirit. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come to lead them into the truth. What truth did the disciples need that they hadn’t learned already from their teacher? Did Jesus have to leave before the disciples could hear the Holy Spirit?
During his ministry, Jesus warned his disciples three times that “he would be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” These warnings came precisely at the times the disciples thought that a Maccabean-like revolution against the Romans was just around the corner: when Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, right after the Transfiguration, and when James and John asked if they will sit at Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom.
After his Resurrection, Jesus tried again to get across to the disciples what his kingdom was really all about. When Clopas glumly said that he and his companion had hoped that Jesus “was the one who was to redeem Israel,” Jesus, not yet recognized by them, rebuked them for their slowness of heart in believing what “the prophets have declared.” Then he “interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Later, Jesus appeared to the twelve and explained that everything written about him in “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. “Since the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” was used to refer to the whole Hebrew Bible, the special mention of the psalms is significant. The psalms include many laments over persecution from the standpoint of the victim. Jesus went on to say that when the scriptures say that the Messiah was “to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,” it means that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed” in Jesus’ name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Proclaiming repentance and forgiveness is a very different proposition from starting a revolt to restore the kingdom to Israel.
When, in spite of hearing this teaching for forty days, the disciples asked their Risen Lord: “Is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus must have banged his head against the nearest tree and cried out: “I’m out of here!” This repeated question may have convinced Jesus that the disciples were never going to stop asking him to restore kingdom of Israel as long as he was walking on the earth with them. Maybe Jesus was planning all along to leave after forty days; maybe he planned to stick around indefinitely but this question was the last straw.
Jesus’s Ascension put paid to any notion of his leading a second Maccabean-type revolution. The disciples were left with no choice but to try doing what Jesus told them to do when he breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus’ kingdom is to preach repentance and forgiveness to the whole world until everybody has repented, been forgiven, and has forgiven everybody.