Towards the end of May and into early June we have the season of Ascensiontide, in between the festivals of Ascension and Pentecost (movable festivals that depend upon the date of Easter).
Ascension is a festival that tends not to be observed much in many churches (maybe because it falls midweek), which is a shame. We have three biblical accounts of the Ascension. In the more extended ending of Mark’s gospel (16:19–20), in Luke (24:50–53) and another Lukan account in Acts (1:6–11).
In Luke’s gospel account we read this: ‘While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy’ (Luke 24:51–52, NIV).
This is a very Lukan image. In his excellent book Disciples Together: Discipleship, formation and small groups (SCM Press, 2014), Roger Walton suggests that worship is a theme that bookends and permeates Luke’s gospel. Luke begins in a place synonymous with worship (the temple) and ends with the beautiful Ascension picture which is set in the great theatre of the natural world and conveys a sense of ongoing worship. In a neat piece of symmetry, the disciples return to the temple where, says Luke, ‘they were continually blessing God’. In the temple and in the big wide world, worship is ongoing, worship is a way of life. We see this too in Luke’s second volume, Acts.
In the book, Roger Walton points out that: ‘Worship is a transitive verb. Worship always has an object. We do not worship; rather we worship God’ (p. 16).
This may sound like stating the obvious but how many hours of church life have been wasted in polemical arguments about the means, activities and styles of worship? Such arguments are conducted in a way that suggests the object of worship, God, has been forgotten about.
In Luke’s ascension narratives there is none of this; instead, there is a profound sense of wonder in worship. To borrow a phrase from Charles Wesley, the disciples are ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. It’s the kind of wonder we see in the eyes of a parent gazing upon their newborn child or in the eyes of two lovers totally lost in each other. Sometimes this is how worship is meant to be, full of totally focused adoration, but at other times, maybe most times, worship is simply part of a way of life. Worship is also doing all that we do for the honour and glory of God.
In my book Holy Habits (Malcolm Down Publishing, 2016), I offer this vision: ‘Imagine the whole of life being offered in worship. God being glorified in the harvesting of the crop, the styling of the hair, the satellite being launched. Imagine gatherings for worship bursting with creativity that do lead to people being lost in wonder, love and praise. Imagine worship that brings the hurts of the world to the heart of God and that inspires the worshippers to go out and touch that world with holy, healing hands’ (p. 238).
Much as they would have liked to stand staring in worship following Jesus’ ascension, the first disciples had work to do, so they returned to Jerusalem renewed and energised by the wonder of that special time. And we too have work to do. So yes, let’s get lost in wonder, love and praise in those glorious moments of gathered worship or private communion with God. And then let’s, in the closing words of many a Communion liturgy, live and work to God’s praise and glory.
If you would like to explore the holy habit of worship more you might find the chapter on worship in Holy Habits helpful, or why not treat yourself to the Holy Habits Bible Reflections booklet on worship which contains 40 readings and reflections exploring this wonderful habit. Or if you are in a small group, you could use the Holy Habits Group Study booklet on worship.