Ascending Thoughts

He Is risen! He is risen indeed!
Hallelujah!

He is Ascended! Wait,
what?

This is the problem. We move from
Easter to Pentecost and Ascension Day falls more and more into the
cracks. It isn’t convenient, as it always falls on a Thursday (39
days after Easter Sunday, ten days before the festival of Pentecost).
As a pastor I have to struggle with creating an additional service
and an extra sermon and convincing all of you that it’s really a
worthwhile thing to attend on a Thursday evening. Pastors probably
don’t help the cause of Ascension Day much, since we can be just as
lazy as y’all.

But what does it really matter anyway?
Does it matter to us that Jesus has physically ascended into heaven?
I suspect that more and more it doesn’t. Yet it’s important enough
for Jesus to have allowed his disciples to witness his ascension, and
important enough for the Holy Spirit to ensure that this was included
in Scripture. Which leads me to suspect that if we don’t think it
matters, it’s probably we who are missing the point.

We affirm heartily that Jesus
actually developed in Mary’s womb as a human being, was born, passed
through a human, physical childhood, actually walked and ate and
talked with people physically, was eventually brutally beaten and
then nailed to a real wooden cross and died. We agree that his
very dead body was laid in a very real tomb, and that he appeared
again in three days in a very real body that you could touch and that
could eat and could embrace people and talk with them.

And now Jesus is like Casper the
Friendly Ghost and lives in my heart. Wait, What?

That’s not what Scripture says, is it?
Scripture tells us that Jesus ascended into heaven. Physically.
Bodily. The Incarnate Son of God remains Incarnate, just not here
with us. Yes, Jesus promises his disciples He will always be with
them in Matthew 28, but John is quite clear in recording Jesus’ firm
statements that He was not going to be with them much longer. Why
bother to ascend bodily if you’re going to dematerialize into a warm
fuzzy feeling in my heart? Why make such a big deal about sending
the Holy Spirit – which we celebrate next week – if Jesus is
going to personally be in our hearts like some sort of character out
of a Honey, I Shrunk the Savior movie?

Jesus ascends bodily into
heaven. The Son of God did not just slip into a human skin to walk
around with us for a while and then ditch it when he was done. He
has become man. Truly. Fully. Completely. From birth to
death and all the moments in between. And just as importantly, from
death to resurrection and now to ascension and to this very second in
time. Still. Jesus doesn’t just become human to be like me, He
becomes human to save me and to show me what I might become – not
divine, but whole, resurrected, and destined to enjoy the presence of
God for eternity.

The Greek philosophers imagined the
physical as somehow inferior to the spiritual, but Christianity
affirms that what God created good in Genesis 1 & 2 is being
redeemed and made good again through his death and resurrection. I
look forward to resurrected, eternal life as a human being, body and
spirit, not as a ghost or a spirit. Yet popular Christianity has
basically stripped Jesus of his body and made him a spirit again.

When I first really contemplated the
eternal incarnation in Seminary I thought it was a little
unnecessary. What a bummer that Jesus has to spend the rest of
eternity with a human body. But that’s my Greek mind at work.
Perhaps instead this is something wonderful, an affirmation of
creation itself because now creation has entered into the Trinity.
What an amazing thing God is willing to do in order to save creation,
to demonstrate his love for us! I am not merely saved from sin like
some afterthought, rather my humanity has been brought physically
into the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A physically ascended Jesus implies
that Jesus is located in a particular place. He told his disciples
where he was going in the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel.
Acts chapter 1 describes his ascension to that place. Already in
Acts 7 Stephen is privileged with a glimpse of Jesus standing in
glory at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus exists in a
particular place as a particular person.

This means that we should speak a bit
more accurately about Jesus. It’s popular to talk about Jesus being
in my heart. Strictly speaking, no, He isn’t. Jesus is at the right
hand of God the Father, awaiting the Father’s perfect timing for
Jesus to return in glory. The Holy Spirit of God may be in our
hearts, but Jesus the Son of God is physically with God the Father in
heaven. He is not a disembodied spirit. He is not sitting on our
shoulders.

I think that this is particularly
important aspect of the Ascension. I hear many Christians talking as
though Jesus as constantly agonizing over us. Like a back-seat
driver constantly clucking his tongue and checking to see if we’re on
the one, true, perfect yellow-brick road he has laid out for our
lives. Did you select the wrong job opportunity? You just made the
baby Jesus ghost on your shoulder weep. Did you buy a car that Jesus
didn’t want you to? Better get him an invisible hanky. If you had
chosen the right car or the right job or the right spouse, well, life
would be perfect and it would be raining puppies and unicorns. Are
you struggling? Are you unhappy? Well, obviously you didn’t do the
right thing and baby invisible Jesus in your heart is now punishing
you for deviating from your divinely appointed path.

What a horrible way to live! I don’t
see Jesus like this in Scripture. Jesus is our Lord and Savior who
calls us to obediently follow him. But since He is at the right hand
of God the Father, He has entrusted us with a great deal of freedom
in what this looks like. We see this immediately after his ascension
in the reading from Acts. The disciples decide that there needs to
be a replacement for Judas. They’re applying Scripture to the
situation – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They
identified two men who could possibly step into Judas’ place, who met
the criteria as they defined it with the Holy Spirit’s guiding. They
cast lots. Matthias is chosen, and the Church moves on to other
matters.

We don’t hear about Matthias again.
Does this mean he was the wrong choice? Did Jesus really want them
to choose Barsabbas? I don’t think so. They had a choice to make.
They made it. They moved on. If the lot had fallen to Barsabbas, I
think very little about the Bible or the Church would be different.
We live in the freedom of the resurrection, not the tyranny of
invisible Jesus over my shoulder.  Jesus was perfectly obedient to the will of God the Father and that led him to a horrible death on a cross!  Perhaps the fact that my commute doesn’t take me past my favorite coffee shop any more isn’t necessarily a reason to think that Jesus is punishing me for taking the wrong job.

We need to live our lives in the
confidence that we have because of the forgiveness of God the Father
because of the sacrifice of God the Son. I don’t believe there is
necessarily some perfect yellow-brick road for our lives. We are
given freedom to be obedient as we see fit. We live in grace, not
under the constant fear of the law standing ready to smack us for
making not a bad choice but a different choice than what Jesus really
wants for our lives.

This requires us to trust a great deal
more in our forgiveness, but it also requires us to take more
responsibility for our choices. We can’t just shrug our shoulders
when things don’t work out and say that Jesus apparently didn’t want
us to do this. We take responsibility for our actions, taking
seriously the grace and forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ, taking
seriously his Lordship over all things at the right hand of God the
Father, and recognizing that there are plenty of reasons why things
may not work out in our lives. It’s hard to imagine St. Paul as he
is about to be martyred opining about how he apparently hadn’t
followed Jesus’ plan for his life or else he wouldn’t be about to
die. It was Jesus’ perfect obedience to God the Father that placed
him upon the cross to suffer and die.

Being at the right hand of God, I
believe that Jesus has some pretty important things to do there. I
don’t think He’s sitting around twiddling his thumbs. St. Paul
writes in Hebrews that our Lord is interceding on our behalf
constantly. He is our great high priest who has made sacrifice for
us once and for all before God, and who now advocates for us before
the throne of God. We can trust in our forgiveness through him
because He has become like us, and understands firsthand our
struggles, having faced temptation himself.

The reality that Jesus is physically
somewhere, right this moment, should give me pause to think as well.
The idea of an invisible, incorporeal Jesus in my heart reduces his
authority. Talk about Jesus in my heart threatens to not just
disembody him, it threatens to strip him of his real and true
authority and power by reducing him to my invisible cuddly teddy bear
I squeeze when I’m afraid of the dark. He is not my security
blanket. Jesus is the resurrected Son of God made flesh who has
crushed the power of sin, destroyed the chains forged by Satan, and
ripped the doors of death off their hinges. He is my Lord that has
promised that no darkness can tear me away from him, and therefore I
don’t need to be afraid. I’ve never had a teddy bear who could
promise that.

Jesus as a physical Lord commands
respect and honor but also obedience. Jesus as resurrected and
ascended Lord puts a new spin on his prayer for unity before his
arrest and execution. Jesus isn’t simply wishful thinking with his
disciples. He’s serious. He expects us to act in unity as his
followers. Which means I have to seriously consider how I speak
about my brother or sister in Christ.

At the individual level I need to take
seriously that call for unity. What is my beef with my brother or
sister in Christ? What have they done to hurt my feelings or offend
me? Have they disagreed with me? Do they have a different
perspective on something? To quote a sermon from a while back, get
over it! Jesus did not die and rise again and ascend into heaven so
I can be catty with someone I will be sharing eternity with! I need
to pray and work for reconciliation and unity because my Lord demands
it!

As a pastor, I need to take the unity
of the body of Christ seriously as well. I need to be humble and
gracious as I talk about our brothers and sisters in the faith who
follow different denominations. I need to be humble and gracious in
my interactions with brother (or sister!) pastors. I may not agree
with them but that disagreement is not to break our fundamental unity
in the resurrected, ascended Lordship of Jesus Christ. Unless they
deny Scripture or disaffirm the Ecumenical Creeds, I treat them as
brothers and sisters I will share eternity with. My Lord himself has
prayed for this, and I need to take it seriously.

Finally, the fact that our Lord bodily
ascended means that He still has a body. Which means that He can
still share that body, and so you and I can still receive his body
and blood when we gather around his table. How does He do that? I
have no idea. Just as I have no idea how to explain the bodily
ascension, I have to trust that if he could rise from the dead, he
could ascend into heaven. So I trust that when He says take and eat,
this is my body, and take and drink, this is my blood, He means it.
Still. I receive him. Still.

So perhaps the Ascension is a big deal
after all.  He is ascended!  He is ascended indeed!  Hallelujah!

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One Response to “Ascending Thoughts”

  1. JP Says:

    Nice one! A great reminder. It also emphasizes the kingly function of Jesus. He has ascended, enthroned on high, ruling over the world. This is especially comforting as we face the ups and downs of our lives.

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