18 Pentecost: 30 September 2007
(Acts 1:1-11/Psalm 47/Hebrews 10:11-25/Luke 24:44-53)
He ascended into heaven.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m always confused by those Christians – you know the ones I mean, those liberal, mainline, seminary-educated, social gospel preaching Christians – who argue that one boat couldn’t possibly hold representative pairs of all earth’s animal species; or that the Red Sea that parted during the Exodus was really the Reed Sea, a shallow, marshy area that the Israelites slogged through but which mired up the Egyptian chariot wheels; or that the walls of Jericho fell solely due to structural damage caused by the vibrations of hordes of marching feet; or – well, you get the idea. It’s as if they are embarrassed by the thought of God interacting with his creation; let’s keep God in heaven where he belongs and let the scientists tell us what is or is not possible here on earth. I’m confused by them because it seems to me that once you accept the idea of a God who creates worlds merely by speaking them into existence, a God who brings forth life merely by breathing into a red-earth manikin, then everything is on the table. A really big boat? No problem; God created the heavens and the earth, all things seen and unseen. I’ve seen a vocational class at my school create wooden canoes that are absolute pieces of art – not to mention being great boats. Now that’s a miracle. But God designing an ark? No problem. Parting a sea? Not to worry; in the beginning God separated the waters above from the waters below and brought forth dry ground by fixing the boundaries of the sea. To make a dry path through one of the smaller of those seas? No problem. Break down some walls? God lifts up and casts down entire nations according to his will. A few walls? No problem. Once you accept God, you get a lot thrown in for free. Why quibble over the details?
I suspect these same Christians – let alone those outside the faith – have major problems with the Creed. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Now wait a minute. We know where babies come from. Maybe those poor, illiterate, ignorant people who wrote the Creed didn’t understand it, but we do. You don’t get babies from a woman protecting her virginity. But then again, if God brought forth all life on earth by saying, “Let it be,” then just perhaps he could do that again in the womb of a virgin willing to be so blessed. He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. Hold on. I’ve read lots of obituaries in my time, but never a notice of resurrection. There’s not even a word for it and that says it all. We have a word for death notice but not for resurrection notice. Why? Because deaths happen and resurrections don’t. But then again, if God is the author of life – if Jesus is truly the way, the truth, and the life – then I wouldn’t expect death to be able to hold him. In fact, I would expect the tomb to burst open and Jesus to come striding forth as conqueror. Once you accept God, you get a lot thrown in for free. Why quibble over the details?
I’m fine with all these apparently outrageous claims about God. I’ve accepted the truly outrageous claims – that God is and that God loves me, loves all of us. From then on it’s really pretty easy. So the Creed presents me with no particular challenges of belief – of understanding, yes, but of belief, no. At least not until I get to this line: He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. I know. This must seem rather tame to you after the virgin birth and the resurrection. Why does the ascension bother me so when the apparently more challenging doctrines of virgin birth and resurrection do not? Because Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary having been conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is a statement of fact about God incarnate. Because Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. This is a statement of fact about God triumphant. Once you accept God, you get all these thrown in for free. And to the extent that the ascension is a statement of fact about Jesus’ return to the right hand of God, it too is easy to believe. But it is far more than that, and it is the far more that causes me problems. The ascension is a statement of fact – several facts, really – about me, about you. And while I can believe grand things about God, I have trouble believing grand things about myself. Perhaps that’s why the church – at least that part of it we’re most familiar with – places such little emphasis on the ascension. Christmas, of course. Good Friday, yes. Easter, definitely. But Ascension? I don’t ever recall hearing a single sermon about it, and never a discussion of the theology.
But it’s all there in Scripture. Paul preaches the ascension in a breath-taking letter to the Ephesians, a letter which should drive each us to our knees in wonder and praise. And he teaches it, a deep theology that will stretch our understanding and belief to near breaking point. And he prays it, a prayer almost too deep for words, a prayer prayed in and through Paul by the Holy Spirit himself.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:15-23, NRSV).
In this magnificent prayer, which he offers ceaselessly on behalf of the Ephesian church, Paul prays for spiritual wisdom, revelation, and enlightenment. Paul understands that the natural mind cannot grasp the deep truths of God; for these, only spiritual wisdom, revelation, and enlightenment will do. I have a friend who has no sense of humor, or at least one that is seriously stunted. I’ve made her laugh only once or twice in countless efforts. After the latest joke falls flat I often explain to her why she should have found it funny. And she may understand that intellectually, but the joke still isn’t funny to her. She simply lacks a spirit of humor. The same holds true with the deep things of God. The natural mind may perceive a certain logic to a doctrine, may acknowledge how the piece fits with the whole, but it is unmoved, unconvinced, unchanged by it all. Only a spirit of wisdom, revelation, and enlightenment – gifts from God – enable us to ascertain spiritual truths in a transformational, rather than informational, way. The true theologian is one who prays, and the one who truly prays is a theologian. And so, let us pray.
God of our Lord Jesus Christ, Father of glory: give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know you, 18so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know the hope to which you have called us, the riches of our glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and the immeasurably great power you exert for us who believe, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In this prayer – Paul’s and ours – we speak of the immeasurably great power that God exerts on our behalf. And here is the wonder: this is the same power that
God put [this power] to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come (Eph 1:20-21, NRSV).
The ascension of Jesus Christ was an expression of God’s immeasurably great power and the authorization for Jesus to share that same power at God’s right hand. In that position of authority and power Jesus reigns over all rule and authority and power and dominion. His name is exalted above every other name. He is the Pantocrator, the Almighty. And this same power is now being used for us, on us, and through us. The ascension brings the immeasurably great power of God to bear on us – to raise us from the dead and to seat us with Christ in the heavenly places – and it channels that same power through us for the life of the world. Ascension means power – the power of God to give new life, the power of God to recreate the world, the power of God to make fallen sinners like you and me become the sons and daughters of God and thus to share in the glorious inheritance of the saints. I find it easy to believe in the ascension of Jesus. I find it much more difficult to believe in my ascension, in the same power of God exerted on me. And so I pray for a spirit of wisdom and revelation and enlightenment, that I might know this truth, that you might know it, in a way that transforms us.
We could stop here and ponder this mystery for ages of ages, but Paul rushes ahead, words spilling forth from the abundance of his heart.
[But] God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:4-7, NRSV).
Christ is our champion, our representative. By grace, through his faithfulness, what is true for him becomes true for those of us who, by faith, have put on Christ and are found in him. When he ascended to take his rightful heavenly place at the right hand of God, he carried us with him there; because Christ ascended, we, too, ascended. In the incarnation Jesus united his divinity with our humanity and descended to dwell with us. In the ascension Jesus unites our humanity with his divinity and lifts us to heaven to dwell in the presence of God, in the presence of God who
raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:6-7).
Do you begin to see why I have such difficulty believing the ascension? These are statements not just about Christ – those are easy to believe – but about me, and about you. We have been raised with Christ. We have ascended on high with Christ. We have been seated in heavenly places with Christ. Why? Grace. Love. Why? Because God desires to lavish the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us for the sake of his only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We die with Christ in baptism and rise from the water to walk in new, eternal life. We ascend with Christ – in and through his ascension – and take our place in heaven as God’s redeemed humanity, as God’s image-bearers, as those who have been united with Christ and whose nature has been transformed into his likeness. And if I can’t perceive myself that way now? Then I pray for a spirit of wisdom and revelation and enlightenment, that I might know this truth, that you might know it, in a way that transforms us.
So much of the truth of the ascension seems hidden to my eyes, a theological truth accepted but not directly experienced – and I want to see some evidence. Well, Paul insists we do have visible tokens, sacramental signs, of Christ’s ascension and of our union with it.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’ 9(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Eph 4:7-13, NRSV).
The visible evidence of Christ’s ascension – and ours with him – is the presence of his gifts in the church and to the church, gifts of ministers and ministries: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. And this is just a partial list. To the Romans Paul says,
We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully (Rom 12:6-8, NIV).
The immeasurably great power by which God raised Christ to the heavenly places, seated Christ at his own right hand, and placed under Christ all rulers, powers, dominions, and authorities – that same power is now at work in us and through us for the life of the world. That power is demonstrated and exercised, at least in part, through the various servant-ministries of the church. We know that God seated us in the heavenly places in Christ because of the gifts he has lavished upon the church, gifts meant to bring us all together into the full measure of the stature of Christ. Jesus has joined our nature to his and has glorified our humanity by raising it with him into the heavenly places. Now, we are to live out that reality by coming to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, by coming to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
So, let’s step back now and look at the grand sweep of the salvation story and place the ascension within it.
Christ has joined his divine nature to our human nature through the power of the Holy Spirit and the yes of the Virgin Mary. Christ’s incarnation assures us of God’s identification with his people – Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Christ has died and with him, through baptism, we too have died to sin. Christ’s death assures our forgiveness.
Christ has risen and with him, emerging from the water of baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit, we too have risen to walk in newness of life. Christ’s resurrection assures our eternal, abundant life.
Christ has ascended to the heavenly realm to take his proper place at the right hand of God and with him, carried upward by his ascension, we too have come into the very presence of God. Christ’s ascension assures our glorification, the union of our humanity with Christ’s divinity. The ascension makes it possible for us once again to be the image-bearers of God that nature and vocation intend.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love (Eph 1:3-4, NRSV).
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