The Ascension of Jesus into heaven bring the incarnation to its logical conclusion – and tells us that God’s identification with the human condition is eternal, not temporary. Jesus prayer to be glorified glorifies all humanity with him, for we are created in the image and likeness of God – and called to live in God’s transforming love.
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Ascension Day was last Thursday, the 40th day after Easter, when according to Luke, starting out the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus was lifted up into heaven. The number forty certainly sounds familiar – the Chosen People wandered 40 years in the wilderness; Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days when he was tempted by the devil. Now if you’ve never heard a sermon preached on the Ascension before, at least not in a Protestant church, I’m not surprised. Certainly among Presbyterians, and most other Protestants, Ascension Day has long since been forgotten in the worship calendar. For starters, it occurs on a Thursday, which hardly encourages church attendance, at least among us independently-minded Protestants. It actually remains a public holiday in much of Europe, although I’m not sure how many that gets to church.
And then, Ascension is a bit of an embarrassment to skeptical moderns, even modern Christians. Perhaps we’ve seen too many cartoons of angels floating by on clouds, but the image of Jesus rising up into heaven, flying by like some divine Peter Pan, some Superman-like action here, just doesn’t seem very … real. It turns Jesus into some sort of movie special effect, not the resurrected Jesus that broke bread with his disciples on the road to Emmaus.
So my first task this morning is to explain how the Ascension means something rather different than you may think it does at first glance. And then, we will explore what it means to look at the world and our lives from the point of view of eternity, instead of time – sub specie aeternitatis, as the theologians said when they wrote in Latin.
First, then, what is the Ascension getting at? What did it mean to the first Christians, to the early Church, when they talked about Jesus being ‘taken up.’ For us today, this event seems to diminish Jesus’ humanity, to turn him into a weightless spirit instead of a God in human flesh, the incarnate Saviour. And that may sound perfectly reasonable to you. The Risen Jesus isn’t a ‘regular’ human being anymore. But I think modern Christians make the same mistake with the Ascension that we make with the Virgin Birth. For modern believers, the Virgin Birth is what makes Jesus divine – but in a way that makes you wonder if he’s really human. To be ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost,’ as the Creed puts it, hardly sounds like a real person. But to the early Church, the Virgin Birth meant precisely the opposite – the message of the Virgin Birth underscored that Jesus was born, born of a woman just like every other human being. That was the crucial difference between the story of Jesus, and the tales of the Greek gods or Egyptian deities, and for the that matter the difference with Hindu gods as well. Those other deities may have entered the world as people or swans or deer or whatever – but they then left again because they hadn’t really become those animals. They were disguises. But the Christian affirmation is that in Jesus God did not simply appear to be human – he didn’t slip on a Jesus costume only to take it off again later. No, God really became a human being, became one with humanity, one with that part of creation created in God’s own image. That’s what the incarnation – what Christmas – is all about.
And incarnation is also what the Ascension is all about. It’s not all about angels and spirits and clouds and life in heaven by and by. Instead of disembodied souls floating on clouds playing harps, the Ascension sends a very different message. As God became one with humankind in the birth of Jesus from the womb of Mary, so the Ascension tells us that he remains one not only in his life on earth, but through the Resurrection and to his eternal life in heaven. The commitment of God to live and suffer with His people, so graphically portrayed in the birth and life and passion of our Lord, did not end with the Cross, or even with the Resurrection. It continues on in heaven, beyond our physical sight but visible still with the eyes of our heart.
So the Ascension actually follows inevitably, even necessarily from the birth, the passion, the Resurrection, as day follows night. This message, this conviction, this reality sets the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the good news of Christian faith – apart from every other religion we know on earth. The Incarnation is startling enough by global standards, but the continuing life of that incarnate Jesus means God still works here in this world, even as God exists beyond time, in eternity.
Now, you may with some justification say that logical necessity doesn’t move your spirit, touch your heart. What does this Ascension doctrine – and we all know how much we don’t love doctrine – but what does it mean for our faith, not about our faith. The Ascension teaches us to look at this worldly life not from our worldly, time-limited viewpoint, but from the view of God’s transforming love. Paul wrote to the church in Rome, ‘Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.’ We are called to look at life as God does, and that means through the eyes of Jesus who became one with us, and, the Ascension makes clear, remains one with us in the ascended Jesus who sits with God. The value of human life, placed upon it by its Creator, remains constant – and therefore calls us to treat all people – ourselves and all around us – as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. C.S. Lewis, the great British Christian writer, put it at one point, ‘There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.’ What might it mean if we treated everyone we meet like that?
One thing it means, at least, is the kind of help that St. Andrew’s and others are providing to the Zion Church in Batticoloa. One can look at tragedy, and some traditions would claim people bring it on themselves – it is punishment for past sins, or for provoking others by being too visible, or for being too different from others around, that have brought disaster down upon their heads and they just need to cope with it. Others say to live is to suffer, and the goal then is to withdraw from the world of attachment and desire. Those who don’t believe in any god simply say bad things happen, and it can’t be helped and so there’s nothing much to be done. If God took these approaches, there would certainly be no Christmas, no Easter, and no Ascension. The Christian message at its simplest says despite what happens in the world, despite what can happen, what will happen, to us in some way or another, greater or lesser, nonetheless God is for us, God offers hope, and possibility, even thugh this creation that falls short of what God created it to be. And the Incarnation, and the Ascension, tell us that God remains with us in the flesh and blood of Jesus the Messiah, the Christ.
So how does this connect with what is happening in Batticoloa. We have done a good bit here; through funds you have given for this purpose, and other money the church has redirected, and through generous donations from other people here in Colombo and beyond being channeled through us. And we are not alone. World Vision and UNICEF and others are also helping. But all of these organizations work from the principal that God cares about this world, not just about the next, and God calls us to care for all whom God created, not just for the members of our tribe or community or even religion. And God makes clear this call through the Ascension, that continues the divine presence in actual human life through the ascended body of Jesus.
Now that ascended body – his post-Resurrection body – was a real body, one that could sit and eat fish with his disciples. But it was also a body somehow transformed. We don’t know quite how, we shall not know this side of heaven, but we are told it was a transformed body – not an angel or a spirit, but real in some way beyond our worldly grasp. And that tells us that our lives, our faith, seek not escape but transformation.
The gifts being given to the victims of the Zion Church bombing in Batticoloa offer transformation. They treat the real needs of these people seriously, they do not say ‘you will get your reward in heaven,’ they do not say ‘you are being punished for your sins,’ they offer relationship as well as material goods, and seek recovery through the pain of what has happened, not denying it or ignoring it. They offer hope, and what can be more transforming than that.
In our families, in our jobs, our schools, our communities, we are called to meet not just our own needs, not simply to cope with our own problems, necessary as those things are. But as Jesus prayed that those with him would be glorified, as his Ascension testifies to God’s permanent presence in human life – transformed human life – so may we seek to transform the places we are by treating all people as God’s people, equally worthy of attention as we ourselves, and pointing all people to the goodness of God seen through Jesus, who was, and is, and is to come.