“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” This is an article of faith among us. It is an article of faith that is in both the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creeds. But it is an article of faith that is little understood—perhaps, in part, because the Ascension is hardly observed anymore.
Following St. Luke’s chronology, the Ascension comes 40 days after Easter, so it’s always a Thursday. In many European countries it remains a holiday, although I doubt that many Europeans go to church on Ascension Day. Some churches observe it on the Sunday after the Ascension, as we do here. If that’s all we can do, it’s better than not observing the Day at all. Because the Ascension of our Lord is too important to ignore.
We have trouble picturing the risen Jesus being bodily in heaven, being bodily present with us. It’s part of our whole problem with the resurrection. A resurrected spirit Jesus, we could accept. But a glorified body Jesus…well, that’s so hard to explain. But Jesus rose from the dead bodily, and it is in His resurrected, glorified body that He is at the right hand of the Father, and yet as He said, He is with us always in His resurrected, glorified body.
This is just plain hard to fathom. It’s easier to think that Jesus stopped being the divine Son when He became human in His conception and birth. And then He went back to being the divine Son, and stopped being human, when He went to heaven. But the Ascension insists that we reconsider this notion. Jesus is always fully human and fully divine “at the right hand of the Father.”
“Right hand,” of course, is symbolic language. It doesn’t mean that Jesus is stuck in one place, there at the right side of the Father. It means Jesus holds the position of power and authority. He is “in charge”…not only in heaven but also on earth.
Now the obvious objection, of course, is that it doesn’t look like He’s in charge. It doesn’t look like anyone is really in charge. Because if He is in charge, our Lord is certainly making a fine mess of things. The world hasn’t improved in any appreciable way since Jesus’ Ascension that it was before the Ascension!
But that misses the point. Those early Christians knew, better than we, that the world was still a mess after the Ascension. But they went off like messengers of a company announcing that a new CEO had taken charge. And they discovered through their own various callings how His new way of running things was working out. It wasn’t a matter of Christians rushing out to take over the world in a kind of theocracy. That always ends in disaster. But neither is it a matter of Christians backing off because of the Ascension and letting the world go to hell in a hand basket, while we gather behind closed doors to worship our Jesus.
No, Jesus’ kingdom is now advancing through the life and the mission of His Church. That’s why Jesus tells His disciples to “stay in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high.” The kingdom advances through the Church, fired by the Holy Spirit, as the Church, this fellowship of the faithful, goes out into the world. Yes, vulnerable, suffering, succeeding, praying, misjudged, and misjudging; like St. Paul, bearing in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our bodies! For if Jesus did not ascend to the Father, then the Spirit is not sent from the Father and the Son, then the Kingdom of God is not advanced in this world by means of the life and the mission of His Church.
Sometimes the little flock of Christ needs to remember just what a great mission we have been given. It’s a big world out there and we sometimes—often times?—feel…overwhelmed. And the opposition can be very noisy! But we have a powerful resource propelling us. We are empowered by the presence of the risen and ascended Lord. The power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him at the right hand of the Father…that is the power that is at work in and through us, the Church.
Oh…but when that power goes to our heads…the results are never pretty! If the Church identifies its structures, its leadership, its buildings, its programs, its politics, its assets, or identifies anything with its Lord, as if they are one and same, what you get is either an overreaching insolence, or the despair that comes because things just don’t work better.
But the Ascension helps us. The One who is indeed present with us in His Word proclaimed and in His Sacraments administered He is also the Lord who is, to our senses, strangely absent. Jesus Christ is Immanuel, “God with us,” but He is also God over against us. He is Judge at the same time that He is Savior.
Now…it is one thing to explain how all of this fits together. It is quite another thing to imagine it, to know what it is we’re really talking about when we speak of Jesus being human, an embodied human not a ghost, embodied in His glorified resurrection body, present and at work in this world through His Church…and yet…and yet apparently absent, gone!
Some deal with this dilemma by saying that Jesus Himself is just hanging around heaven waiting for the Last Day…and all the heavy lifting is now being done by the Holy Spirit. Any “presence” of Jesus is only a spiritual presence at best. But a Jesus who is not wholly present, body & spirit, is a Jesus not present at all! What we need is a new and better world view, a new and better way of thinking about the world than the one our post-Enlightenment culture has bequeathed to us.
The early Christians, as well as their fellow 1st Century Jews, were not—as critical scholars never tire of saying—they were not locked into a three-storied universe with heaven up there in the sky and hell down there below the surface of the earth. To say that’s what they thought is just another example of the insufferable condescension that we modern folks show the ancient world. No, when the Bible speaks of up and down in regard to heaven and hell it’s using metaphors. In fact, the early Christians, and the people of the Old Testament, were more sensitive to metaphors than we are, what with our near deafness to the subtleties of written and spoken language.
The mystery of the Ascension is just that—it’s a mystery. It demands that we think what many people today think is almost unthinkable; that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum, nor is it speaking about a spiritual world as contrasted with a physical world. No! Time and eternity for God are flip sides of the same coin. Spiritual and physical are not two different worlds, but together confess a reality that no eye has fully seen nor mind has fully plumbed!
But we have become so dull in imagining a reality greater than what we can see or test. Writers and movie makers are capable of taking us beyond our senses, but after we leave the theater or shut the book, we retreat into our rationalistic universe held in the fierce grip of a scientific fundamentalism…unable to imagine, with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
One day Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. No, not in the way of the Harold Campings of the world, those voices from the fringe with their Raptures and numerologies and cataclysms. No! It’s what the angels said to the apostles, who stood there, slack-jawed, as Jesus disappeared into the cloud: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”
So what is to be said of all of this? Is He gone? No. Not gone, He’s on the loose. So we can’t own Him. We can’t define where He must be. With the Ascension, Jesus is on the loose…and we have no choice but to meet Him where He promises to be found. That’s why we are here today, here where He promises to speak to us by His Word. Today we are here, where He promises that in eating this bread and drinking this cup He is present with forgiveness for our sin.
And when we do this, we participate in His presence, body and spirit. We participate in His story. We participate in His death, in His resurrection, in His ascension, and in His coming again. Because in Christ, already we inhabit heaven, as He inhabits earth. Body and spirit. In Christ, already we inhabit eternity as He inhabits time. Body and spirit. Already…though not yet do we see, not yet do we sense… Still, in Christ, already this participation penetrates into every corner of our lives, and through us, the Church, it is penetrating into the world. And what is to come of it? Well, we shall have to see!