Even. More. Present.

Feast Day: The Ascension Day
Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

O Lord, open thy Word to us, and us to thy Word, that we know thee better and love thee more; for thy mercy and for thy truth’s sake. Amen.

If you’ve been around church long enough and paying attention then you know full well just how strange the Christian faith is. And as you may have deduced from our last two years together I am very much a proponent of keeping Christianity strange. After all, the entire thing hinges on whether or not God is in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to himself. And the further along the stranger it gets. Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, his whole life marked by a love that embraced suffering, and then there was the utter shame and degradation of a Roman crucifixion. As if all of that wasn’t strange enough the Church proclaims that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, bodily!

Luke tells us as we heard in the opening lines of Acts that after Jesus rose from the dead he presented himself alive to the disciples “by many convincing proofs.” No kidding. Convincing proofs such as gobbling down some boiled fish, allowing them to stick their fingers into his old wounds, and so on and so on. And this occurred over a period of forty days. That’s what the Easter season commemorates.

I hope you’re still tracking with me at this point because today as we celebrate the feast of the Ascension things are about to get a whole lot stranger. At the end of the Gospel and at the beginning of Acts Luke tells us what happened after those forty days. We’ll draw from both accounts this morning but let our focus be on the one that comes at the end of the Gospel that we heard read moments ago: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God,” (24:50-53). After forty days Jesus ascended to the Father in heaven.

In our gospel reading last week we heard how and when it was that the disciples came to believe. If you remember, it wasn’t during the three years they spent traveling around the countryside with him. It wasn’t on the Cross. It wasn’t when they witnessed the empty tomb or even when they saw the risen Jesus with their own eyes. When was it that they believed? Only after the Holy Spirit reminded them of all that Jesus had said. That is, after the Holy Spirit pulled the veil back from their eyes so that they could read the scriptures anew and know Jesus in a new way.

Our gospel reading this morning picks up at this same place, did you notice? The risen Jesus explained to them how he was the fulfillment of everything that was written in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms. “Then,” Luke says, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

Friends, Jesus doesn’t just want you to read the scriptures he wants to open your mind to understand them. He wants to open your eyes and your ears to see him and hear his voice, to open your minds and your hearts that you might know and love him. This is something that only the Holy Spirit can do and he will if you but ask.

We could spend a lot more time on that but instead I want us to focus on what happens next. No sooner has Jesus opened their minds to understand, no sooner have they finally recognized him and believed, when he vanishes from their sight. The point I want to make this morning is that Jesus vanishes from their sight so that they can know him in a new way.

This passage is easily misunderstood. We hear it read and it sounds like Jesus has gone away. Isn’t that what Luke tells us? “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” And again at the beginning of Acts: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

Jesus has departed and yet we know that the disciples did not experience this as a loss. How? Because the text tells us that they were full of joy at his departure. That’s strange don’t you think? It’s not what we would have expected. For the disciples the world is unchanged and now on top of that Jesus is gone. Why are they not sad? It can only be because whatever the case may be they obviously do not feel abandoned.

In John’s gospel on the night before his death Jesus says to his disciples in the same passage that we heard read from last week: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live,” (John 14:18-19). I am going but I am coming to you, says Jesus. Therefore, while the disciples witness Jesus ascend to the right hand of the Father in heaven they nevertheless do not understand this to mean that he has gone very far away to some other space that is presently inaccessible to them. Rather, and this is the important point, because of the ascension the disciples are convinced that the crucified and risen Jesus is now present to them in a new and powerful way. That’s why they are full of joy.

Along with the early Christians we must affirm something extremely important here. The ascension describes an event involving Jesus’ physical body. Some of the early heretics taught that Jesus ascended spiritually, leaving his physical body behind. Against such teaching the early Christians proclaimed a bodily gospel: bodily birth, bodily suffering, bodily death, bodily resurrection, and bodily ascension.[1] Because the faith of the Church is not about spiritual escapism but about the redemption and transfiguration of human life in all of its material reality.

Thus, it is precisely the crucified Jesus that has ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven and having entered into eternity he is no longer bound by spacetime. Among other things this means that the risen and living Jesus Christ is present to all things at all times as Lord and Creator. And here is where it gets fun. Because he is ascended and no longer bound by spacetime Jesus is as present to us now as he was to the disciples then, as he was to Moses before them, as he was at the creation of the world. Now, truly, the loving authority, rule, and peace of Jesus Christ extends over the whole creation.

One New Testament theologian put it beautifully. The Ascension is not meant to make us wonder where Jesus has gone but rather to make us wonder along with the Psalmist, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).[2] The Ascension does not mean that Jesus has gone away. On the contrary, it means that he has become even more present.

One last detail as we conclude. What does Luke tell us Jesus was doing as he ascended? Listen: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.” And it was as he was blessing them that he withdrew. He goes while blessing and his hands remain stretched out over this world. The outstretched blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us while at the same time tearing open the world so that heaven may enter in.[3]

Therefore, we can now begin to understand and rejoice along with the disciples for the Ascension is at once his going away and also his coming to us in a new form of closeness and blessing. Because Jesus is with the Father in heaven he can see us. Therefore, we can always call upon him and we can always be certain that he sees and hears us.[4] Therefore, we too with Jesus can ascend to the Father in heaven and know his peace. Indeed, through baptism our life is already hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:1-3).

“You are now witnesses of these things,” says Jesus. You are now witnesses. Witnesses of his Passion which now extends over all things. Witnesses of the new life that is available right now to all who come to Jesus Christ. We’ll turn our attention to this more closely next week on the Feast of Pentecost. For now, let us worship the Crucified, Risen, and Ascended One with great joy.

[1] Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed, 88.
[2] ibid, 89.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 293.
[4] ibid, 284.

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