Scriptures: Acts 1:1-11 & Luke 24:44-53
For much of my life, including most of my years as a pastor, the ascension of Jesus Christ has been an enigma. For the longest time, I had the hardest time wrapping my head around the idea of Jesus floating up into the sky like a helium balloon. In my last year of seminary, I was the last student to preach in chapel before graduation. As it was, the day I preached was Ascension Day, which is always a Thursday (Ascension Day is the 40th day of Easter beginning with Easter Sunday). So the text for my sermon that Thursday was the exact text which Mary read just a moment ago.
It’s the story of Jesus gathering his disciples together one last time to give them their final instructions and encouragement after which he “left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). That’s how Luke described it at the close of his Gospel. He opens the book of Acts with the same story, but this time he includes a few more details of what took place. Here’s how he describes the Lord’s ascension in the book of Acts.
So, there I was, standing before the seminary community with the task of preaching on a Bible story that I wasn’t even sure I believed. Looking out into the congregation, I began my message with something like this: “Friends, I wish I could stand before you today and say that I believe Jesus ascended into to place of eternal glory just as Luke described it.” And for many years after that, I experienced the same level of skepticism. How could a human body float up into the air—again, like a helium balloon—while the rest of his friends remained subject to the law of gravity? Ironically, I’ve never had a problem believing that Jesus walked on water, or that he raised Lazarus back to life, or did any number of miracles that defy logic and science. But there was just something about him floating away into the sky that I found hard to believe.
Well, over time my faith in his ascension as Luke describes it has strengthened. Through the teachings of other pastors and authors I’ve come to a better understanding of the characteristics of what the Apostle Paul refers to a “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15. In this chapter he writes, “[concerning the] resurrection of the dead: a rotting body is put into the ground, but what is raised won’t ever decay. It’s degraded when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in glory. It’s weak when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in power. It’s a physical body when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised as a spiritual body. If there’s a physical body, there’s also a spiritual body. Listen, I’m telling you a secret: all of us won’t die, but we will all be changed. The dead [in Christ] will be raised with bodies that won’t decay” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 51).
His point is that when Christ returns, we who were born again spiritually while living in our physical earthly bodies will be “clothed” with the same kind of body with which Jesus was resurrected. It’s what Paul calls a spiritual body, but not in the way we think of something having a ‘spiritual’ nature. For us, being “spiritual” implies something that’s ghostlike or phantasmal; it’s shadowy and ethereal. But that’s not what Paul has in mind. When he says we’ll be given a spiritual body, he has a physical body in mind, but one that won’t be limited to the laws of physics which govern our current universe.
When the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples they could touch him. He could sat down. He could walk on the ground. He could eat food. In every sense, it was the same physical body he had before his crucifixion. It was the same physical body which was crucified (his body still bore the marks of his crucifixion). However, it had been transformed into something different, though still physical to the touch. The difference was that his resurrected body wasn’t limited to the laws of nature in this world. Eyewitnesses to his resurrection report that he could “pass through” walls (John 20:19) and that he could suddenly disappear from sight (see Luke 24:31). And yes, in his resurrected body he could defy the law of gravity and “float away.” According to Paul, this is the kind of body we will be given when Christ returns and redeems all of Creation.
So, why is the Lord’s ascension so important? In his book, People and Place, Michael Horton observes that we typically “treat the ascension as little more than a dazzling exclamation point for the resurrection rather than as a new event in its own right.” It’s like we see it as Jesus’ way of saying, “You think me coming back to life was mind-blowing? Wait till you see what I do next. It’ll leave you speechless, literally!” But Horton asserts that Jesus’ ascension is a vital part of the story of redemption. If we simply make the ascension into the final period of the sentence called “resurrection,” then we miss stunning benefits tied directly to Jesus being taken into heaven—his place of eternal glory.
Pastor and author, Timothy Keller, offers this similar perspective on the importance of his ascension. He says, “The ascension, when understood, becomes an irreplaceable, important resource for living our lives in the world—and it’s a resource no other religion or philosophy of life holds out to us.” (emphasis mine) As Keller sees it, a proper understanding of Jesus’ physical ascension into heaven is an important resource for living in this world. Correctly viewing the ascension of Jesus—his leaving this world—can actually help us to live well while still in this world. How so? Well, let me offer one way that his ascension benefits us today.
There a number of benefits of Jesus’ ascension, but first and foremost, it’s the reason we have hope for our future. His ascension established him as the reigning King over all powers in all ages. It firmly established him as the King of kings and Lord of lords, a messianic title attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. King of king and Lord of lords. He’s a holy and powerful, loving and benevolent Ruler over all creation. Here’s how Paul puts in in his letter to the Ephesians: “God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now (today, in our present world) but in the future (the world to come)” (Ephesians 1:20-21). When did this happen? When God “raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens,” a clear reference to the ascension. The truth is the ascended Christ is supremely powerful. He’s sovereign over every part of the created order.
Now, just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that Christ controls every step we take and every decision we make. We absolutely still have free will in this life. But it does mean that despite all the bad that happens in this world—and that includes the most vile and evil things a human being can do to another—despite all of that, Christ in his sovereignty is guiding all of life to its perfect fulfillment. He’s in ultimate control.
So, what’s the impact of Christ’s sovereignty on our day-to-day living in a broken world? It’s what give us hope.
In Paul’s long discourse in 1 Corinthians 15 about how the concept of the resurrection of the dead is a reality and can be believed, he comes to a very sobering conclusion. He says, “If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else” (v. 19). Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase says, “If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot” (The Message) Another Bible translation puts it, “Do we have hope in Christ only for this life? Then people should pity us more than anyone else” (NIRV).
In other words, if, as some suggest, there’s no resurrection from the dead and, therefore, no receiving of our spiritual bodies and living eternally with Christ, then that would mean the hope we hold onto which keeps us going through all the challenges of life, is only helpful in this life. And if that’s the case, why should we Christians be most pitied of all? Well, let’s think about it. The call to follow Jesus in this life involves taking up our cross….living a life of sacrifice….putting others first….turning the other cheek…loving our enemies… As followers of Christ, we really are called to forego the “pleasures of sin” (see Hebrews 11:24-26) and instant gratification for the sake of gaining something so much better in the next life. And if the next life as we see it is a hoax, then we’re losing out an awful lot in this life for nothing. And that, as Paul sees it, would make us pitiful beyond measure. But then in the next verse he goes on to proclaim the truth of the resurrection.
But here’s my point. We do hope in something great and wonderful beyond what we know in this world. If this world was all there is, how easy it would be to simply throw our arms up and say, Why even try? If this world was all there is, and there’s no hope for life getting any better at some point, what inspiration is there for those who are stuck in a life of horror, or abuse, or neglect? If this is as good as it’ll ever get, what’s the use in trying to address huge problems such as systemic racism and xenophobia? But the truth is, this world isn’t all there is. And as difficult and crazy and hurtful as life can be, because Jesus Christ is alive and on his throne in heaven, we can face each day with hope that God not only knows what’s happening, but that he’s slowly working it out so that it life comes to its promised fulfillment. And knowing that give us hope.
Let’s go back to Maundy Thursday when Jesus explained to his disciples what was about to go down. When he told them he was about to leave them, what was their natural reaction? They were disturbed and upset, and understandably so. But in that same breath he also told them, “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). Our great and blessed hope is the hope of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life in the new Jerusalem, and it’s intimately tied to Christ’s first going up.He had to leave them and “go up” in order to later come and take us to himself.
And, of course, this truth is at the heart of the Apostles’ Creed, where we say, “He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will….COME AGAIN…. to judge the living and the dead. This is probably one of the reasons we call this “Judgement Day.” But the thing to remember is that God’s “judgment” in its negative sense will not be brought against those who lived this life in Christ. That much I know and believe. And when that day comes, we will be given our spiritual bodies and all of creation will be transformed and made right, and all death and destruction and decay will come to an eternal end. And God’s beloved children will live and reign with Christ forever in eternal joy and light and goodness and happiness and singing and praising.
Do you recall the closing portion of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper? “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ COMES IN FINAL VICTORY and we FEAST AT HIS HEAVENLY BANQUET. The heavenly banquet of Christ is where all of this life, life in this world, is ultimately headed. And it’s headed that way because Jesus fulfilled his earthly ministry and returned in his resurrected body to his place of eternal glory where he working to bring all of God’s purposes to their end.
The first time Jesus left them, they were crushed. His death seemed to be the end of the story. But the second time he left them—when he “floated away” like a helium balloon—they had an altogether different response. Luke reports that they returned to Jerusalem rejoicing and spent long periods of time in the temple worshiping. They finally understood what Jesus meant about his need to leave them, so that he could come back.
First, when the Holy Spirit came upon them a few weeks later, which we’ll be celebrating next Sunday, Pentecost Sunday. And then when he returns in the same way they saw him go into heaven.
Knowing that a day IS coming when all wrongs will be made right, all injustices will be made just, and all wounds will be healed, give us hope. Thanks be to God. Let’s pray.