May 29, 2022 – Ascension Sunday
Scriptures: Acts 1:1-11 & Ephesians 1:15-23
A while back I shared with you that for most of my adult life, I couldn’t wrap my head around the bodily ascension of Jesus as described in the Bible. Luke, who authored both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, includes it in both books, but provides a few more details in Acts. Mark also mentions it in the closing of his Gospel.
Here’s Mark’s report of what happened: “After the Lord Jesus spoke to them, he was lifted up into heaven and sat down on the right side of God” (Mark 16:19). That’s it. Mark devotes one verse to the event of Jesus leaving this earth and returning to his heavenly glory.
Here’s how Luke describes it in his Gospel: “He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). Pretty much the same as Mark.
Now, compare those with what’s in Acts 1.
“After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven’” (vv. 9-11).
As I started to say, throughout most of my adult life I had trouble reconciling my experience of the proven laws of physics which govern our universe—specifically, the law of gravity—with the report that in his physical body, Jesus floated up into the sky like a helium balloon as his friends watched on, mouths gaping open, I’m sure! My struggle came to an end when it was pointed out to me that the body with which Jesus was resurrected was his physical body but in a transformed condition. The Apostle Paul refers to it as a “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15:44 and a “glorious body” in Philippians 3:21. He speaks of it as a body which undergoes a transformation in which what is perishable becomes imperishable. With this in mind a resurrected body is not subject to the laws of the created universe. Having put on his resurrected body, Jesus was able to walk out of his tomb while the stone was still in place. It’s what enabled him to enter a room the door to which was securely locked. And it’s what granted him the ability to rise in his body into the sky, where he was enveloped by the clouds. Though God’s heavenly dwelling place is beyond and outside of our physical universe, his ascension into the sky implied, albeit symbolically, that he was returning to his place of eternal glory, the place from which he came when he was born into this world. He came from glory and returned to glory.
Now, it’s easy to miss because it’s only alluded to, but the ascension is also cited is today’s reading from Ephesians. In Ephesians 1:20, Paul says that “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.” I’ll read that again, but this time I’ll add a couple of words which clarify the point I think Paul’s trying to make. God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead AND [when God] sat him at [his] right side in the heavens.
That the resurrection of Jesus was evidence of God’s divine power at work is fairly well understood by most of us. We get that. But I hear Paul telling us there’s more to this idea of God’s power accomplishing something important than just bringing about the resurrection. I think he’s saying that our Lord’s ascension and return to glory is also evidence of God’s divine power at work. With his mighty power, God accomplished a number of important things by resurrecting Jesus. First and foremost, by resurrecting Jesus, God proved everything said about Jesus to be true. His resurrection validated his claim to be Messiah, which implies that everything Scripture ascribes to the work of Messiah was accomplished in and through Jesus. Salvation, redemption, reconciliation—all these are ultimately achieved on account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His resurrection was the ultimate triumph over sin and death.
But God’s plan of redemption didn’t end with the resurrection. When Jesus died, his spirit went to the place of the dead. When he was raised, he came back to this world. But this world is not his kingdom. So, once his earthly work was accomplished, there was no reason for him to remain in this world. In the end, he needed to return to the place from whence he came in the first place. And it was in returning to his eternal place of glory that God’s mighty power achieved another important triumph—a triumph over all spiritual powers and authorities which live in the realm of the supernatural, that plane of existence beyond our world. Here it is in Paul’s own words: “God’s power was at work in Christ when…[he] 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 but in the future. God put everything under Christ’s feet” (vv. 20-22a).
If that sound familiar to you, it’s because Paul made the same point in Philippians 2, which you may be more familiar with. In Philippians, he put it like this: “Therefore, God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name given to Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11). Jesus Christ left his Father’s glory, emptied himself and entered our world a vulnerable baby. Thirty-three years later, he ascended back into his heavenly glory a victorious King—triumphant over sin and death and triumphant over all spiritual powers which would come against him.
In the ascension of Christ, God’s power was at work accomplishing something else. Something very important. So important that without it, we wouldn’t be here today. Starting in verse 22, Paul continues, “God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Paul says that God “put everything under Christ’s feet.” The Greek word for “everything” is panta, which means ‘all,’ ‘the whole,’ ‘every kind of.’ Everything God created, both in our natural realm of existence and the supernatural world as well, is subject to Jesus Christ. Christ Jesus has authority over every and all things. Every planet in every solar system. And in our world, every nation, every government, every political body, every political leader, every organization, every community, every business, everyone and everything—Christ is over all of it.
Now, let me ask you something. In this world, is there an entity which explicitly benefits from having Christ as head? If so, what is it? Answer: the church. Verse 22 reads, “God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body.” Other English translations say that Christ was made head of everything for the church.” In the church, for the church, for the benefit of the church; they’re all guessed on our part because in the original Greek it reads, “…head of everything the church.” Even so, ultimately it makes little difference whether Jesus is head of everything in the church or for the church. In the end, it’s both. He’s head over everything, but he’s specifically head of the church. No other entity in this world can make that claim. Jesus is head over nations, over governments, over communities. But only the church can lay claim to him being the head. In this world, only the Christian church can lay claim to be the body of the living Christ in this world. And by “body,” I don’t just mean we’re a mass of individual representatives of Christ. No, we are Jesus in this world.
This reality is what was initiated upon Christ’s ascension. Before ascending, he told his followers that they’d soon receive power when the Holy Spirt would come upon them. And what would that power enable them to do? To bear witness to the truth and love and grace of God in Jesus Christ to the rest of the world. This event took place ten days later during the Jewish Feast of Weeks, also known as Pentecost. Pentecost marks the birth of the church on earth. The church on earth came into existence on the day the Holy Spirit came upon those believers. But the church proper was established when Christ ascended and took his place at the right hand of the Father. God’s mighty power was at work, establishing the church and making Christ it’s head before it became a reality in our world. Ten days later, his Spirit came upon us, wherein we received our power to be Christ in the world.
Ephesian 1:23 says that the church is the “fullness of Christ.” Saying something is “the fullness of” something else is a biblical phrase which you and I don’t use in our everyday conversations. Fullness can be defined as “the state of being complete or whole.” Also, “all that is contained.” So, using more modern terminology, we could say on account of the church, Jesus Christ is fully present in our world today. Wherever the church is, there Christ is in his full capacity. We the church don’t just represent Christ, together we are Christ!
If this is so, and if Christ has been declared head over all things, then what does that say about our standing in this world, at least from God’s perspective? If Christ is head of nothing except the church, what does that say about our importance or significance in this world from God’s perspective? Think about this way: when Christ returns, of the millions of organizations and groups and bodies of people in existence in this world, only one entity will endure into eternity. The rest will fall by the wayside. Which earthly entity will remain forever? It’ll be the one over which Christ is head—the church.
Here is the Reality (reality with a capital R) as it regards the position of the church in this world. The church is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church! Only the church is Christ’s body. It’s only in the church that Christ makes his presence known in the world today. It’s only through the church that he fills this world with his presence.
But let me be very, very clear about something. This truth not NOT mean that we’re better than anyone else or any other organization or group of people. And the reason is because as persons, you and I are no better than anyone else, Christian or otherwise. We’re all sinners. We’ve all fallen short of the mark God’s set for us. In fact, when it comes to being good people, I bet this world is full of people who aren’t Christian but who, in their actions and words and ways they relate to others, are more Christlike than any of us. The only thing that sets followers of Christ apart is that we’ve accepted the forgiveness that God offers everyone. That we’re a part of the body of Christ is a great blessing, but that blessing has nothing to do with any of us and everything to do with Jesus. So, let’s be very careful to never go down the path of thinking, even privately, that we’re somehow better than anyone else. If we’re to be more of anything, it should probably be humble. The fact is, we know the truth of what we were apart from Christ. We know the difference he’s made in our lives. And knowing that should cause us to tremble in humility.
Now, with that said, I’d like to think that knowing our exalted place in this world—the place conferred upon the church by God apart from anything we’ve done—might embolden us to live with courage and faith. I was talking with a church member this week who says he reminds himself a lot that God’s in control. That despite how things appear on the surface, ultimately, God’s in control and is working out his plan. That even in the face of school shootings, God is still present. How is he present? Through us, you and me! When people cry out in their grief, “Where’s God in this terrible tragedy?” the answer is right here, in us! You and I are the face of God in this world. You and I are his hands and feet. His mouth. His ears. How we live matters. How we respond to life matters. The two white-robed angles who spoke with the disciples at Jesus’ ascension told them that Jesus will one day return to this world. And when that happens, the fullness of God’s plan of redemption will come to pass. But until then – until then…there’s still work to be done. Jesus Christ is still at work in this world, and it’s through us that he’s working. Let’s pray.