May 24, 2020 Sunday After Ascension
Jesus Christ, the King of Glory,
has ascended today into the heavens.
He sits at the right hand of the Father
and rules heaven and earth.
Now all the psalms of David,
our father, are fulfilled.
Now the Lord sits with the
Lord on the seat of God.
In this greatest of triumphs
let us bless the Lord.
The Holy Trinity be glorified.
Let us give thanks to God.
That’s the English translation of a 12th century Ascension hymn called “Coelos ascendit hodie”. “Now all the psalms of David our father are fulfilled.” I love that line!
Ascension Day, the fortieth day after Easter was this past Thursday. It was lovely to celebrate the feast together, and to see Claude and Nathaniel and Gene, even if only by video. And while I will not be quoting from Led Zeppelin, we do continue on in the same vein today with our scripture readings and our celebration of the ascension of Jesus. These final ten days of the Easter season, between Ascension and Pentecost, really are worthy of the joyful attention of all Christians.
Imagine what it must have been like to be one of Jesus’ followers during those mind-bending days after the resurrection. Luke tells us in the beginning of the book of Acts that Jesus “appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” So of course they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Those poor disciples. They are like children on a family road trip: Are we there yet? They have been asking this question of Jesus for three years at this point, all throughout his ministry, as he healed the sick, and drove out demons, and took on the religious establishment. Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? But in the face of these expectations, Jesus instead talked to them about how he must die, and leave them behind. Before Good Friday, they could not understand this. It defied all their expectations about God’s Kingdom. But then the worst happened. Jesus was arrested, and after a sham of a trial, they watched as he was executed. I imagine their grief and fear must have been magnified by their confusion. Then the unlooked-for joy of Easter morning and the resurrection! And now, these heady weeks, when they walk and talk, eat and drink with the man they saw die. Of course it makes sense for the disciples to think, now, now must be the time! “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom?” Are we there yet?
Of course we know that what happened next also defied all the disciples’ expectations. Jesus responded in the same vein as he had many other times when asked this question. “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” The problem, you see, is not that the disciples were asking the wrong question. The problem was with their expectations about what the Kingdom of God looks like. The Ascension of Jesus is the next step, the next lesson to be learned, in the School of Kingdom Economics.
It is important, though, with all this talk about heaven and earth and Jesus’ ascension from one to the other, that we understand these terms as they are used in the Bible. As N.T. Wright puts it, “In the Bible, heaven and earth are the two halves of God’s created world. They aren’t so much like the two halves of an orange, more or less identical but occupying different space. They are more like the weight of an object and the stuff it’s made of, or think about the meaning of a flag, and the cloth from which it is sewn: two (related) ways of looking at the same thing, two different and interlocking dimensions, the one explaining the other.” ‘Heaven and earth’ in the Bible doesn’t mean ‘the ground and the sky.’ N.T. Wright again: “‘Heaven’ in the Bible is God’s space, and ‘earth’ is our space. ‘Heaven’ isn’t just ‘the happy place where God’s people go when they die’. God’s plan, as we see again and again in the Bible, is for ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, and for them to be joined together in that renewal once and for all.” The ascension of Jesus is a critical part of that renewal.
There are three ways in which Jesus’ ascension from earth to heaven establishes the Kingdom of God. We have talked about all of these ways on many occasions and in many contexts, but they are all caught up together in the event of the Ascension.
The first key point is that Jesus ascended to heaven (in his physical, resurrected body, that’s important) so that he could then send down the Holy Spirit, first on his disciples at Pentecost, and subsequently on all believers throughout time. At the time of the ascension, Jesus was blessing his followers and he told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses.” This is the transition point in God’s Kingdom on earth, when the work of the Kingdom passes from Jesus to his followers. And they are empowered to do this commissioned work by the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This is a hinge event in the story of God’s Kingdom, and we can see this, for example, in the Nicene Creed. Look at the verb tenses in the Creed, if that’s not too nerdy. Jesus ‘came down’ (past tense), ‘was crucified, suffered, and was buried’ (past tense), ‘rose again’ (past tense), and ‘ascended into heaven’ (past tense). But now there is a shift. Jesus ‘sitteth on the right hand of the Father’. Present tense. That is what Jesus is doing now. The Church carries on the work of Jesus here on earth, and Jesus himself carries on in heaven, at the Father’s right hand.
What is the work that Jesus is carrying on doing? That brings us to the other aspects of how the ascension establishes the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ ascension fulfills another Kingdom promise we read in our Gospel lesson two Sundays ago in John chapter 14: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” The present work of Jesus is the preparation of the renewed Kingdom of God, when Jesus’ resurrected body will not be the only body to ascend from earth to heaven. That is the promise to all who believe; that there is a place there for us as well.
Jesus’ present work in heaven is also described by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” Jesus Christ, being a truly human high priest, perfectly represents humanity before God. He made atonement for sins by his own sacrificial death. Being a truly divine high priest, this act of Christ’s was perfect, once for all and of eternal value.
A third aspect of the Kingdom of God which is established by Jesus’ ascension is that he ascended to heaven to exaltation and glory. Consider our Gospel lesson this morning from John chapter 17: Jesus prayed, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” Think about the incredible images of heaven in John’s Revelation. “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders…He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God.’ Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!” The exaltation of Jesus is both now and forever.
The first and most important response to this extraordinary, unprecedented and still hard-to-describe event is of course worship. Luke often tells us about the early Christians devoting themselves to prayer. As we go back with them on this occasion from the Mount of Olives to the house where they were staying, and look around the room and see these puzzled but excited men and women giving themselves to prayer, we ought to feel a strong identification with them. All those who name the name of Jesus, who worship him, who study his word, are called to be people of worship and prayer. Why?
Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? It is precisely in worship and prayer that we, while still on ‘earth’, find ourselves sharing in the life of ‘heaven’, where Jesus is. The constant references to prayer in Acts are a sign that this is how these very ordinary, frequently muddled, deeply human beings, found that their story was being bound up with the story of ‘what Jesus was continuing to do and to teach’. From the ascension onwards, the story of Jesus’ followers takes place in both dimensions. As we in our own day not only read Acts but try to follow Jesus and witness to his lordship over the world, it is through prayer and worship that we, too, can know, enjoy and be energized by the life of heaven, right here on earth, and work out what that will mean in terms of other claims, other lords, other ways of life.
Dean Pinter, the Rector of St. Aidan in Moose Jaw, has written a commentary on the book of Acts. In it, he tells this story: “Ascension Day provides the liturgical counterpoint to Ash Wednesday. Once in one of England’s grand cathedrals, I attended an Ascension Day service. In this great Norman cathedral there is also a chorister school, and the children from it were attending that service as well. The presiding minister asked the children to come forward to receive a mark of the cross on their foreheads, as they had on Ash Wednesday forty days prior to Easter. But on this occasion, now forty days after Easter, they did not receive a smudge of ash on their foreheads, reminding them of their mortality and need for a Saviour. Rather, this time the children received a glitter cross on their foreheads. With this symbol they were to recall the glory of the risen Christ who, because of his ascension, now marks all his people with the glory of his personal presence in their lives through the Holy Spirit. This glory empowers us, puts wings on our feet, and gets us moving from heavenly gazing and static standing to earthly worship and energetic witness.”
It is good for my heart when I think about the present work of Jesus on my behalf in heaven, preparing a place for me, interceding on my behalf as my high priest. It is good for my courage to think about the Holy Spirit with and within me, guiding and guarding me as I muddle along. It is good for me as well when I remember all of you, and that we are muddling along together. And it is especially good for us to celebrate, in this Ascensiontide, that “this Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” In the meantime, I keep you in my prayers, and in my imagination, you all have glitter crosses on your foreheads. Amen.