by Pastor Cherie Dearth
Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter, a period of 50 days from the Resurrection of Jesus. Really, as we celebrate the resurrection every Sunday, the Easter season could be year round. However, we take these days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost to consider it more closely, but in a way we are also living it in real time with the disciples. The resurrected Jesus has been with them for almost all of these seven weeks continuing to prepare them for their future responsibilities. This season is working up to its grand finale.
We are back in the book of Acts. It is Luke’s sequel to his Gospel book, and we are in the very beginning of the book …
Acts 1:1-14 NIV
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach
2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
12 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
Have you ever seen the movie It’s a Wonderful Life? Indeed, for many years it was almost impossible to avoid this Christmas classic where George Bailey is shown what a significant effect his life has had on all the people around him. In the very beginning of the movie, we hear many of his friends and family praying for him. Those prayers are heard in heaven and different angels are discussing what should be done to help George. We see a picture of the night sky with stars and galaxies. As the angels talk, the stars and galaxies pulse when they speak as if that is heaven, and of course, it is not.
We hear that in the Ascension that Jesus is “taken up” into heaven. After all, what does the word “ascend” mean but to go up? We often use that kind of language with we talk about God and heaven being “up there” or “the Man upstairs.” Even when we talk about the sky and what might be in outer space, we refer to it as “the heavens.”
One of the reasons that the Catholic Church fought against the ideas of a round world was because of this idea that heaven, that place where God is, being “up there.” Actually, they were great supporters of science and had their own astronomers. They certainly knew that the earth was round. However, the idea of the earth as a globe was disturbing to the average person or priest that didn’t know anything about astronomy. The question was where was God and heaven in relation to particular people. If the world is flat, God is above you, can see what is going on in your life, and receives your prayers rising skyward. With a round world with heaven above the people living in Jerusalem for example or Rome, with God in fairly close proximity, no problem. But what about if you lived in Britain or North America or Asia? If prayers in Jerusalem went up to God in heaven, what about the prayers of the people living in Africa? They would keep going and going in a straight line. Would God ever hear them? Would God be able to see them and know their problems? You can understand how that idea could be very frightening.
So, is Jesus maybe up there hiding behind the moon or something? No. We now know that God and heaven aren’t “up there” or “out there.” It is more like heaven and earth are two different planes of existence. As NT Wright describes it, heaven and earth are not like two different halves of an orange, very similar but taking up different space. It is more like the idea of a flag and what it represents verses the cloth that it is made of. “Two (related) ways of looking at the same thing […] the one perhaps explaining the other” (Wright, 11). All through the Gospels, Jesus has been like a meeting point where heaven and earth intersect. We have talked about The Holy of Holies in The Temple being like that, the place where heaven and earth meet.
What happened the day of the Ascension? In the Gospel of John in the first chapter it is clear that Jesus came from God (John 1:1-3, 9), and now with the Ascension, Jesus is returning to where he came from. Today’s Scripture says that Jesus “was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
A cloud often was used to indicate the presence of God or God’s glory. God appeared as a pillar of smoke to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 13:21). The Glory of God in a cloud descended onto Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:9-25). It filled the newly constructed Tabernacle (or Tent of Meeting) as the Israelites were traveling around the desert (Exodus 40:34-38), and it also filled the Temple once it was built in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:10-11). Last but not least, this cloud appeared at the Transfiguration, paralyzed the disciples with fear, and spoke of Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:1-8). The day of the Ascension, Jesus was brought to the place of God.
Why make a big deal about this? After all the Resurrection of Jesus is what is important, right? The death and resurrection of Jesus takes up chapters in the Gospels, but we have one verse in Acts about the Ascension, two in the Bible counting the verse in Luke. Actually, the Resurrection and the Ascension are two sides of the same coin. The Ascension is part of what validates the Resurrection. It proves that Jesus is the Messiah. He is not someone who has merely been resuscitated (like Jesus did with Lazarus). Jesus is brought back to life and will never die again (NIB: Acts).
There are several reasons why the Ascension is an important part of our Easter season celebration. In fact, for the first several hundred years of the Early Church, the Ascension was celebrated as a part of the Resurrection Day celebration, but it was considered so important that a separate holy day was designated for it. Of first importance is that the Ascension is the signal that the saving work of Christ is complete. What came from God has returned to God, and we are told that he will return. “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way” (Acts 1:11). In other words, God is dependable. God, who began a good work, will complete it (Phil 1:6). It is a way of saying that this chapter with Jesus’ earthly ministry is over, and the next one with the Holy Spirit, the disciples (and us) is about to begin. (More about that next week!)
One of the things that the Ascension accomplishes is something that we talked about last week. Jesus and what he can do is no longer constrained by his physical human limitations. Jesus traveled all over Palestine had hundreds of followers (at least some of the time). He encountered thousands of people, but what is that compared with the population and geographic size of the whole world? By being able to release the Holy Spirit, Jesus is not bound by time and space. He has the capacity to be in relationship with all of us all the time, simultaneously. This was simply not possible while Jesus was in his human form.
Then, with Jesus’ return to heaven there is an incorporation of a complete understanding of the human experience into God’s consciousness. Through Jesus, God can understand our suffering. God can identify with the oppressed and the marginalized because he lived it. As it says in Hebrews Chapter 2:
“16 For surely it is not angels [Jesus] helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:16-18)
And elaborates in Chapter 4:
“14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession [of faith]. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
This is part of why we can have confidence to go to the Lord with anything and know that it will be received with mercy. And, it is all because Jesus returned to the heavenly realm from where he came.
Reverend Laurence Stookey told a story imaging a conversation in heaven between God and the angels before that first Christmas night in Bethlehem. He says:
“God has convened a solemn council of all the heavenly host and now addresses them: ‘Despite our best efforts to be made known through creation, hard-headed humanity has not gotten the point. They do not understand divine love at work among them and rebel against it at every opportunity, often in the most vicious ways. Since they do not see the grace we continuously pour upon them, we must make our activity more clear to them. If they are to be saved from themselves, it will be necessary for someone to go there from here, to take on human form, to reveal in person what we intend creation to be. Who will go for us?’ There is a great silence in heaven. The angels stand on one foot and then the other, declining eye contact with one another. Each feels a sense of obligation but an utter unwillingness to take on the onerous task of dealing with humanity. Then comes the voice of God again: ‘Who will go for us? Who is willing to try to make more clear the message of heavenly grace to people caught in their own selfishness? Which of you will take on flesh and be born in their midst?’ Another great embarrassed silence follows. Once again: ‘Who will go?’ No one stirs. No sound can be heard. A fourth time God speaks: ‘Then I myself will go.’ In one accord the angels gasp. And then for an hour there is a silence greater than all that preceded, as the hosts of heaven grapple with the implications: God will go? God will take on flesh and walk among that vicious lot? Suppose those mortals, thinking this divine visitor to be merely one of their own kind, take up arms and do what humanity has done to one another ever since the time of Cain and Abel! It is a thought too amazing to be tolerated. No, they must have misheard what God has said to them.”
And now, on the Day of Ascension the story continues:
“A sentinel angel creates a stir in the courts of heaven by announcing that the One who was incarnate is returning to the throne of God. Amid great excitement the eagerly awaited event occurs. The angels huddled around Christ and ask, ‘What was it like? Is it as bad down there as we fear it might be?’ ‘Worse,’ comes the reply. ‘They actually crucified me.’ The heavenly host utters a collective gasp. ‘But you are back, safe and sound!” a cherub says boldly. ‘Yes,’ Christ answers. ‘Divine power overcame the worst they could do, and divine love is now in their midst always and everywhere.’ Then comes a voice from the throne: ‘Victorious is the Lamb that was slain. Blessed is the One who turned not aside the bitter cup, but drank it to the dregs. The night of suffering is ended. Come, enter into my joy.’ At this, a sustained cheer resounds in heaven, and a great celebration. Music and dancing and feasting proclaim the return and exaltation of the humiliated One. The joy of reunion, claimed without restraint by angels and archangels as the celestial choirs sing: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive glory and blessing and honor and dominion and power, now and forever!'” (Stookey, 24-5, 67-8)
And the church said, “Amen!”
Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).
N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone: Part 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).