Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed series continues with this sermon, I Believe in the Ascension of Christ, from Luke 24:36-53.
I Believe in the Ascension of Jesus
36While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
37They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
40When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate it in their presence.
44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
What Do You Do With The Body?
A favorite part of just about any murder mystery is what to do with the body? You know how those stories go: first, the murderer kills the victim. The details of the murderer — is he or she an escaped convict, a deranged lunatic, a jealous lover, or a scheming con artist?; and, the victim — is the victim an unfaithful lover, a double-crossing partner, an innocent bystander, and so on — change with the particular plot line, but the basics of the story are the same — one person kills another.
This story is as old as Cain and Abel, and the problem of what to do with the body of the victim is as old as the murderous act itself. Cain apparently buried his brother Abel in the same field where he killed him, and when God asked Cain “Where is your brother, Abel?” Cain replies, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”
Nice try, but it didn’t work. God tells Cain that the blood of Abel cries out to God from the ground. In other words, I know what you did with the body.
Same thing happened to Moses. Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter from among the bulrushes of the river, and eventually is raised in Pharaoh’s household. But somewhere along the way, even though he looks and dresses like an Egyptian, Moses finds his Hebrew identity. He is outraged at the treatment the Hebrews are receiving under Pharaoh’s regime, but there’s not much he can do about it. Until one day, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.
Moses anger swells, and before he knows it, Moses kills the Egyptian. Which is sure to be a big problem for him with Pharaoh and his henchmen. So, Moses buries the Egyptian’s body in the sand to conceal his crime. It doesn’t work, however, because someone saw Moses do it, and so he has to flee to the backside of the desert, which is a long way off.
But with the story of Jesus, we have a different problem. The Apostles’ Creed has us affirm —
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,
And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead and buried,
He descended into hell.
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
Now, the problem is this — Jesus has risen from the dead. That’s Easter, that’s the resurrection, that’s the moment in which God breaks the power of sin and death, and the life of Jesus becomes the prototype for all humanity, for all life to come.
But, what do you do with the body? The empty tomb is mute evidence that Jesus is not dead. Jesus appears to the disciples for a period of 40-days between Passover and the coming of the next big Jewish festival, Pentecost.
But, this is a big problem now. Jesus appears about 11 times to various individuals and groups of followers. And, he is very much alive, not a ghost like they imagine in the passage we have just read. In his appearances, Jesus does several things:
- Jesus encourages some of the disciples to touch him, Thomas being the first case in point.
- Jesus walks with the disciples. The most famous episode being the walk on the road to Emmaus with two followers of Jesus.
- Jesus breaks bread with his followers. Again, the road to Emmaus story.
- Jesus cooks breakfast. He makes fish and bread, which is not something you would expect the resurrected Messiah to do. But, it probably reminds the disciples of the time Jesus fed 5,000 with fish and bread, and this is just as real.
- Jesus eats with the disciples. John has him eating fish, and so does Luke.
- Jesus speaks to the disciples and others. Apparently he speaks in his normal voice, not some kind of heavenly booming bass profundo.
- Jesus commissions the disciples to carry on his work in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
- Jesus blesses his followers.
- Jesus gives them instructions, telling them to wait in Jerusalem for power from on high, the Holy Spirit.
So, Jesus does at least 9 things, and maybe more, that show he is a real, live person, not a ghost, a vision, or an apparition. But, then what? What do you do with the body of Jesus, even if He is alive?
Getting Off The Stage
When I was in high school I got involved with the drama club, and we put on several plays of somewhat uneven quality, I must admit. But, we learned a great deal about what actors call “stage craft” — the business of acting. One of the big moments in any play is an actor’s entrance. So, if you’re coming through a door, you make sure the door knob turns, or the door doesn’t get stuck, so your entrance is smooth and doesn’t become a sort of comedy of errors in itself.
But just as important as getting on the stage, is getting off. Again, if you’re going through a door, you want to check ahead of time to be sure the door opens, or the knob turns, or whatever needs to happen, happens. An actor wants his exit to be important, but not awkward. If you aren’t in the right position on stage when you need to exit, things can get very awkward.
And, in one way, that’s where we find Jesus. In a place on the stage of history that no one has ever occupied. His entrance was to be born. That, of course, was pretty dramatic in itself, for he was “conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”
Pretty amazing stuff, and in terms of stage presence, Jesus had that too. He went about healing people, feeding people, teaching, raising the dead, and training a band of followers who continually seemed not to get what Jesus was trying to teach them.
But, the story takes an distressing turn for Jesus’ followers. He is opposed by religious leaders, eventually arrested, beaten, tried, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Then, he’s crucified. When he dies, he’s taken down off the cross, and buried. And here is where the story might end, because all the other stories like this, or even close to this, have ended this way. The hero gets killed, the body buried, and that’s the end of the story as his followers slip away into the darkness.
But not this story. In this story, the hero doesn’t stay dead. In some inexplicable, supernatural event, Jesus rises from the grave. And, in case there is any doubt about His resurrection, the massive stone gets mysteriously rolled away from the mouth of the grave, the grave clothes are lying neatly folded, and angels announce the news that “He is not here, He is risen from the dead.”
But, now what? How does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak. Most of us exit through the door of death, but for Jesus, death was just a revolving door — in and then out again. How does this story resolve itself.
I suppose Jesus could have just hung around. But that wasn’t the plan. The plan from the beginning was that Jesus enters the human realm, does what only God-Incarnate can do, then goes back to his throne in the presence of God the Father, but in His place sends the Holy Spirit. So, that’s the plan, but how does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak?
Who Comes Down Now Goes Up
We have the old saying, “What goes up, must come down.” That’s called the Gravity Creed. But, in Jesus case, what, or better, who came down to earth, must also go back up into heaven.
In the 19th century, theologians got really upset that Jesus ascended “up” to heaven. Some even said that the idea of heaven being “up” was an outmoded, primitive idea which proves that the story about the ascension couldn’t be true. Heaven wasn’t up, they said, and so Jesus would not have gone up to go back there.
Well, they’re batting .500 — they got it half right, in other words. Heaven isn’t up. Heaven is the presence of God. Heaven is no more “place” as we know places than God is a man as we know men. But we speak in the only words we know, and in the first century their idea was that the living were on the earth; the dead were in the pit, or the underworld, or the land of the dead which was under the earth; and, that heaven was above the earth. Theologians call this a three-tiered cosmology, which is pretty much how we still think of life, heaven, and hell today — here, up from here, and down from here.
And remember, the Bible tells stories with a theological point. Which doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t go up, but it does mean that there is a deeper meaning to “up” than we might think.
The Significance of Up
The Bible uses this “up-and-down” language to represent a lot of theological ideas. Here are some of them:
- Adam and Eve are told to go “down” from the Garden of Eden after they sin.
- The Tower of Babel is a failed attempt to “go up” to God and heaven.
- Noah and his family are preserved by the ark’s ascent on Mt. Ararat.
- Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to speak with God and receive the Law.
- Mount Zion, the mystical dwelling place of God, is reached by “ascending” the hill of the Lord.
- At the Transfiguration of Jesus, Jesus and three of the disciples go up on the mount where there Jesus is transformed, and speaks of his coming death with Moses and Elijah.
- Moses has gone up to be with God on the mountain several times, including right before his own death.
- Elijah is taken up by God into heaven by a fiery chariot.
So, the people of God revealed in Scripture understand that one goes up to God, and down to sin, death, and the grave.
One way or the other, Jesus is going up to God, to heaven, and to the right-hand of God for eternity.
Going Up Doesn’t Mean Going Away
But, just because Jesus goes up to God at the ascension, doesn’t mean Jesus goes away. Jesus goes up, so the Holy Spirit can come down to Jesus’ followers.
Jesus has already told his followers that he’s going to send the Paraclete, the One-Called-Alongside, to help the disciples. They’ve seen the power of God in Jesus’ healing and other miracles, and Jesus has promised them that they will do the same things, and greater than He has done.
Jesus has already breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That in itself was a theological act, and act reminiscent of God’s act at creation, breathing into Adam the breath of life. Only this breath of life was the life of the Spirit.
Jesus had told the disciples that all authority was given to him, in heaven and earth, and that they were to wait for the Holy Spirit.
And, so they waited. For days. In fear. In Jerusalem. Uncertain what would happen, or if they would even know it when it did.
And then, all heaven broke lose. The wind blows with a mighty rushing sound — the presence of the Spirit. Tongues of fire — another manifestation of the Spirit appear on the disciples heads. The disciples speak in languages they have never learned, a reversal of the confounding of languages at the Tower of Babel. And Peter, inspired by the Spirit, says, “This is what the prophet Joel spoke of.”
The Spirit comes, the church is born, the followers of Jesus are empowered, Peter preaches and three thousand who had great doubts about the man called Jesus were converted in an instant and were baptized.
Going up doesn’t mean going away.
We Are Living The Story
We tend to think of all these things as past-tense: Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus rose again, Jesus ascended back to heaven. The Holy Spirit came. End of story.
But it’s not the end. It’s the beginning for us. The beginning for the church. The beginning of witness. The beginning of the faith. The beginning of the good news which would be carried to all the world. Jesus is alive, and what’s more, He’s seated at the right hand of God the Father.
It has pleased God, the Bible says, to put all things under Jesus’ feet. In other words, Jesus is in charge. Jesus reigns. Jesus is the Lord of All. Jesus sends the Spirit to us. Jesus is still active in this world that he came to live and die for.
We are living the story of God’s redemptive love. We are the present actors in this great drama written and directed by God. Jesus the Messiah has made his entrance as the most helpless of humanity — a tiny baby. He has lived his life as the most unusual of men. He has died a horrendous death. He as risen victorious from the grave. He has resumed the mantle of heaven and ascended to his rightful place.
But here’s where it really gets good — He’s left us to represent him here in this world that he loved so much he gave himself for it. And, we’re not alone. He sent the Holy Spirit to fill us, gift us, guide us, and empower us. We are living the story of Jesus, in the power of His Spirit, for the life of His creation.
That’s what the ascension is all about. Not just a clever theatrical trick to get Jesus off-stage, but a dramatic theological transition, a moment that transcends time and space, where heaven received in victory the risen Christ, and earth received in gratitude His ever-present Spirit.
As we gather at His table today, He is present with us. Theologians have argued for almost 2,000 years about “how” Jesus is present in the broken bread and poured out wine. The church was split, denominations formed, and wars fought over the “how” of Jesus presence at this table. But that misses the point.
Our concern today is not “how” Jesus is here. Our concern today as we gather at this table is that He is here, and we are present with Him. Had he not come, he could not have gone. Had he not gone, he could not have sent the Spirit. Had the Spirit not come, we would not be gathered here today.