Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies. — St Augustine, sermon on Ascension Day
I find the story of the Ascension of Jesus to be a very difficult one. Are we dealing with a historical event, or are we meant to understand it as something symbolic?
If it’s a historical event, it really only makes sense to me if we live on a flat earth.
That may have been ok for the disciples. They lived in a three-storey universe. Heaven, the home of God, was somewhere beyond the clouds; hades, the place of the dead, was below the earth. And we are in the middle of the two.
So when Jesus ascends he travels a short distance to heaven, and he is hidden in a cloud. A cloud, for them, symbolised the hidden, mysterious presence of God.
Think of a photo of the earth from space. Jerusalem is on just about the opposite side of the world from Brisbane.
My question is, Which way is up? ‘Up’ from Brisbane is a totally different direction from ‘up’ from Jerusalem. Or are we meant to believe that heaven is a place directly above Jerusalem? And if it is, how far away is it? If Jesus took off at the speed of light, he’d only be 2000 light years away by now. That’s not very far in terms of the size of the universe.
The important thing in the Ascension, as in many things in the scriptures, is not whether it literally happened but this: What on earth does it mean?
How do we engage with it today?
Today’s reading from Ephesians helps us here. Christ is now ‘at [the Father’s] right side’. That means that Christ is given the full seal of approval. It means that Christ is God’s executive agent. It means we cannot think of God without thinking of Christ. It is theology which later became the doctrine of the Trinity.
Christ is given the full seal of approval. This crucified man, this victim of unutterable torture, broke through the barrier of death when God raised him to the resurrected life. Yet as if that were not enough, God has raised him even higher to his right hand. God has thundered You fools! to the powers that be who crucified him.
Christ is fully and absolutely vindicated. And that means the way of Jesus of Nazareth is fully and absolutely vindicated. His proclamation of the kingdom, his way of peace and liberation of those who were suffering, his work of healing, are shown to be God’s way too.
So when the USA debates, as it is now, whether torture is permissible, what is the response of those who follow the way of Jesus? Jesus, who was tortured and vindicated? Can we say ‘yes’ to torture ever again? I say we cannot.
Christ is given the full seal of approval, and Christ is God’s executive agent. How does God act in the world today? God acts through Christ and therefore Christ’s way. God embraces the sinner and the outcast, just as Jesus did. God rebukes the hypocrites and power seekers, just as Jesus did.
That is why everyone, Christian or not, recoils in horror at stories of paedophilia in the churches. That is why we are disgusted when church leaders amass great wealth for themselves. It is not the way of the Christ who is at God’s right hand.
Christ is given the full seal of approval; Christ is God’s executive agent; and we cannot think of God without thinking of Christ. People often think God goes around ‘smiting’ his ‘foes’. They don’t believe in a god like that. Neither do I. I believe in the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, God who sends the Holy Spirit to turn our hearts to the way of Jesus.
And that’s how we read the scriptures. A few years ago, a dear friend was distressed by stories of God commanding genocide in the scriptures. I told her the people back then may have thought that, but I didn’t believe God commanded it. My reason is simple: the God who has Christ at his right hand is not a god who commits genocide.
Sadly, I don’t think my friend could accept what I was saying. A lifetime of other teaching was too hard for her to put away.
This passage in Ephesians could take a year to unpack. In it, Paul asks that
your minds may be opened to see…how very great is his power at work in us who believe. This power working in us is the same as the mighty strength which he used when he raised Christ from death and seated him at his right side in the heavenly world.
Ok. Take a breath. The power of God working in us is the same as that life-giving, death-defeating power that raised Jesus Christ from the grave. Got it?
We are the people God has entrusted to show that life-giving, death-defeating power to the world.
We can do that in many ways: through lives saturated by prayer; through caring for those around us; by realising that Christ’s way is not the world’s way, and so the church will inevitably come into conflict with the powers that be.
Jesus Christ, the risen crucified One, is at God’s right hand;
Christ rules there above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers, and lords; he has a title superior to all titles of authority in this world and in the next.
We are his people, living his way. As we go out into the week, let us be ready to show the amazing grace of our wonderful God to everyone we meet. Amen.