Acts 1: 1-11; Ephesians 1: 15-23 St John 24: 44-53
The Ascension of our Lord Jesus into heaven as too the coming down from heaven of God’s Son in the Incarnation at Bethlehem creates for those those outside the Christian faith, who are many members of our community here in Port Macquarie, these central Christian articles of faith create real questions which pose significant barriers for them in accepting the Christian faith. Today I want to clarify what these may be. Unless we take these issues seriously, they remain seemingly impenetrable barriers to their accepting the Christian faith as true and relevant to their lives. Firstly, there is the physical question; the idea of an ascension and the location of heaven in time and space. This is a basic question about the nature of the physical world in which we all inhabit.
Secondly, there is the moral question about the Lordship of Jesus as seated on the right hand of the Father, to whom thereby is given all power in heaven and earth. The question here is; how is this is true when the world in which we live is subject to so much that is contrary to the rule of a good and gracious Lord?
Firstly, the physical question about the Ascension. This maybe formulated in a classical way in the words of Nikita Khrushchev who in 1961, when Yuri Gagarin, the first man was sent into space aboard the space craft Vostok 1 returned. He said on Gagarin’s return, “He didn’t find any angels up there.” Meaning that there is no such thing as a spatial heaven inhabited by celestial beings, confirming the atheistic and nihilistic ideology of the Soviet communist party and, at the same time, denying the truth of Christian belief. The idea that space is something that can be conceived as up and down. But Christ ascended “up” into heaven. According to Luke in the Gospel and the Book of Acts.
This idea of space is something that, of course, is a common assumption of the Biblical writers. They inhabited a three storied universe, earth, heaven and the netherworld of hell beneath their feet. Some of you will possess old family Bibles with illustrations of this kind of world depicted in its illustrations. But such a view of space and time is no longer tenable post Einstein and the development of modern physics. Space and time are now understood as relative to the velocity of light and the mass of an object. Also, that space and time can be warped not only by speed and mass but gravity too. We no longer live in a universe with static conceptions of space, time and matter. There is no such thing as up or down in terms of the universe of space, time and matter. We inhabit a universe of the relativity of space, time, matter and anti-matter.
So, what are we to say of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus into heaven? A famous, or infamous, depending on your belief, German theologian called Rudolf Bultmann wrote in an influential essay in 1941, “in the age of the electric light bulb and radio, we cannot expect rational people to believe in a literal resurrection and ascension of Jesus.” He believed, as a consequence, the New Testament accounts of these events needed to be demythologised.
Bultmann had the same view of space and time as Khrushchev. A static view of space, time, of up and down. Such a view is still the most held view of our experience of life on earth and its structures of space and time. It is for example a common feature of football matches that when players perform some fantastic feat of skill or endurance or kicks a remarkable goal their celebrations include pointing to the sky, acknowledging a deceased friend or loved one who, supposedly is in heaven, looking down on them. We all live with the view that space is understood as up, down and across three dimensional. We experience life in this three-dimensional way. It is for most people on earth it is the way we come to terms with the reality of our life’s experience.
So instead of stripping away and describing the way the Bible speaks of the Incarnation and Ascension of the Lord Jesus as mythological and therefore false, we must hold on to the space time constructs that the writers use and seek an understanding of God that their words intend. We must see that the way in which they describe the Incarnation of Jesus as coming down from heaven and the Ascension as a going up into heaven tells us something critically important about the God who is revealed in Jesus. Though this God is not contained in the space time constructs of the universe, God in inconceivable freedom deigns to become involved in the space time of this world. Solomon says in his prayer at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, “But will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth? behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!”2 Chronicles 6:18
The God of the Bible cannot be contained in our thoughts about God. God is inconceivable by the very nature of God’s being who God is. That we may come to know who God is is only possible if God gives God’s very self to be known. God can only be known by God’s action towards us. The central claim of the Bible is that God has accommodated God’s own self to be known to us in the forms and thought structures that we have based on our experience of being earthly creatures. Instead of being a hindrance to our coming to know and believe in who God is for us the earthly constructed language we use of space and time becomes the vehicle of our knowledge of God who, though not contained by our thoughts or our language, nevertheless graciously condescends to make God’s own self known through them. This is precisely what God has done in the descent of God’s self in His Son Jesus to be one with us in our humanity and to take that humanity into the mysterious life of God’s own eternal life. This inconceivably free action of God’s grace is the basis of all that the Bible has to say to us; as it speaks to us in the limited structures of our language and minds so that we may come to know and love the Creator and saviour of the world in all His glory.
The second question follows form the first question about the physical nature of the Ascension and our understanding of it. It is if the Lordship of the ascended Jesus as seated on the right hand of the Father, to whom thereby is given all power in heaven and earth, what do we say when the world in which we live is subject to so much that is contrary to the rule of a good and gracious Lord. The question posed by the world to Christians is framed like this:
How, does a God as powerful and good as revealed in Jesus allow such a thing as war and disease to happen to good people? If he is good then he cannot also be all powerful, for a God who has both these attributes and cares for the world would have been been able to prevent such catastrophes.
These are all questions we all, together with detractors of Christianity in the newspapers and television commentators ask. As Christians we are called upon to give a response to these urgent questions. And the first response is that we must not accept the assumptions made here about God are true. For in fact the God who is understood to be God by these questions is the unreal abstract God dreamed up by our human imagination.
The Christian creed says of the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven that by it He “is seated at the right hand of the Father.” This is how the Christian confession expresses the meaning of the ascension of Jesus Christ. It uses the language of metaphor taken from the protocols of a royal court, of someone who sits at the right hand of the King. The Kings right hand man who is endowed with the authority and power of the monarch. We still use this metaphor in every day language. We say so and so is “his or her right-hand man.” Thus, when the Christian church says that by means of His ascension Jesus Christ’s place is at the right hand of the Father it intends that the power, the sovereignty and might of God is to be understood in terms of this One. That Jesus Christ rules the world on behalf of God the Father: He it is who both reveals and inaugurates the Father’s kingdom on earth. God the Father’s rule is the kingdom and rule of Jesus Christ.
But, if this is so, it turns upside down our normal understanding of power and majesty, of authority and lordship. For the one who sits at God’s right hand is the crucified risen and ascended Jesus. The One who bears in His body the mark of the spear and the nails: Whom Thomas recognises because he bears in his body the marks of His continuity with the Him who had been “crucified, dead and buried.”
The God then of whom the Christian gospel speaks is not some abstract idea of power or almightiness; but One who as God’s “right hand man” shows that God’s power and authority is such that it can be denied and pursued all the way from Pilates judgment hall to the cross of Golgotha. God’s power and authority is such that not only can it be denied but also that God himself can be killed.
(We could go on and talk about Holy Saturday and the hiatus between Jesus’ death and Easter Sunday, Jesus’ resurrection: indicating what it means for God’s godness that Jesus God’s Son was killed!)
When we say therefore, that the ascended One is the crucified One, the meaning of the mystery of the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven is that we cannot forget that this One who reveals the Father’s majesty and glory allows Himself to be edged out of the world and suspended between heaven and earth on a cross. That if we own this One as Lord then it should not be seen as strange or incongruous, but entirely consistent with the truth of His being who He is as Lord of the church, that we say that God’s power is so great that He can accept the path of pain and weakness in the world as the way, the means, by which He rules the world.
Christians who know this Lord’s power will confess His truth in the midst of their own struggle with evil in personalised and in institutionalised form; for they experience in Jesus Christ God’s absence from the world and in their own lives. And it is precisely there, not apart from this experience, but in the depths of their alienation and loneliness that they know the power of the ascended crucified Lord. For it is as the godforsaken One, The One who was abandoned above all by God who lives and reigns at God’s right hand. This is the heart of the mystery of Christ’s ascension into heaven. So that we may know and experience the majesty of God’s grace for us as a reality; not divorced or separated from the world in which we find ourselves albeit abandoned by God here and now in places where God is silent. We live our lives in a world in which we experience both the heights of human achievement, of joy and human love, but also the depths of human depravity and the blind fury of nature.
The Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven teaches us that God is so free as not to be bound by our abstract ideas of divinity and power but that at God’s right hand lives the crucified One. That God’s godness includes the possibility to empty Himself of all but love for the sake of the weak and threatened human creature. This is the gospel, the good news, that the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven and His session at the right hand of the Father proclaims to us today.
The One who rules the world saw and experienced the human condition as it really is; and as we have seen and experienced it in the space of our own lifetimes. We have come to know humanity and its capabilities through the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Vladimir Putin, world wars, revolution, famine, genocide, terrorism, cancer and tsunamis. Jesus saw and experienced the human condition as claimed and imprisoned by the actuality of the visible and invisible powers of darkness and death. He understood human beings to be possessed by the negative power of evil and corrupted by it, and delivered up to the meaninglessness of so many of life’s circumstances.
But the Christian confession of the ascension of crucified One is that the real goodness of the real God is that the contradictions of creation are not alien to himself, not external to whom He wills to be as God. This God demonstrated this at the cross of Christ when He triumphed over the evil of the creatures’ rejection of God’s grace, that God’s rejoicing and sorrowing precedes our rejoicing and sorrowing. Before light could gladden us and darkness torment us, He was aware of both, separating and expressing His lordship over both. Before life greeted us and death menaced us, He was the Lord of both life and death. And He did not do this through mere superiority, He made His own both creations menace and hope. He did not spare himself but gave Himself up for us all.
This is the great gospel news of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into heaven.
So, to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be all honour power and dominion to the ages of ages. Amen,
Dr. Gordon Watson.