Acts 1: 1:11; Ephesians 1 :15-23, St Luke 24: 44-53
The Ascension of our Lord Jesus into heaven as also the coming down from heaven of God’s Son in the Incarnation at Bethlehem creates for many members of the community questions; these which pose significant barriers for them understanding/accepting the Christian faith.
I mean the idea of an ascension to 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.
According to Luke in the Gospel and the Book of Acts. The Angels say,
“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”. (Acts 1:11.)
This idea of space as “up” 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 here are understood as relative to the velocity of light and the mass of an object. Also, space and time can be warped not only by speed and mass but gravity too.
But 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. Consequently, what are we to say of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus into heaven? Some believe the New Testament accounts of these events must be demythologised, the time/space elements false of these accounts must be stripped away so that their truth may be understood.
But what are we left with if we strip away the time/space conditioned elements of the Incarnation of God and His Ascension? What we end up with is an abstract notion of God’s goodness based on the Jesus’ teaching of universal moral maxims. Any idea of God acting personally in our history for the redemption of sinners and the promised renewal of creation is without meaning because the accounts are based on outmoded thinking.
It is, of course, a fact 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. This is how our life on earth is normally understood. It is the way our language comes to terms with the reality of our life’s experience as human.
Consequently, if the events of the Bible are to be communicated to us in ordinary language, instead of stripping these elements of its teaching 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 these space time constructs that the writers use and seek an understanding of God based on the meaning of the Bibles’ words.
If we do this, we 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 our universe, God in inconceivable freedom deigns to become involved in the space time of this world as we experience it. Not some abstract world of moral principle. Solomon was aware of the paradox our human language creates when says in his prayer, at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, “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 Bible makes crystal clear God cannot be contained in our thoughts about God. No matter how sophisticated they maybe. God is inconceivable by the very nature of God’s being who God is. That we may come to know who God is only possible if God gives God’s very self to be known to us in terms that our language can communicate. 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 or an obstacle 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. God who is 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.
Consequently, if we are to understand and communicate the relevance of God’s action in our human world of time and space conditioned language, we must set aside the normal human question “how”, “how is this possible?” and ask instead the “Who” question, “Who is the God who by grace, comes us in our own human terms and reveals the truth of God’s own self to us?” The answer is the free God of the Bible who wills to be with and for the human creature of His creation by His gracious condescension and accommodation of Himself to our human situation.
In the Ascension, the Christian creed says of the ascended Jesus Christ that 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 exercises 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: the One Thomas recognises because he bears in his body the marks of His continuity with the Him who had been “crucified, dead and buried”. The One whom the angel describes to the disciples at the Ascension as, “This same Jesus”. The One whom the disciples knew to be incarnate and crucified, whom they witnessed as resurrected on the third day.
The God then of whom the Christian gospel speaks is not some abstract idea of power or almightiness; it speaks of the One who is now God’s “right hand man”. It therefore 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 God himself can be 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 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. If this One is Lord, then it should not be strange or incongruous, but entirely consistent with the truth of who Jesus is, 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 during their own struggle with evil in its personalised and in its 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 the majesty of God’s grace for us as a reality; not divorced or separated from the world in which we find ourselves, sometimes albeit abandoned by God. Here and now in places where we know God is silent. For we live our lives experiencing 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 emptying Himself of all but love for the sake of the weak and threatened human creature. The Christian confession of the ascension of crucified One is that the contradictions of creation are not alien to God Himself, not external to whom He wills to be as God.
We know through the ascension that 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 tormented 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 the honour, glory, power and dominion to the ages of ages. Amen
Dr. Gordon Watson.