‘He Ascended into Heaven’
Readings: Acts 1: 1 – 11 and Luke: 24: 44 – 53.
“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”
Well it was Ascension Day last Thursday and a number of you will have been at the Ascension Day meal on Thursday evening when we released a load of balloons into the open air. And as we stood there watching those balloons ascend into the sky until they disappeared from view it was such wonderful sight. And it all fits very neatly with our current sermon series in which we are exploring various themes in the Nicene Creed.
And so, as it happens we’ve now arrived at the bit in the Creed where we proclaim, speaking of Jesus that ‘we believe he ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’ Very familiar words for most of us I’m sure – as we will have repeated them so many times as we’ve joined together in saying the Creed on a Sunday morning.
And so what’s that all about? What actually happened at the ascension and does it have anything to say to us today? And there does seem to be something of a problem with the Feast of the Ascension in that it tends to be overshadowed on the one hand by the events of Easter and then on the other by Pentecost and so we tend to lose sight of its importance and significance. But it is important and certainly Luke regards it as important as he describes it twice, first of all in the closing chapter of his first book, the Gospel according to Luke and then in more detail later on in the opening chapter of his second volume, which is the book of Acts.
And so what are we to make of this mysterious event we call the Ascension. Well let’s take a closer look. And it’s been 40 days since the events of that first Easter Day and Jesus has shown himself to be alive to his followers on numerous occasions. In fact, his followers have almost got used to the possibility of Jesus, in his resurrected body, showing up at unexpected times and in unexpected places. But on this particular occasion Jesus meets with them for one last time and it’s near the village of Bethany on the Mount of Olives. And one moment he’s sharing fellowship with them and then he’s gone. And it’s as he’s blessing them that he’s taken up into heaven and a cloud hides him from their sight. In a moment, Jesus has moved from this earthly reality with which we are familiar to a much greater and more solid heavenly reality.
And perhaps Jesus hasn’t gone as far as we are sometimes inclined to think. And this is something that Tom Wright is keen to emphasise in his book, ‘Surprised by Hope.’ And he makes the point that we shouldn’t think of heaven and earth as being such a long way apart. ‘They are meant to overlap and interlock’ he says. And so for Jesus ‘going to heaven,’ isn’t necessarily a matter of him disappearing into some distant galaxy but probably more like moving from one dimension to another. And doesn’t the Apostle Paul say something like that to the people of Athens when he says that: ‘God’s not far from each one of us.’
But in saying this we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there was obviously something very visible and physical in the way that Jesus did go, as that’s emphasised in the text, and maybe the reason for that was to make it clear that this would be the last of this series of post resurrection appearances by Jesus.
And so as Jesus disappears from sight his disciples just stand there staring up into the sky completely dumbfounded and bewildered and bemused not knowing where to go or what to do next. And as they are standing there staring into space they haven’t realised that two men dressed in white have slipped in quietly alongside them, and they say: “You men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? Well most commentators seem to assume the two men are angels although the text does not actually say that they are but I don’t suppose they could really have been anything else.
“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” And the implication is that it is something of a rebuke. “Why are you looking into the sky – you’re looking in the wrong place.” And there are times when we can be like that. We can find ourselves in situations day by day where circumstances begin to overwhelm us and we ask ourselves: “Where is Jesus in all this?” Well he may have disappeared from physical sight but the ascension is not about his absence it’s about his presence. This is what Rowan Williams says:
“Whatever we may be feeling from moment to moment, we’ve been given a relationship with Jesus that doesn’t depend on being able to see him in the way his friends could during his earthly life and immediately after his resurrection. And this relationship means that we are able to turn in complete trust to God as father in the way Jesus did.”
‘A relationship with Jesus that doesn’t depend on being able to see him.’ And that’s the wonderful thing about the ascension. Jesus may no longer be with us in the way he was during his earthly ministry but that does not mean we cannot relate to him now in a personal and intimate way. And that’s because the Holy Spirit has come in his place to be with us and in us if we invite him to do so. And it’s that indwelling presence of the Spirit that makes Jesus real to us just as much as it did for those early disciples.
And as Jesus returns to the Father and the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost it means that the presence of Jesus is no longer confined to his physical presence in one place but to all those, in every place and in every generation, including us, who call upon him.
And, of course, there is a heavenly purpose in all this in that as followers of Jesus we are commissioned to carry on his work in this world. And I like the way the Apostle of Paul puts it; he says this: that we are his ambassadors. Think about it -we are ambassadors for Jesus and his kingdom – and what a privilege. And each one of us is called to play our part in building for his kingdom.
And there’s an old story which makes this very point. And the story tells of the return of Jesus to glory after his time on earth. And even there in the heaven he still bears the marks of all his suffering on the cross. And the story goes that the angel Gabriel approached him and said: “Master, you suffered terribly while you were there. Do they know and appreciate how much you loved them and what you did for them?” And Jesus replied, “Oh, no! Not yet. Right now only a handful of people around Judea and Galilee know.”
But Gabriel was perplexed and asked: “Then how will people learn of what you have done and your love for them?” And Jesus said: “Well I’ve asked Peter, James, John and Mary, and few more friends to tell others about me. And then they will tell others and eventually my story will be spread to farthest part of the globe.”
And Gabriel frowned and looked rather sceptical as he knew the poor stuff humans were made of. And so he said: “Yes, but what if Peter and the others grow weary? What if those who come after them forget? What if they just fail to tell? What is your alternative plan?”
And Jesus answered: “There is no other plan.”
Well it’s only a story but we get the point don’t we? It’s up to us to make Jesus known and why he came. Yes – it’s up to us and if we don’t it doesn’t happen.
Well we can’t leave it there can we as what we say in the creed is not only that we believe Jesus ascended into heaven but that he is also: ‘seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’ And so what’s that all about? Well first of all it’s a phrase that we see running all the way through the New Testament. And so for example Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost speaks of Jesus as ‘being exalted at the right hand of God.’ And then the author of Hebrews has this in mind when he says: ‘for the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.’ And then Peter in the first of his New Testament letters speaks of ‘Jesus who has gone into heaven, and is at the right hand of God.’ And we could go on.
And to sit at someone’s right hand in the ancient world was a place of honour and prestige. It was a place of supreme honour and glory. And William Barclay in his book on the Apostle’s Creed says this: ‘almost always Jesus is pictured as sitting, – which stresses the royalty – the honour – and the glory.
And so if that first Easter Sunday was the most exciting day of the disciples’ lives, for Jesus it was probably this event, the Ascension as having completed what he had been sent into the world to do, he was now heading home to the Father for a coronation as God’s anointed king. He was exchanging the crown of thorns for a crown of glory. And one commentator puts it like this, he says: ‘the picture of the Son taking his seat on the right hand of the Father is the picture of Christ entering upon his regal office as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.’
Well the story doesn’t end there. It’s not the end by any means, but the beginning of something new that’s yet to be fully accomplished. And so let’s return to where we started: “Men of Galilee why do you stand there looking into the sky?” But there was something else these men dressed in white said to the disciples as well wasn’t there? And it was this: “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.”
Yes, Jesus is coming back but this time when he comes he comes to reign as Lord and King. And this is what Tom Wright says in his book ‘Simply Jesus’: ‘Jesus’s first followers were unequivocal: He will reappear in power and glory, triumphing over all the forces of death, decay, and destruction, including those structures that have used those horrible forces to enslave and devastate human lives.’
And the confession of those early followers of Jesus was this: ‘Jesus is Lord’ and the question we need to ask ourselves is: have we acknowledged Jesus as our own personal Lord and King? Have we knelt before him and given him our wholehearted allegiance? And have we said: “Lord Jesus come and reign in me?
And so let me finish with some well-known words written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Philippi which speaks of the honour given to Jesus following his victory over the powers of sin and death on the cross:
‘Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at a service of Holy Communion at St Laurence’s, Scalby on Sunday 17th May 2015