How many of you have ever heard of Ascension Day? Anyone know when it is? Nothing unusual there, most Protestants don’t; these days, I’d guess most American Catholics don’t know either. For those of you who don’t know, Ascension Day falls on a Thursday, forty days after Easter, a week and a half before Pentecost; this year, it’s the first of May. It’s the day on which the church remembers Jesus’ ascension into heaven—at least, theoretically; in my experience, most churches and Christians don’t. Oh, sure, when we say the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed in church, we say, “He ascended into heaven,” and I think most of us believe it in a vague sort of way; which is to say, I think most people who affirm that Jesus died and rose again would also affirm his ascension, but have no sense whatsoever that it matters. To us, it seems more like a clerical detail than anything else. Jesus left, but he didn’t die, so, OK, he just sort of took off and disappeared, instead. If anyone came along and said, “No, no, he didn’t ascend into heaven, he just did thus-and-such,” we wouldn’t think it was all that important; we don’t think this matters.
The thing is, though, it does matter, because the ascension is important—quite profoundly so, in fact. It’s no mere afterthought to the resurrection, nor is it just a footnote to the work of Christ on the cross; rather, it’s the necessary completion of that work. Without the ascension, the resurrection is incomplete; it’s only in the ascension of Christ that all that he accomplished in the resurrection is truly fulfilled.
Now, I’m sure that seems a strange thing for me to say; it’s certainly not the way we tend to talk at Easter, or the kind of thing we usually say about the resurrection of Christ. There’s good reason for that, because the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are the central event of human history, and it’s there that the saving work of God was accomplished; we don’t want to do anything to take the focus off that truth. However, if in emphasizing the resurrection we forget about the ascension—as we too often do—then we risk losing much of the meaning of the resurrection as well. It’s only in strongly affirming that Jesus ascended into heaven that we can truly say with the people of God throughout the ages that he is risen from the dead.
That is, of course, a strong statement, and one which requires a fair bit of unpacking, not to mention considerable support; which is the purpose of this sermon series. Over the next four weeks, between now and Pentecost, we’ll be looking at just why that statement is true, and why it really does matter that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven. There are several reasons for this, which we’ll be considering over the next few weeks, but they all come down, ultimately, to one key truth: Christ didn’t come just so we could be “saved” in the sense that we get to go to Heaven instead of Hell.
Unfortunately, this is an area in which our particular stream of Christian tradition doesn’t tend to be very helpful. We’ve inherited a legal view of salvation as pardon for breaking God’s law, which unfortunately has tended to be distorted into the idea that salvation is sort of like getting a “not guilty” verdict, so you get to go back home instead of to jail. This is true as far as it goes. Part of what Christ did on the cross was take our unrighteousness and give us his righteousness, so that by his sacrifice our sins could be forgiven—but that’s only part of what he did. Jesus’ purpose, his mission in this world, wasn’t only to make us legally right with God so that we could skip out on going to Hell—it was to make us right with God in order to heal our alienation from God, to remove the obstacle that kept us from having a right relationship with him. This is where the importance of the ascension comes in, because while Jesus’ death and resurrection are the core of that work, the ascension was necessary for its application to us.
Why? Well, first of all, consider what the ascension of Jesus literally means: it means that he returned to heaven as a human being. This was a statement which was incredibly controversial in the early church—that’s why the creeds explicitly affirm that Jesus ascended into heaven, because there was a lot of argument about that point. The reason for the argument is that a lot of people just couldn’t deal with the idea that anything as gross and physical and material as a human body could be in heaven, in the presence of God. They were very “spiritual” people, in the same way as many people nowadays are very “spiritual”—which is to say, they saw “spiritual” reality as very different from, and superior to, mere physical, material reality. They’d be very happy to talk about their immortal souls going to heaven when they died—but the body? Ugh. No thanks. That was just a temporary thing, even a temporary prison, which they believed their souls would eventually escape to live a purely spiritual existence with God, who himself was pure spirit, and therefore superior to us physical beings.
Obviously, on such a view, Jesus couldn’t possibly have returned to the presence of God as a human being—that would defeat the whole purpose, and contaminate heaven. Yet this is precisely what the Scriptures affirm: the first-century Jewish human being Jesus of Nazareth ascended bodily into heaven, and at the end of all things he will return to this earth in exactly the same way. His human body, his human identity, wasn’t just something he put on for a while and then set aside—it’s a permanent part of who he is. The Son of God is still, seated in heaven at the right hand of God, the Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jew with nail scars in his wrists and feet and the wound of a spear in his side, and so he shall ever be; he didn’t just wear a human suit for a while, he became fully human, and he remains fully human.
This isn’t something we tend to think about very often, but it’s a profound and critically important truth. Jesus took our humanity with him when he returned to his Father; which means that in Jesus, God has taken our humanity into himself. He has not discarded our flesh, nor has he separated himself again from this world we know and love; rather, the stuff of creation is inextricably woven into the being of God. This is why, as we’ll see later in this series, the author of Hebrews can declare that we have a high priest who understands our weaknesses and our struggles. It’s not just a matter of Jesus remembering what it was like once upon a time to be human, powerful a thing though that is; his humanity is not merely a memory from the past, it’s a present reality. He still knows what it is to be human, because he still is human.
Now, to really unpack everything this means for us will take several sermons—don’t worry, I’m not going to try to cover everything in one service—but the most important point in all this, the meaning I want to leave you with, is this: consider just how much God loves you, that he would go to such lengths as this for you. God did something permanent, taking our human flesh on himself for all time, for your sake, and mine. He did that, and he suffered in that body more than any human being has ever suffered, before or since, for you. Where our love reaches a limit, a place where we say, “Yes, I love you, but not that much,” the love of God just keeps going, far beyond where we would expect. No matter how far you go from God, the Father’s love goes farther. No matter how great your sin, it has a limit, and God’s love doesn’t, and neither does the meaning of his sacrifice on the cross; no matter how great your sin, it’s covered.
That’s important for us to remember in our down times, and the times when we’re wrestling with a temptation we just can’t seem to beat, because those are the times when we risk giving in to despair; those are the times that the devil comes and whispers in our ears, trying to convince us that God has given up on us, that he can’t possibly love us anymore after all we’ve done. The fact of the matter is, when you look at everything Jesus did for us, everything he went through to save us, there’s no way that anything we can do can change his mind about that; the very worst we can do is but a small part of the pain he bore for us. He didn’t come down to this earth under the illusion that we’re better than we actually are; he didn’t come down to take just some of our sin, as if there were some things that even he wouldn’t die to redeem. No, he came down here to pay the price for all our sin, to heal all our wounds and carry all our diseases; he came to raise the dead of a dying world, and now he has gone on ahead to prepare our way. Christ has gone up with shouts of joy in order that we might follow him, that we might be invited to live forever in the eternal blessing of the love of God.