My awesome little Baptist church follows the church calendar (Yes, that’s right.), and this Thursday is Ascension Day. After preaching at our midweek service last year, I became the church’s unofficial Ascension nut, and I’m getting ready to preach again. It’ll be our third sermon on the Ascension, each with a different approach, and between the three we’re well on our way to producing a pretty broad theological survey of the event.
Two years ago, Dom Vincent preached on how the Ascension establishes Christ’s sovereign kingship. Last year, I preached on what it teaches us about the body’s place in God’s salvation, and about how God uses physical symbols to speak to us. This Thursday, I’ll be preaching on what it teaches about the importance and wonder of the work of the Spirit in the church. In brief, we’re looking at the Ascension to learn about Christ as King, about Christ as Man, and about Christ and his Holy Spirit.
For all its wealth, the Ascension is a largely neglected place for pious Christian focus. This week, I hope to persuade you of its theological depth and of its devotional worth. I’ll start us off with my sermon from last year, “Christ Among Us, Christ Above Us.” The text is below, and at bottom there’s a recording.
Christ Among Us, Christ Above Us
There are no floating angels in the Bible. The whole hovering angel with billowing skirts thing: it isn’t there. There are hardly any flying angels. They stand and sit and walk. They are often fairly easily mistaken for your good old everyday human being. They can sometimes be wrestled or given food. When they fly (if they fly) they fly with big, weird wings, often in clusters of six or covered with eyes. Or they are (you know) giant, spinning wheels hurling lightning. Monstrous beasts.
But mostly they just look like guys. Shiny guys, sometimes, yes, but guys. On the ground. Solidly on the ground.
We only imagine them floating around or sedately flapping two dovish pinions because of a funny mental holdover from early Christian paintings. See, those early paintings were more concerned with collections of symbols than with realism. They put halos on people’s heads to indicate that, as Christians, they carried the presence of God with them. They swathed Jesus in red and blue, colors symbolizing divinity and humanity, to show that he was both God and man. They did all this not because it is ‘realistic,’ but because it meant something. They were using symbols. Similarly, when they wanted to say “This guy’s an angel,” they added wings, and often stuck him higher up in the painting. This wasn’t because angels typically flap a pair of wings in the air above us. It was because the painters needed some way to visually distinguish angels from humans in their system of symbols. They needed an immediately comprehensible symbol for angels, like the abstracted shapes of men and women on bathroom doors. They picked wings and airborne-ness.
Our imaginations got more confused, however, when paintings became progressively more ‘realistic,’ but then kept the old symbols in place. Suddenly the painted angels looked ‘realistic,’ but they remained floating. Now we can hardly imagine the Nativity story without a bunch of flappy, floaty guys in the sky. Whoops.
Yet in fact, there’s almost no flying in the Bible at all unless you’re a bird, have a bird’s body parts, or are one of those thunder wheels. There’s no floating. No one just floats up in the air. Get that out of your head. Stick to the ground.
Elijah does get swept up to God, but in a whirlwind. The angel that announces Samson’s birth to his parents goes up to God, but in the fire of their burnt offering. Jacob sees angels ascending and descending to God, but they’re on a ladder. All those almost-floaters go up by means of something physical: wind, fire, ladder.
There is no Superman in the Bible, flying with his fist out front. There’s no Neo. And (thank God) there’s no billowing cloth-draped nudists like in the paintings.
There’s nothing else, in fact, quite like the Ascension. The Ascension breaks the rules.
I want you to try and remember that we’re grounded people. That stuff sticks to the ground. That planes and hang-gliders are weird. That skyscrapers are new. That you walk by shoving the world with your feet. That lovely scents are grown and ground and combined before they’re bought. That food comes out of the dirt or by spilling some blood. That photos are flat. That your skin makes oil. That her perfume makes you shiver. That your butt’s designed to flatten to spread your weight along that pew. That babies are made by… bodies. That laughter feels a certain way as well as sounding a certain way. I want you to try and remember bodies.
This groundy, jolly, bodied world is the world of the Bible. The Bible wasn’t written for our sweet, rococo illustrations of it. It’s talking about this, and even the angels are grounded. No floating.
Let’s stop. Remember your senses. Smell. Listen. Look. Touch. Taste. …Remember that time when you saw the morning light turn a hummingbird’s wings to yellow and its throat a flashy red? Remember the feel of your fingers running along a walkside chain link fence? Remember the smell of redwoods, sweat, and dirt while playing frisbee in the mountains? Remember the taste of creme brulee?
This down-here, sensual world was the one that Christ walked in…thud, thud, thud… smelling, tasting, touching things.
And then he penetrated the air. He broke the earthy barrier and went up into that place that we said was reserved for birds and weird visionary wheels. The place that even the angels didn’t go except by flapping. He rose up from the floor. His body. Up, up, up until a cloud covered him. Have you watched a loosed red balloon go up until a cloud covers it? It doesn’t happen quickly. Up, up, up.
His body, Christ’s hiccuping, laughing, dancing, hugging, farting, tensing, bleeding, singing, speaking, “touch my hands and my side” body rose up into the air.
Early paintings of the Ascension can’t quite figure out what to make of this. They exude a lovely human awkwardness. They put Jesus on a mountain instead of in the air, they surround him with an almond of angel heads. They show nothing but his feet, sticking out of the top of the frame. And the painters are right. This Ascension thing is physical, heavy, funny: weird.
So why’d he do it? Well, there’s lots to be said about that. Dom said a good bit about it at last year’s service. He did it to establish his reign over all the earth. He did it so that his disciples wouldn’t go looking for him anywhere, and so that they wouldn’t be fooled by anyone on earth who claimed to be him. He did it because the Holy Spirit would not have been poured out on the Church if he had stayed behind.
He did it because it was time for him to return to his Father, time to minister to his creation through his Church. He was returning to his Father to wait, intercede, and prepare.
And this is what we’re zooming in on: it would not have been enough for Jesus to go to his Father “spiritually” (whatever that means). No, he went to drastic measures to show us that his communion with God is the same as humanity’s communion with Him: body and soul, together. He, a human, a slap-thigh human, was ascending to be in perfect union with God the Father. In this most unnatural of his physical actions, most defiant of physical laws, God was making a startling affirmation of the physical dimension of human existence and of the physical world as a whole. He was saying, “It is very good.”
God wants to be in communion with you. With all of you. Body and soul. He’s not an invisible floaty thing who only cares about your invisible floaty bits. Your God is a God who has become enfleshed. He became like you, and in doing so he set a new pattern for you to follow, one that you can follow. We humans are meant to live like Jesus lived. That’s why, when Christ returns, “we… will be caught up together… in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” We, body and soul, will follow the pattern that Christ set, and by ascending like he did, be ushered into the fullest, richest, embodied communion with God that anyone in our race has ever or will ever experience. We, friends, “will meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” When we walk the New Jerusalem streets, breathing the new earth’s air, we will have been ushered into deep, bodily communion with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Alright, so that’s a little bit of why Jesus did what he did when he ascended. Now let’s talk about why he did it the way he did it. Here’s the question: “Why did he go up? Why not go to be with the Father any other way?”
Let’s say the obvious thing: He did not go up because the Father is actually at the end of that spatial trajectory. He didn’t do it for efficiency of transportation. He didn’t say, “Well, God the Father’s located at 1295 Alpha Centari Way. It’ll take me 30,000 years to get there once I’ve made the jump to light speed and 30,000 years to get back with the New Jerusalem Mothership.”
No, God the Father isn’t sitting around outside the atmosphere somewhere, and Jesus probably didn’t keep on going past the moon. He didn’t ascend to help himself or to help the Father. He ascended to help us. He gave us something by going up.
Here’s what I mean: Ever since the beginning of time, God has been revealing himself to us through his creation. He’s been filling it with his glory. That means that he’s made it beautiful and that we’re supposed to recognize his craftsmanship when we see its beauty, yes, but it means something richer, too.
Just like when friends begin to infuse things with new, special meanings–“that’s the park where we…” “Oh look! A multi-colored paper journal! Chad must have been here!”–God has been grabbing hold of the stuff of this world–oil and blood, snakes and lambs, jasper and bronze, water and bread and wine–and filling it with potent, meaningful connections to himself. He doesn’t just communicate to us with words. He’s poked his finger into everything around us and said, “When you look here, you can find me.” He’s blanketed us with meaning. The world is full of his glory.
The Ascension is one of the times when God was revealing himself through the world. You see, space itself–direction–was meant to be filled with holy meaning. God had always been encouraging his people to look up when they thought of him or worshipped him–just scan the Psalms for directional words–but Christ has solidified this physical tool for communion and communication with him. “Up” can mean “Godwards” now, and that’s useful, beautiful, and good. Now it’s impossible for us to be anywhere in space without being in direct contact with a reminder of God’s presence. Now we can raise our hands in worship, and have it be a physical reference to Christ, and a physical supplication for his return. We can always look toward the place from which Christ will come, and that’s pretty incredible.
But it’s just like God. He’s always trying to reveal Himself to us in ways that are abundant, close to us, and lovely. The world is charged with the grandeur of God, a grandeur that’s longing to flame out toward us… if only we could have the eyes to see it.
Embodied, earth-bound friends, let’s learn to search through the world with our senses and minds, waiting expectantly for the revelation of God to come pouring out at us. Let’s learn to look up and think, “Christ.” Let’s learn to eat bread and think, “Christ.” Let’s learn to drink wine and think, “Christ.” Let’s gather the brightly colored markings God has made in the earth, hold them close, and show them to each other.
This year, let the Ascension teach you two things: that your body is the Lord’s and that the earth is the Lord’s. Learn that God is saving your body as well as your soul, and learn that he’s speaking to you always through a richly God-infused world. Christ, our God, has gone up.