WHERE IS JESUS NOW?
Ascension Day Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Ascension Day addresses the question, Where is Jesus Now? Many people have only a vague notion of what Ascension Day signifies for the church. Even in the church, the Ascension of Our Lord is often overlooked, despite its centuries-long tradition of marking this date with celebration. In part this is because Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday (40 days after Easter); but John Wesley, the founder of our Methodism, kept the festival of Christ’s Ascension in the church calendar that he approved for use here in North America. Wesley only approved two other traditional church festivals that don’t fall on a Sunday: Christmas, and Good Friday. Wesley recognized the benefit of asking, Where is Jesus now?
We can answer the question easily enough, reading from the end of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of The Acts, but the more we consider the answer, the more questions it poses. And this is where the benefits arise.
The Gospel is the story of the incarnate life of Jesus, and The Acts is the beginning of the story of Jesus’ heavenly lordship of his church. Luke’s gospel covers about thirty years, as does The Acts. The Ascension of Our Lord is the line drawn between the post-resurrection life of forty days, when Jesus takes leave of his disciples, and his ascended life, ongoing, when he works through his Spirit to comfort and instruct us, to pray, heal, and remember for us.
During the final forty days of his earthly life, immediately following his death and resurrection, Jesus has “the very same personal history and reality all over again.”[i] Jesus engages with his disciples, during the Easter season of time, revealing the fullness of his being. To his disciples, Jesus “presented Himself alive…by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days.” He continued to teach them “of things concerning the kingdom of God.” And he empowers them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that they can be his witnesses. Only then, in Bethany, east of the Jordon, “while he was blessing them,” was he “parted from them and carried up into heaven.”
This poignant moment expresses the profound glory and grief our hearts experience almost routinely during our lifetime. We know the feeling, and how suddenly we become inconsolable, from the death of our children, our parents, our spouses and our friends. Jesus is in heaven and we are on earth, and the loss is so tremendous that we can only feel the shuddering of creation. We feel utterly abandoned.
The disbelief which manifests on these occasions does not entirely go away, but the disciples are prepared now as never before. Jesus has “opened their minds” and they “understand the Scriptures.” He has “lifted up his hands and blessed them” and “then they worshipped him.” We plainly see, for the disciples, as also for us, adoration brings “great joy.” For ten days, the disciples are left alone. They go back from Bethany to Jerusalem, and they wait. They pass their days assembled at the temple and in an upper room of a house, “devoting themselves to prayer.” And through their praises, they are comforted.
Jesus has not abandoned them. He is no longer physically present with them, but he has promised to “send forth the promise of my Father” upon them, and this sending of the Holy Spirit will clothe them “with power from on high.”
Where is Jesus now? Before the eyes of the disciples, “he was taken up … and a cloud hid him from their sight” while “they were looking intently up into the sky.” The disciples are witnesses to what they have experienced with their senses. They have seen him “go into heaven”“where the Lord says to my Lord, Sit at my right hand” (Ps 110.1), and “the Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things” (Ps 118:16).
The two angels who appear to the disciples, as two also appeared to the women at the empty tomb, redirect our gaze from heaven to earth. “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.” Jesus is with us in 1st century Palestine, and he is present at his Second Coming; “Because he is with the Father, he is before us and after us; only so is he with us.”[ii] He is in his skin; he has a body. On Ascension Day we learn that Jesus has not lost his body, and neither will we. Jesus will again be visible to us, and when he is, we will have our flesh, as he his body. Can this be possible?
We recognize bodies and their flesh; how can a god without flesh be with us? Shall we shed our skin, like a snake? Hasn’t God taken pains to tell us, we are not like the snake; we are made in the image of God, which is unchanging?
The Jesus we know is a particular person, so he cannot be ubiquitous; he is not here, there, and everywhere; our proximity is to his Spirit. Jesus, the God-man, is in heaven, “at the right hand of the Father,” where he reigns with authority “over heaven and earth.” In ten days time, on Pentecost Sunday, we will celebrate the descent of the Spirit, and its formation of the body of Christ that we compose in time: the body of the spouse of God. Today we celebrate the literal body of Jesus as it ascends into heaven, the body composed in heaven for time, and the body emptied of all that gets in the way of perception.
So where is Jesus now? Two thousand years have passed since His Ascension, and his witnesses have spread across the world. In some true yet mysterious sense, the Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated and the spirit-empowered church, scattered to the ends of the earth, are intertwined. As the church, we are called to continue witnessing to Jesus. The Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world are in no sense identical; the two remain irreconcilable. We inhabit the time between the first and Second Coming of the God-man.
We are born into the time allotted for discipleship, to proclaim the message of the Gospel: the Messiah has come, and through repentance and the forgiveness of sins, he has delivered creation from death. We offer hope and comfort and truth to people who sorrow, experiencing pain and suffering and defeat. We express joy and love and all the fruits of the Spirit that are grown in the Church, and we share these freely with others. And we wait, even as the disciples present at the Ascension waited, as we are sanctified, to escape wrath, and readied for the kingdom come.
Let us pray: Almighty God, we thank you for your encouragement of all our efforts to live as faithful disciples, and we anticipate with deep longing the joys of the Kingdom life to come. Please help us not to interpret your words within limits that are too narrow. We know that you do not expect us to mourn all the days of our lives; rather, you would have us be joyful and all our desire be filled with your grace and knowledge of your Son. Let us never be without confidence in your love, and at all times let us share that love with each other and with our neighbors. We thank you for all that you make known even now of our heavenly life in the presence of your son. In the name of Jesus, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, we pray. Amen.
[i] [i] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia, p.234
[ii] [ii] Douglas Farrow, ibid, 225, explaining Kierkegaard