He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Many of us who are Methodists make this statement every Sunday as part of the Apostles’ Creed. This declaration of the importance of “the ascension” seems to flow naturally from our affirmations that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, and that he was resurrected from the dead.
In conversations with fellow churchgoers, however, it sometimes seems the ascension is more tightly wrapped in mystery than the idea of the crucifixion and resurrection. (Not that we can fully grasp those two astonishing ideas!)
As best we can, we want to understand all three ideas—crucifixion, resurrection and ascension—so we can see how they work together to make salvation possible.
The key to understanding the ascension is to comprehend what ascends, what is carried “up.”
Luke, a companion of the Apostle Paul, gives us accounts of the ascension in the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the book of Acts. After appearing repeatedly to his followers in his resurrected form, Jesus led them about two miles outside Jerusalem to Bethany.
He then did several important things: He opened their minds to understand the Jewish Scriptures, in particular how they predicted Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He told his followers they would spread throughout the world the good news that salvation is available. He promised them the Holy Spirit would come to empower and support them.
And then the ascension happened. It’s described a bit mysteriously; in Luke, Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” In Acts, we get a little more detail, where we learn “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
When explaining all this to Luke, Jesus’ followers were trying to describe something almost incomprehensible, the visible crossing of Christ from one plane of existence to the next. They struggled for words as children sometimes struggle when confronted with a new idea.
A couple of years ago, at the funeral of my wife’s aunt, the preacher had a unique habit of kneeling whenever he prayed, even if he was standing behind the pulpit. At one point as he kneeled to pray, disappearing like a puppet behind a box, a three-year-old girl asked loudly, “Where’d he go?” I wonder if some of Jesus’ followers uttered a similar phrase in Aramaic as the Christ vanished from sight in such a mysterious way.
The point of the account as described by Luke is that Jesus physically left this world and entered the realm of the holy, God’s abode, the place where only things unstained by sin can go.
Later in Acts, the first martyr, Stephen, cried out shortly before being stoned to death, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” From this we see that the earliest Christians understood that after the ascension, Jesus resumed his role as part of what theologians sometimes call the “Godhead,” God in all of his aspects.
So, why does it matter that Jesus ascended into heaven? Well, it matters because of what Jesus took with him—his resurrected human body. Human flesh now exists as part of the Godhead, a strange change in the nature of heaven. What was unacceptable anywhere near the throne is now on the throne.
And that is why salvation is now so easy for us, if we will only believe that Jesus died to free us from punishment for our sins. When we appeal to God in heaven, we are appealing to the one who loves us so much that he made himself like us in order to save us.
We’re also to understand that Christ’s return, perhaps to occur while we are all alive, will be a real, physical event, a moment when God-in-flesh will once again stand within his creation and claim it as his own.
I also should point out that the ascension left something of a void. For a brief time, humanity was again separated from the full presence of God. But then, just as Jesus had promised, something came down, another aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.
That’s an event we celebrate next Sunday, which is Pentecost.