A Temporary Goodbye

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.

Wind in Our Sails: Our Witness

We’ve reached the last mast on our Lenten ship, the final part of our membership vows that allow us to catch the Holy Spirit and propel our church into the future. Today, we’re going to talk about our pledge to be a witness for Jesus Christ in the world.

This requirement for Christians is straightforward; the Bible records Jesus making clear his expectations on this matter in several places. Today I’m working from Acts 1:6-8, a record of the resurrected Jesus’ words just before he ascends into heaven.

Jesus was speaking to his followers standing before him, of course, but he also was speaking to those of us who follow him centuries later. Those in his presence would tell his story in Jerusalem, all Judea, Samaria and even more distant points. But for the word of Christ to spread to “the ends of the earth,” every generation of Christians must be involved.

While the requirement is straightforward, many Christians behave as if the act of witnessing is too complicated or involves words and phrases that are somehow embarrassing to utter. I have just one goal today. I want to give you a simple strategy for explaining Jesus to someone who has not accepted Jesus as Savior.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier sermons and teachings, it helps if you have a relationship with the person already. Step 1: Be friendly. For a Christian filled with God’s love, this should not be too difficult.

If your new friend doesn’t know Christ, opportunities to be a witness will abound. Trust me. I’m continually amazed at how those who don’t yet know Christ will steer the conversation toward the nature of my faith without my prompting. And yes, this used to happen before I was a pastor.

To give that conversation some structure, learn this simple sentence: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” One of my seminary professors used to say that this four-word sentence is the core of Christianity. It was perhaps the earliest creed of the church.

Let’s break the sentence down.

Jesus is a historical character, one of the best attested historical characters of his era, with four accounts of his ministry in the gospels and numerous mentions of his life and work in letters from his followers. There also is evidence of his existence outside the Bible.

As he was very real in human terms, I like to imagine what he looked like. We don’t have a lot to help us describe Jesus’ appearance; writers in the New Testament era simply didn’t provide information about a person’s physical characteristics like we see in modern writing.

He was Jewish; it’s not hard to think of him with black curly hair and a beard. Tall or short, Jesus also likely had a powerful physique. We translate his occupation as “carpenter,” but the Greek word teknon really has a more generalized meaning like “construction worker.” Jesus worked hard in a pre-power tool era, and by the time he was in his thirties he surely had the muscles to go along with the work. I also have trouble imagining a frail Jesus clearing the temple with a whip of cords.

I point this out to emphasize his humanity, and to counter an image of Jesus that troubles some men and makes church unattractive to them. Artwork, movies and the way we speak of Jesus or read his words sometimes make Jesus look frail or effeminate, a wispy, doe-eyed figure exuding a weak, false image of spirituality. When that happens, we lose Jesus as a strong male role model.

And yet, this man’s man preached love and forgiveness. Like God, in strength and power there is peace.

We take the man to a new level when we call him Christ, another word for Messiah. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jews’ hopes, and of our hopes.

In God’s covenant with Abraham, the man who would father the Jewish people, there were three basic promises: that the Israelites would be a great nation, with land; that his descendants would be numerous; and that blessings would abound, including a blessing for all the families of the earth.

When we call Jesus “Christ,” we place him in that stream of history recorded in the Old Testament. He is that blessing for all the families of the earth.

The tiny word “is” holds a place of great importance in this sentence because of its present tense. Jesus is not a history lesson. He is for today, ruling in heaven as part of the Trinity. He also continues to work among us by sending us the Holy Spirit, the same aspect of God empowering Jesus’ ministry.

When we speak of Jesus in the present tense, we affirm that his sacrifice on the cross was effective and that the resurrection happened. Jesus died, but now he lives.

The last word, “Lord,” declares that Jesus is over and above all things. As Christians, we test all of our other interests and loyalties by whether they supersede our allegiance to Christ as Savior.

If they do, they have to go. Calling Jesus “Lord” is what got the early Christians in trouble. They were using a title that was supposed to be reserved for the Roman emperor.

That’s the core understanding of Christianity; we pray that those who hear our witness will accept that Jesus Christ is Lord.

We also need to be conscious that when we take people to that point of understanding, they still need our help. They now have a new belief system, but as they explore it, they will find significant parts of their lives are in conflict with Jesus’ teachings.

James wrote of the danger of being double-minded. Psychologists talk of cognitive dissonance, the pain experienced when we try to hold conflicting ideas in our heads. While we’re saved at the moment we believe, a conversion is not truly complete until that double-mindedness is resolved.

Such resolution is worth pursuing. It is the moment we achieve our greatest joy and peace.

That truth reminds me of one of the best reasons for witnessing. Telling people of Christ ultimately is an act of love, a gift from God that we’re allowed to deliver.