So the disciples have just had a great 40 days with the Resurrected Jesus. He had shown up multiple times and done multiple totally awesome things. Showing off scars, appearing in locked rooms, breaking bread and then disappearing, even grilling fish for his bros on the beach, but here, after 40 days with the resurrected Jesus, the disciples start to wonder, what’s next? They ask, “Teacher, is now the time when you establish your kingdom?”
Dumb question… This whole time Jesus has been with them, and they still think he’s here for some sort of military coup. Sure, this is a regime change, but they’re thinking so small.
“No, dummies,” he says, “I’m not just here to make Israel great again. I’m here so that the Good News of God’s great mercy can spread from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This is about the whole world. In fact, that’s why I am leaving now. Wait here, the Spirit will be here soon to help you.”
And with that, he ascends into heaven. It’s crazy. It’s like Jesus takes some sort of invisible escalator up and just disappears in the clouds to reside in the heavens.
And disciples were just like, “Woah…”
Just then there are two folks robed in white. “Hey, disciples! Why are you standing there staring up at heaven?” It’s the same two who asked a similar question on Easter. “Jesus has gone to heaven,” they say, “just as he said he would. But he’ll come again, just as he left. Go on, get out of here. Go wait in Jerusalem like he told you.”
And so they go. And they wait. And then about 10 days later… on Pentecost, well, you’ll have to come back next week for that part.
Oh what the heck, it’s the holidays. I’ll tell you. 10 days later, those disciples waiting in Jerusalem get what they were waiting for. The Holy Spirit comes and fills the room they are waiting and they all start preaching, telling others about God’s mercy, about what Jesus did.
I had to tell you at least that much because, Without Pentecost, this story just feels like the end of something, but really, in the fiery light of Pentecost, we see the Ascension is part of a new beginning. Isn’t that so like God to bring a beginning out of an ending?
There is an ending when Jesus ascends, though. What comes to an end is the work that he was sent to do. Just like you or I may sit down and rest after a long day’s work, the scriptures say that when Christ ascended it was so he can sit down at the right hand of God having finished the work he came to do.
The reason he came was to enter the fullness, the depths, of human existence, even to death, so that it can now be said, there is nowhere and no thing in all of creation, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans), because he’s already descended into it and raised us up from it.
So, after Christ had been born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, been crucified, died, and been buried, he descended even into hell. And then began his ascent caring the flesh of humanity with him, as on the third day he was raised from the dead and now ascends to lead the way out of hell into the eternal heavens. And there, he sits down at the right hand of the Father, having completed his work of redeeming human life.
And yet, there’s another sense in which this is just the beginning. See, as God with us, Christ embodied human flesh, a real human life, but with that he was also limited. Human flesh cannot be in more than one place at a time. In this way the Ascent of Christ this week is also the essential pre-condition for the descent of His Spirit poured out on all flesh which begins next week at Pentecost.
Today, say the scriptures, in Christ’s Ascension God finishes the work of one time and place, while also raising it high enough to then launch the news of what he had done into all times and all places. The world-transforming news about what goes up today in Christ, must come down in the Spirit so that the ends of the earth will hear of what God has done. He had to go that high in order for the Gospel to get this far
And all of that, is why I thought it’d be cool to celebrate Ascension Sunday by launching a rocket, because it’s something that both goes up and comes down, and it’s something that goes high enough to be seen both near and far. Also, rockets are cool!
But, before we rush on to the rocket, or hurry on to Pentecost, I want to tell you about a picture I saw last week that might be a perfect way to grasp the Ascension in 2020. It’s a picture that actually captures the Spirit of both Ascension and Pentecost, as if it were taken from way up there.
We’re on day who knows what of this pandemic and everyone is struggling in their own way to get through one day at a time. One Grace church family turned to a fun game to help them get through, the game of Jenga. It’s the game where you stack blocks, and then take turns removing them without toppling the tower. Owen was pretty good at the game, and Emma’s favorite part was, of course, everyone’s favorite part of the game, seeing the tower tumble.
The next day Emma started to play with the Jenga blocks in other ways too, building stuff, toppling it over, and then building something else. She got pretty creative with her blocks, until one day her mom noticed she was building something different. She said, “Emma, what are you building?”
“I’m building the church,” Emma said. Now, you might imagine what she built. If I were building the church out of blocks, I’d stack up walls, and fashion a roof, and try to find a way to build a belltower or a steeple. But that’s not what Emma built. When she said “I’m building the church,” this is what she had built.
Emma had arranged the blocks on the floor, scattered across the carpet, all in a similar shape, though in different sizes and configurations. All of the blocks are grouped together in different versions, of the same shape. The church she built is built as a series of crosses, spread out across the whole area.
“I’m building the church,” she said. And when I saw that photo and heard that story, I immediately thought of the Ascension. It’s as if the Ascension of Christ and the descent of the Spirit is how God is building the church.
The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians, “He who descended to death through the cross is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things with his Grace.” He had to go that high in order to go that far. It is how the Body of Christ goes from being present one person in one place at one time to being present in many people in many places for all of time.
The reason Christ ascended is so that the work of Grace achieved on his cross could be raised high enough to not only be seen by but to fill all things, all homes, all persons, all life and death, through his Spirit in the church. This is the reason why we have been able to remain a church in ministry even when we cannot be together in person because the Spirit of Christ and his cross have ascended not to depart but to fill and form all things in all places, to build the church as a cross-shaped people dispersed throughout the world, living in the hope of the resurrection.
When Christ builds His church, he doesn’t do it just in one place or one building. He does it like Emma.
I wonder, as you look at that picture of Emma’s church, which one is the ascended view of your house? Which one is your home? Your life? Is it one of the broken ones, that’s not quite put together? Is it the lonely one that looks a little incomplete, off by itself? Is it the one that looks like it’s reaching out to another one? Or is it the one that’s being reached for?
At the end of the day, the Bible, Christmas, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, the whole Christian message is a story that tells us what God is really like. it’s all about God’s grace. And if you want to know about what God is like today, just imagine this story. Imagine one of those cross shaped parts of the church is your household, your community, you, then if you want to know what God is like, to know what Jesus has shown us, take a moment and just look at Emma’s face.
This is the face of delight and of love. This is the face of one who delights in the church she just built. This is the face Grace, and today I believe it may just be the face of the Ascended Christ whose Spirit of mercy and Grace has been launched for the redemption and restoration of the whole world. Thanks be to God.