Don’t Miss the Experience!
Years ago a friend at NASA invited us to witness a launch of the Space Shuttle. We got up at some ungodly hour to drive to the Cape, gathered in the VIP section, watched the count down clock, and felt the earth rumble as it lifted off. When it disappeared into the clouds, I realized that I had been so intent on taking pictures, that I had only seen it through the tiny lens of my camera. (You have to be of a certain age to remember how small a camera lens was!)
I was so focused on getting a record of the event that I almost missed the experience.
The 40th day after Easter marks The Ascension of our Lord. It’s easy to miss. It always comes on Thursday. And to tell the truth, it’s a bizarre story that sounds like a biblical description of a launch at the Space Center.
As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:6-11)
When the 15th Century Hungarian artist, Master Thomas de Coloswar, attempted to capture the moment, he painted just a glimpse of Jesus’ toes and the bottom of his robe, disappearing into a crown, leaving his foot prints on the mountain and the disciples gazing into the heaven, some in prayerful awe and other in utter confusion, which probably captures how we feel about this story.
What Do We Do with the Ascension?
The Church has never tried to explain the astrophysics of the Ascension. The point is to experience it. The gospel is not a NASA analysis of what happened to Jesus, but a declaration of faith in who Jesus really is.
The New Testament declares that in Jesus, the God who is so high above us that we can never fully comprehend him came down to be with us, among us, one of us. He came down into the hurt, brokenness and suffering of your life and mine. He went down into the darkness of death and was laid in the bottom of a tomb. You can’t go any farther down than that.
But on Easter morning, that same Jesus was “raised” from the dead. Now, as the grand finale of the drama, Christ is “lifted up” above us. When we affirm that “He ascended into Heaven,” we’re not talking about inter galactic space travel, but about what it means to live in a world where Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord. Paul proclaimed it when he wrote:
The one who went down is the same one who climbed up above all the heavens so that he might fill everything. (Ephesians 4:10)
The writer of the first epistle of Peter declared:
Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers. (1 Peter 3:21-22)
To believe in the Ascension is to know that Jesus — the life he lived, the words he spoke, the Kingdom he proclaimed, the way he died and was raised — takes “first place in everything.” (Colossians 1:17-18)
Christ Above All
Coming back down to earth, when I was a high school senior the motto of the Methodist Youth Fellowship was “Christ Above All.” That’s what the Ascension means to me. It is my word to every graduating senior and to all the rest of us for whom every day can become a fresh “commencement.”
The ascension lifts our vision beyond the flattened world in which we live to see the living Christ reigning over all the boundaries of nation, race, social status, or political system. He takes priority over every other commitment and relationship. He rules over the way I live, act, serve, give and vote. This Jesus is lifted up. Christ is above all.
Witnesses to the Ascended Lord
Even with the limitations of my camera lens, I never forgot being a witness to the launch of the Shuttle. With all of our human limitations, the Ascension prepares us to receive Jesus’ promise, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) We are empowered to be the agents on earth of the one who rules over all in Heaven.
Karl Barth (1886-1968) was the most influential Christian theologian of the 20th Century. On the Ascension he wrote:
The conclusion of Christ’s work is therefore not an opportunity given to the Apostles for idleness, but it is their being sent out into the world. Here there is no rest possible; here there is rather a running and racing; here is the start of the mission, the sending of the Church into the world and for the world. (Dogmatics in Outline. New York: Harper and Row, 1959, p. 127)
For Barth, believing that Christ is above all meant standing in bold opposition to Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933. In The Barmen Declaration (1934) he led the Confessing Church in speaking out against the way the German Church had become complicit in the Nazi ideology of Arian supremacy and he called for faithful resistance to the ultimate power of the “Führer.”
If that sounds like arcane theology or ancient history, take a look at the images of “white supremacist” groups brandishing their assault weapons, waving Nazi and Confederate flags and wearing MAGA caps. Look at the way the President ignores or undermines every form of Congressional accountability. And look at the way some parts of the Christian community have traded the Sermon on the Mount for access to political power.
The Hardest Question
The hardest question about the Ascension is not how it happened, but what difference it makes in our lives — the way we think, relate, serve, witness, give, and vote. How would our lives, our nation and our world be different if we, as witnesses of the Ascension, acted as if Christ really is above all?
Grace and peace,