Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection June 9, 2019
"To Heaven" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, June 2, we celebrated the Feast of Our Lord’s Ascension (moved from Ascension Thursday). I’d like to place that sermon in this week’s Advance.
60 years ago on Ascension Thursday, my father returned to God. Ascension is always a time of sadness for me. Yet I believe my father (and my mother) continue on in me. In a true sense, our parents never really leave us. And so it is with Jesus Christ.
What is the point of the Ascension? What does Scripture have to say about it? Luke’s Gospel (chapter 24, verses 50 and following) ends with the Ascension of Jesus taking place on Easter Sunday.
Yet in Acts, chapter 1, verses 6 and following, the Ascension takes place 40 days after Easter. This is confusing since both Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are widely believed to have been written by the same person. One must wonder: where did the Risen Jesus hang out during those 40 days?
Was Jesus the first to ascend bodily into heaven in the Scriptures? No, Enoch, the great grandfather of Noah, did the same, along with that fiery prophet, Elijah.
The ancient Israelites had a much different cosmology than we have at present. They believed in a three-tier reality. Earth was where we humans are. Heaven was where God is. The underworld is where the dead live.
Other world religions believed that God would reward those who were very good in this life by bringing them bodily into heaven. The Romans, likewise, believed that Caesar Augustus was taken up into the Pantheon after his death.
In Christianity, many believe that Mary was taken up bodily into heaven after her death. This is known as the Assumption of Mary. I tend not to be too excited by this doctrine. It was decreed as an infallible teaching by the Pope in 1950. We, Baptists, are not too keen on doctrinal pronouncements. And the truth is that we don’t need to argue about this.
The Ascension of Jesus Christ is also understood as the Exultation of Jesus Christ, when the Risen Jesus takes his place at the right hand of the Father. In this action, the doors of heaven are finally opened.
The crucial point is that the Risen Christ returned to God. How did this happen? I surely don’t know. In my many years of traveling, I’ve enjoyed going to art museums and noting the many artistic renditions of the Lord’s Ascension.
I’ve seen portrayals of a big hand reaching down from the clouds and “yanking” Jesus up into heaven. I’ve seen Jesus climbing a stairway built of clouds. These attempts to picture the Ascension are a gateway into the artistic imagination but are not theology.
One thing I do assert, however, is my fundamental belief that when we die each of us returns to God. We then await that final resurrection when our bodies will be brought back to life and we will be united body and soul with those who’ve gone before us. We will then live eternally on a new earth. As I’ve preached many times, we will not spend eternity in heaven.
People sometimes wonder what kind of body will they get back. Will it be a young, vibrant body or the body in which they died and went to God? I tell people not to worry, the body we’ll “get back” will be a resurrected body. It will have a built-in eternal warranty.
How will all this happen? That’s as they say, way beyond my pay grade. Yet here’s the thing, the Risen Jesus says in Acts 1, verse 7 that it’s also beyond his pay grade: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’”
So, please, don’t listen to anyone who thinks they know when the end will come. They don’t know! At worse, such people are lying; at best, they are merely misguided. Don’t get caught up in babble about “end times.” No one knows but the Father!
Now these are difficult things to ponder. Yet I believe, I hope, I trust these things will unfold as God intends. That’s enough for me. It should be enough for each of us.
Ponder this - at the Ascension of Christ, the resurrected body of Jesus, is brought back into the Godhead. In other words, in God, there exists a human body, the human body of Jesus Christ.
How is this possible? I have no good idea. Since God is All Spirit, how might a human body exist in that Matrix of Mystery? I don’t know! Nor does anyone else! We can’t get to an answer. Let me repeat this: we can’t get to an answer!
But isn’t this the way it is with much we encounter in life? Do I truly know myself? No! I am ultimately unknowable to myself. Only in love are we more fully known but only in the presence of divine love are we finally and fully known. This is heavy stuff! As we used to say in the 1960’s, that’s heavy, man!
You are unknowable to yourself. Those who’ve been married for many years may think: I truly know my spouse! Sorry, you’re wrong! Parents may think: I really know my children! Sorry, you’re wrong!
Loving someone helps us know that person better than we might otherwise. But human love can only take us so far into the mystery of the human person. Only in God are we fully known. Only in God are we fully known. That’s heavy!
Let me add another vital piece of Ascension Theology, so to speak. The absence of Jesus makes space for Jesus’ presence through us, the church, the body of Jesus here on earth. We are, as is proclaimed again and again, the Body of Christ on earth.
Not only when we share in communion, in the Lord’s Supper, is Jesus with us. He is with us in ways beyond our imagination, beyond our weak words. Ascension is the day when we celebrate, a day on which we rejoice in the return of humanity into the divine Source from which it came.
What happened to the Risen Jesus at his Ascension will also happen to you and me and to all those who we’ve loved in life. Yet I find this theological truth hard to wrap my head around.
I can’t get my head around this. But what my head can’t fathom, my heart embraces. May it be thus with each of us!
I’d like to end with a poem I came across yesterday. Saturdays are usually when I finally put my sermons together. I choose the readings on Monday (Tuesday of this past week because of the holiday). I research what the preaching text proclaims. I write various notes to myself as the week unfolds. I do the best I can to allow God to speak to my heart. The Spirit is always at work even when I’m not!
The poem I came across this Saturday is from a collection of the poems of Mary Oliver titled Devotions. The poem I end with is:
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who
say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.