The Bodily Ascension Sermon
We’re going to be in Acts 1 today. The very beginning of the book of Acts.
I’d invite you to turn there.
For the last month and a half,
we’ve been trying to figure out what we mean when we say “the gospel.”
And each week we’ve been returning each week to these ancient words—
to this short story, to the Apostles Creed—
because this is what the church has said is central.
This story is what the good news is all about.
And for the past few weeks, we’ve been confessing these words together—
and I’d like to invite you to do that again with me:
We believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
This is a big sweeping story—
and it’s a story that’s not primarily about us.
This is a story primarily about God.
The good news—we’ve been saying again and again—is about God.
About who God is, about what God is like,
about what God is up to in Jesus of Nazareth.
We get to play supporting roles, but we shouldn’t get confused—
the good news is inviting us into something much bigger than ourselves.
The good news is good
because it takes our eyes off of us,
and sets our eyes on something bigger and better.
Bigger than any of our fears and failings,
better than all of our dreams or desires.
The gospel is good news because it helps us
become part of a bigger and better story.
The last couple of weeks we’ve started working our way into the heart of the good news—
this big middle section that talks about Jesus.
God the Son has become a complete, human being—
who lived and suffered and died and was buried,
and descended into the mystery of death.
But then the most mysterious thing in all of human history happened.
Something happened that no Jew was expecting.
Something happened that no disciple of Jesus was expecting.
Something happened that absolutely no one was expecting.
Jesus of Nazareth didn’t stay dead.
Today we’re going to be reflecting for just a couple of minutes
on that little section that says:
“On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
For those of you who are anxious about it, don’t worry—
we’ll talk about that bit at the end in two weeks
(that Jesus is going to “judge the living and the dead”)
as we’re finishing the Creed.
So if you’re anxious to hear about all of that…
be in here two weeks.
Right now, this week, we want to talk about resurrection and ascension.
What are Christians saying when they say
that Jesus has been raised from the dead
and that Jesus has ascended into heaven?
And how exactly are those things good news?
And to help us in that reflection,
we’re going to be reading Acts 1.1-11.
(Acts 1.1-2) In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
By the way, he’s talking about the gospel according to Luke.
Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
(v3-11) After his suffering, he [Jesus] presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Then they gathered around him and asked him,
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Two reflections as we’re coming to the table:
a reflection about Jesus’ resurrection
and a reflection about Jesus’ ascension.
It’s an understatement to say that this story stretches our imagination.
Luke is following up on his account of Jesus’ life with an account of how the church began.
That’s what the book of Acts is—it’s the account of how we got here.
The account of how “the Church” got started.
The account of why we gather together this morning.
And the church like nothing else in history—with a man who is no longer dead.
The disciples of Jesus had been following him for a while—
they had been hoping that he would be the long-awaited christ,
(the long-awaited messiah, the long-awaited king)
who would rescue the Jewish people from their enemies
and establish the rule and reign of God over the earth.
And now… suddenly…
this Jesus is no longer just a potential christ, no longer just a wise rabbi.
Now this man whom they knew—whom they had been following,
whom they had spent so much time with—
is back from the dead.
He’s spending time with them (v3) giving them what Luke calls “convincing proofs.”
Things that say, “No, I really am alive.”
At the end of his first story (his gospel), Luke says that Jesus ate some broiled fish in front of his followers as one of those proofs (Lk 24.36-43).
“I really am alive. Here, give me some fish.
See. I’m not a spirit. I’m not a ghost.
Ghosts don’t have digestive tracks.
I’ve got my flesh and my bones and my DNA.
“I really am alive.”
His body is still his body.
He’s still got his own features, he’s still got his own face, he’s still got his own scars.
Jesus is still himself. Jesus is still human. Jesus is still Jesus.
He’s just back-from-the-dead Jesus now.
But it’s still Jesus.
Still Jesus with a digestive track.
That’s a big win for digestion.
Seriously, we should think about this.
The resurrection is a big win for the digestive system.
Jesus is back. And he’s eating.
Did you notice that he’s still doing it in verse 4?
Evidently you still like to eat when you’re raised from the dead.
It’s like God wasn’t joking back there in Genesis 1—what he created really is good. And it’s still good.
It’s good enough that Jesus keeps his tastebuds and his stomach acid.
How else is Jesus going to enjoy the delicious goodness that is Chipotle?
The resurrection is probably a big win for the cardiovascular system too.
I mean—Jesus has a heart, right?
Wait a second—if the resurrection is a big win for those things—
for tastebuds and stomach acid and heart valves—
what else might the resurrection be a big win for?
Sometimes we imagine the hands and feet of the resurrected Jesus
but maybe we should also imagine his lungs and his proteins and his skin cells.
God didn’t just bring “Ghost Jesus” back to the world—
God brings “flesh and bones Jesus” back to the world.
That’s not a mistake.
God raised Jesus—and Jesus’ digestive track—from the dead.
(Someone needs to put that on a t-shirt.)
It may seem like I’m making a big deal about something silly,
but this is actually the heart of Christian hope.
The hope of the earliest church is NOT that we all “get saved”
so we can toss aside earth and go somewhere else when the die.
The hope of the earliest church is the resurrection.
God didn’t toss aside Jesus’ body and say
“Well, you don’t really need that physical stuff,
because really matters is the spiritual stuff.”
No—he raises Jesus from the dead.
And by doing this, God is planting his flag and saying,
“My creation is good and I am rescuing it from death and decay.”
In the resurrection of Jesus,
God has already reclaimed and remade and rescued
a tiny little part of creation—the body of Jesus.
Those cells. Those proteins. That carbon.
It’s a tiny bit of creation that’s been through hell and back
(and has still got the scars to prove it), but it’s already shining
with the glory and vitality and health and beauty that God intends for all of his creation.
And even those scars, even the wounds, even his suffering—
even they have somehow been transformed and made beautiful.
The deepest Christian hope is going to do that for the rest of creation.
That Jesus is just the beginning— he’s just the first-fruits of the harvest.
The earliest Christian hope is that what God did for Jesus
is what God is going to do for the rest of the world.
For this world that we love—this world full of
gardens to tend,
and sights to see,
and food to eat,
and flowers to smell,
and mountains to climb,
and art to make,
and games to play—
The resurrection of Jesus tell us
that this world we love is a world God loves too.
He loves it enough to give it a future.
It’s a future that we can’t see yet—
but it’s the real future.
And that’s the point of the ascension.
After forty days (v3)
Jesus is taken into heaven (v9).
Jesus goes into heaven.
the Jesus they know—
and his flesh and his bones and his scars,
and his DNA and his digestive track,
and maybe that last bit of fish caught in his teeth—
goes into heaven.
“He was taken up before their very eyes
and a cloud hid him from their sight.”
The future of the world—the hope of the human race—is hidden from our sight.
It’s there… it’s just hidden.
Growing up in church, I didn’t hear the ascension talked about very much,
but when you start really thinking about this—
oh man, it’s amazing.
When the earliest Christians said Jesus had ascended into heaven, they didn’t mean that Jesus is sitting on sofa in the sky or had gone camping in outer space.
The ascension is picture of something true.
Jesus did this all the time.
When Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee,
he’s giving us a picture.
It’s a picture that says:
“Don’t be afraid of the storm or the sea. I can walk on this chaos like concrete.”
(cf. Job 9..8-11)
I think something similar is happening here in the ascension.
When Jesus rises into the sky and disappears into a cloud,
God is giving us a picture.
It’s a picture that says:
“This crucified one—this bit of new creation—he is humanity’s rightful king.
And I’m going to let him make all things new.”
This story of Jesus’ ascension (of Jesus rising into the sky)
occurs in two places in the New Testament,
but the language of Jesus’ ascension (that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father)
that language shows up again and again and again in the New Testament.
Over twenty-five times.
And it’s always driving home the same point—
Jesus is now in charge of the world.
The world has a king.
Jesus is Lord.
Someone needs to take care of this world, and the ascension says, “That’s Jesus’ job.”
The world has a king—and a human king, to boot!
“This same Jesus” (v11) is the one who will one day return,
and that “same Jesus” is also king right now.
Jesus didn’t stop being human after the ascension.
Jesus is human right now—Jesus understands us and relates to us right now.
God has become Jesus
and Jesus is still human
and will always be human.
The good news is about God.
God loves it so much that he has forever become part it.
And in the dimension of reality
where things are as God intends them to be
there is a real, living human being who is king.
In other words,
Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of God.
His disciples were right—
Jesus is the king we’ve all been waiting for.
And so of course they were crowding around him (v6), asking whether things are finally going to be the way they’re supposed to be.
Is this when our enemies are finally going to be overturned,
when the kingdom of God is finally going to be established,
when justice and mercy and life and light will finally rule world?
But Jesus is always marching to own drummer.
He went and got himself tortured and lynched to become king—
not exactly how we would go about ascending to the throne of power.
And now that Jesus is on the throne of power,
he seems to hide it pretty well, huh?
I mean… he’s not king like I want him to be.
I want King Jesus
to do whatever is necessary
to fix the world right now.
Like—whatever it takes, however you’ve got to do it, whatever the collateral damage,
please get rid of world hunger and cancer in children and tribal violence.
Just squash it.
Use your power.
Just crucify the enemies of God,
and make things the way they’re supposed to be.
That’s the way I think about power.
That’s the way the whole human race
thinks about power.
We’ll use power
to establish the greatest good
But that’s not the way the most human human chooses to govern.
Now that he’s ascended, he doesn’t seem very interested
in using power and force to make the world how he wants.
The crucified one
doesn’t seem interested
in crucifying anyone.
When Jesus receives all authority,
when Jesus gets handed infinite power,
when Jesus sits down on the iron throne—
Jesus shows us again what God looks like.
Here we have a king who doesn’t force,
who doesn’t strong-arm, who doesn’t crucify.
We ask, “Is this when you’re finally going to make everything right?”
And Jesus replies,
“It’s not for you to know when all that’s going to happen.
You don’t need to worry about that.
“I just need you to be my ‘martures.’
I just need you to my witnesses” (v8).”
Jesus isn’t a king looking for soldiers.
Jesus is a king looking for witnesses.
Jesus is a king looking for martyrs.
It’s like the future of the world
(the hope of humanity that’s hidden from our sight)
can’t come through force.
can’t come through violence,
can’t come through war.
It only comes about as we become witnesses— as we become martyrs.
Martyrs learning to die every single day to ourselves,
and be baptized into his Holy Spirit (v5)—
and be plunged into the God’s dancing life of love—
All of us are invited to bear witness to Jesus—
to demonstrate the aliveness of our king
by participating in his life right now.
Because of the resurrection,
How we treat our own bodies,
how we treat other people’s bodies,
how we care for this good world,
And the ascension of Jesus invites us
to witness to his resurrection everywhere and in everything.
The king said he needs witnesses,
and since its very beginning in Acts,
the church has been breaking down social divisions (cf. 10.44-38)
and caring for the needs of the hurting and powerless (cf. 2.45, 3.34),
And throughout history, whenever the church has been true to humanity’s king,
it has been extended the self-giving love of God into the entire world—
caring for widows and orphans around the globe,
founding universities and hospitals through the darkest of ages,
preserving literacy, and extending education,
and grounding the ethics of Western civilization.
The church will never succeed in building the kingdom of God,
but—in the words of one theologian—we can build for that kingdom.
We can begin learning to live the kinds of lives
that look like the world to come.
That world renewed and remade by God,
where nothing is forgotten and everything is restored.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood;
do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
You’re invited to come down the middle aisle,
to receive the bread, dip it into the cup,
and then return to your seat along the sides.
Our table is an open table—
open to any who want to believe resurrection
and want to bear witness to humanity’s king.
As you come to the table this morning,
may you remembering not only the death of Jesus
but also his resurrection and ascension.
May you remember that the good news is about God—
that the self-surrender and self-giving of God himself is recreating a world
where death is banished,
where everything matters,
where real power is sacrificial love,
where The Crucified is king.
May God’s Spirit plunge us all into this new creation—into this kind of life—
and may we all learn to bear witness to the king until he comes.