Pembroke College, Cambridge
Sunday after Ascension, 2010
"He ascended into heaven"
Article IV of the 39 articles says:
‘Christ did truly arise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature, wherewith he ascended into Heaven and there sitteth, until he return to judge all men at the last day.’
Plain speaking! So why do some Christians find it difficult to get their mind around this particular article?
The Birth, Death and Resurrection of Jesus present less of a problem for them. Most Christians believe that what the New Testament says is accurate. So why should the Ascension be so different?
The reason is not hard to discover. Most people have had undergone experiences related to Birth, Death and Resurrection. We were all born: even though we can’t remember it, we know that it happened to us; so we can imagine, to some extent, what being born feels like for a baby.
We know about Death also. All of us have undergone bereavement; and some of us know that our time to die is coming up in the foreseeable. So Death, however little we understand is something that we know exists and something which is going to happen to us.
As for the Resurrection. Well we all undergo the twin-experiences of falling asleep at night and waking up next morning; and although the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting are something infinitely more wonderful and complex, the Bible encourages us to think about death as "falling asleep" and resurrection as "waking up".
But what about the Jesus’ Ascension? We really don't have any human experience with which to compare that. Examples of aircraft or spaceships are somehow so different that they are of little help in thinking about the Ascension. So how are we to imagine such a thing happening?
Well let's try and view the Ascension from God's point of view rather than our own, and ask the question: "Why was the Ascension necessary, and what did it achieve?" My two answers which follow are not profoundly theological, so if either (or both) fails to convince you, that is not greatly important. They are answers which might be called ‘pragmatic theology’, which start with the suggestion ‘let’s just imagine what it might have been like if the Ascension hadn’t taken place’. Should you want something of more theological moment, then you should read John Gordon Davies’s Bampton Lectures for 1958 entitled He Ascended Into Heaven: A study in the history of doctrine [published by Lutterworth in 1958].
So here follow my two reasons for believine that The Ascension (or something of the kind) was ‘necessary’.
Firstly, it convinced the Apostles that the bodily appearances of Jesus after His Resurrection, which the New Testament records in detail, had now come finally to an end. There would be no more of them.
Why not? Well, suppose the Apostles hadn't been sure that His appearances had finally ceased. They would never have made the important decisions which they confronted them – decisions like Could Gentiles belong to the Church [and, if so, on what terms should they be admitted]?; must Gentiles accept being Circumcised [and if not, why not]?; and, how did Jesus intend His Church to be run in the future? [from the top-down or from the bottom-up?].
We can just imagine the Apostles, faced with such decisions, saying to one other "let's wait and see if Jesus appears just one more time to give us the answer before we try to work it out for ourselves".
The Ascension was the Risen Lord’s way of telling them the time had now come to stop saying to one another ‘Let’s wait for Jesus to appear again’, and to say instead ‘The buck stops with us now!’ Jesus had now conferred on them the responsibility, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of leading His Church into all truth. As He said, "It's a good thing that I am going away from you, because if I don't go away the Holy Spirit will not come; and He will lead you into all truth".
In other words, they'd just got to learn to stand on their own feet. After all, that's what ‘growing-up’ means, doesn’t it – learning to use one's freedom responsibly to make decisions, and accepting responsibility for what one does? ‘Passing-the-buck is a favourite game today amongst Christians – but it wasn’t what enabled the Church grow as it did during the century after the Ascension!
But here's my second reason for why the Ascension simply had to happen. Imagine for a moment that instead Jesus had gone on appearing to His Apostles now here, now there. People would start valuing those appearances more than they valued Him.
Just imagine the ‘league-table mentality’ that would follow The Antioch Church Times reporting that "During the month of April Jesus appeared fifteen times at Antioch, three times at Ephesus, six times in Rome; Athens 4, Philippi 3; Galatia 2 Corinth Nil. Hard luck, Corinth! Perhaps you'll do better next month!’; whereas its great rival the Church of Ephesus Newspaper suggested in its Leading Article that the shortfall in appearances and sightings in Corinth was entirely due to the latter’s bad moral reputation!
The Ascension helped to put everything on a different footing. Instead of Christ's body appearing in a succession of places, the Church was to be the Body of Christ on Earth in as many different places as "two or three are gathered together in My Name". They were, henceforward to "walk by faith, not by sight", as St Paul described it (2 Corinthians 5:7).
So instead of His Presence taking the form of His earthly body which could only be in one place at a time, Jesus from now onwards could become present in the form of Bread and Wine on which His followers could "feed in their hearts by faith with thanksgiving" wherever and whenever they came together for the Breaking of the Bread.
And how better could they have been persuaded of this than by the process of the Ascension? The fact that He went upwards suggested that He was entering into His glory like a successful athlete at the Olympic Games ascends the steps to be crowned with the laurel wreath of victory. The fact that His promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled within ten days was an indication that the Ascension, so far from being the end of the story was the prelude to an entirely new chapter.
That, plus the fact that from that time onward they discovered themselves to be in His Presence whenever they gathered together in His name, and were able to feed on His Body and Blood in the Eucharist helped them to perceive that He really meant what He had said to them: "It is expedient for you that I should go away from you", and "I am with you always, even to the end of time".
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