by Wade Hodges
July - October, 2008
I’m a huge U2 fan, but I must admit that I came to the party a bit late. I grew up hearing their songs on the radio, but didn’t really start paying attention to what they were actually saying until I was well into college. I had only so much musical bandwidth to devote to all the many great bands of the eighties and I used most of it on Hall and Oates.
I know, I know, choosing Hall and Oates over U2 conjures up C. S. Lewis’s image of an ignorant child choosing to stay at home and make mud pies instead of spending a day at the beach. However, if your heart had been as broken as mine was when you first heard “Maneater,” you’d have gone out and bought a few Hall and Oates albums too.
Nonetheless, once I really started listening to U2 I had a lot of catching up to do. If you check my iPod now, you’ll find more offerings from U2 than from any other artist (Hall and Oates come in at a respectable, but still distant second). I’ve had a great time going back and discovering old U2 songs that are new to me even though they were released years ago.
This is sort of how I’m feeling about the ascension of Jesus.
I’ve been reading my Bible in a serious way for almost twenty years. I’ve been preaching out it for fifteen. Until recently I hadn’t spent much time studying or thinking about Jesus’ ascension. I’m up to speed on the implications of his life, death, and resurrection. I can go on and on about the various theories, fantasies, and delusions associated with his return. But if you had asked me a couple of months ago about the ascension, I would have stumbled around searching for something intelligent to say. After still not being able to find what I was looking for, I’d finally observe the obvious and say that in a universe of cause and effect, in order to return someday, Jesus first had to leave.
But is that all there is to the ascension? Is it merely a narrative device for evacuating Jesus from the world so that his followers can still have something to look forward to?
I can’t go for that.
No can do.
So I’ve been paying closer attention to what the Bible actually says about the ascension and teasing out some of its implications in my teaching. Now that I’ve finally made it to the ascension party, I can’t believe what I’ve been missing. The ascension is just as integral to the Christian story as is Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and future return. It’s too important not to talk about. Yet, I bet you can count on less than one finger how many ascension sermons you’ve heard before.
Perhaps what has surprised me the most about the ascension is how essential it is to developing a healthy Christian perspective on politics. Before we get into the political implications of the ascension, lets take a look at the ascension itself.
One of the most bothersome questions to me in all of this has been: if the ascension is so important, then how have I been able to overlook it for so long? It’s certainly not because the Bible doesn’t talk about it that much. The ascension gets lots of play in Paul’s letters (Phil. 2:9; Eph. 4:7-9). Peter explains in Acts 2 that Jesus’ ascension is an integral part of him being revealed as both Lord and Christ. It shows up in some of the most famous passages in Hebrews (1:3; 4:16-19; 12:1-3). John mentions it several times in his gospel as well (6:62; 13:3; 20:17).
Luke is the only writer who describes the actual event. He gives a quick summary of it in Luke 24 and then expands his description a bit in Acts 1:9. He tells us that as Jesus is speaking his final words to his disciples “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”
I think this is one of the hardest scenes in the Bible to imagine. Maybe this is why it’s been so easy for me to overlook or maybe even avoid. What exactly is Luke saying happens to Jesus in this scene? Is he the first astronaut? Does he suddenly lift off the ground, pass through the blue of the atmosphere and into the black of space, zooming past the moon and then Mars and then out of our solar system, hurtling through galaxies until he finally comes to the edge of space (the final frontier) where heaven is?
To the ancients, this might have seemed like a plausible explanation, but to those of us on this side of the Copernican revolution it seems less likely (Then again, I’m not sure the ancients would have subscribed to such an interpretation either.). This doesn’t mean the ascension has to be a mythical fairy tale. How we read this story depends largely on where we think heaven is. What if instead of seeing heaven as being above the sky and across space, we imagine it to be the unseen realm of creation that is fully inhabited by the glory of God? Heaven is God’s space and the earth is ours. Even though heaven and earth are very different, they are not far away from each other. (For more on this, check out N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope).
If you like science fiction or have fooled your friends into believing you actually understand what quantum physics is all about, it might be helpful to think of heaven and earth as two parallel worlds existing side by side or as alternative realities that sometimes overlap with each other, but still maintain their unique properties of space and time. (I really do understand quantum physics, I promise.) When Jesus ascends he is crossing from one reality into another.
If you prefer an image from the book of Hebrews over sci-fi then see how this skull cap fits your brain. Imagine that there is an unseen curtain separating heaven and earth (Heb. 6:19). No matter where we are in the world, the curtain is there with us. Heaven is never far away. Should the curtain part even just a bit, the glory of heaven would shine through. Of course the Christian hope is that someday the curtain will lift and our world will be filled with the glory of God in a way that currently stupefies our imaginations. When Jesus ascends, he disappears behind the curtain and crosses over into the realm of creation known as heaven.
So what does all this mean? Well, a big clue is that Jesus is taken up in a cloud. In Scripture, a cloud is symbolic of the glory or presence of God. In the Old Testament, a cloud descends on the tabernacle/temple to show that God has entered the building. Jesus is enveloped by a cloud at the transfiguration. From the cloud, the voice of God speaks and Jesus shines with the glory of God. To say that Jesus is taken up in a cloud is to say that he was glorified in the presence of God.
To say that he was “taken up” is to say that he was exalted. Just like saying that someone who was “taken down” or “brought low” was humiliated. The ascension finishes the arc of Jesus time on earth that Paul describes in Philippians 2:6-11. Jesus descends from heaven to earth and humbles himself not only as a man, but as a criminal on a cross. From his lowly position he is lifted up and exalted to the highest place in heaven. The ascension does more than just say “Jesus has left the building.” It also says, “Watch as the risen Jesus is glorified and enthroned as Lord of all creation.”
So where is Jesus, right now? The risen, exalted, glorified Jesus is in heaven, just behind the curtain, sitting at the right hand of the Father, exercising God's authority as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And, believe or not, he’s doing it with a resurrected, and therefore transformed, human body. There is no reason to assume that his body dissolved when he ascended. Jesus’ resurrection validated him as the Son of God. His resurrection body was one his rewards for his faithful sacrifice. Why would he jettison it so quickly? Why would his resurrection body be unsuitable for heaven?
We sometimes confuse the risen Jesus with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost and fills the church with a down payment of God’s presence, giving us limited access to what is going on behind the curtain in heaven. Jesus didn’t become the Holy Spirit at his ascension. He sent it from heaven where he currently sits on his throne, still both fully God and fully human.
This gives the ascension a mind-blowing political implication. The ascension means that the world already has a human king sitting on his throne and reigning from heaven. Not all of creation has acknowledged his reign at present, but Scripture promises that someday every knee will bow before him and every tongue will confess that he is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).
Rome had her emperors. Other countries have kings and dictators. Some have prime ministers. The United States has a president. They all rule their given territories with whatever authority has been vested in their position. But the world already has a King. We’re not waiting for him to take the throne or be inaugurated. He's already reigning from his throne in heaven. All the powers, presidents, prime ministers, and potentates will ultimately answer to him, whether they currently recognize his authority or not.
This is why we have to be careful as followers of Jesus that we don't put too much faith and energy into national politics and hyper-patriotism. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves trading our Christlikeness for political expediency and bowing down before the idol of nationalism. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be involved in politics, but rather we should let the reality of Jesus’ ascension influence how deeply we choose to participate in the process and what we hope to gain from our engagement.
The world will not be healed and restored because we elect the right president. We live in a great country, with the best political process I know of, but our country is not the light of the world. Our president may be the most powerful person in the world, but he's not sitting at the right hand of God. Our military is full of brave men and women willing to die for their country, but they are not able to eradicate the world of evil.
Christians should understand these things better than anyone else. Yet the anxious, fearful, and sometimes mean-spirited qualities demonstrated by many Christians at election time betrays just how little faith we have in King Jesus.
The ascension is more than a cool special effect at the end of a Passion play. It is a dramatic political statement made by God himself about how the long-awaited King of the world has been enthroned in heaven. Slowly but surely news of his reign will spread through the world until someday the curtain separating heaven and earth will lift and the two realms will become one. Until then, our challenge as followers of Jesus is to live in such a way that demonstrates who the real King of the world is. This will be seen in our acts of service, stands for justice, and exhibitions of grace done in the name of Jesus, rather than in the name of partisan politics. In fact, every time we gather to worship and celebrate the risen, ascended King Jesus we’re participating in a political party of a different kind.
It may just be that the most important political statement Christians can make this election season is to publicly declare that we’re putting our hope, confidence, and trust, not in any one particular candidate or party, but in our ascended King who will someday return and transform our world into a place where the streets have no name.
Wade is a graduate of Abilene Christian University where he received degrees in communication and Christian Ministry. He has been married to Heather since October of 1996. They have two young sons, Caleb and Elijah.
While Wade will preach on just about anything, he especially loves to speak on the topics of faith development, male spirituality, and missional theology. He also likes to tell a story or two when he gets the chance.
His favorite part of sermon preparation is going to the movies.
He served as the Preaching Minister for the Sterling Drive Church of Christ in Bellingham, Washington for six years. He has been the Teaching Minister at the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma since March of 2003.
You can read his blog at [www.wadehodges.com].