Out of the Picture?
A Sermon on Acts 1:1-11
In the Presbyterian Church, before you can be ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, you have to pass written examinations and an oral examination given by a committee of the Presbytery. In my case it was the examinations committee of New Hope Presbytery, and they met in Rocky Mount. In the weeks leading up to that exam, I just knew the committee was going to ask me something obscure, like, “What does the statement ‘he ascended into heaven’ mean?” I couldn’t recall talking about the ascension in any of my classes, and I couldn’t remember any sermons I had heard on it. About all I could say about it was that it was a way to tie up the loose ends of the story of Jesus’ life on earth.
Now I knew that answer wouldn’t cut it with the committee, so I had to study up on it. As it turned out, the committee didn’t ask that question, and I was off the hook.
But it’s a question that demands attention. Every year, forty days after Easter, Ascension Day appears on the Christian calendar. But even more than that, for over a thousand years, the church has stood every Sunday, and repeated these words: “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.” What does that mean? If it’s in the creed, it’s important. But why?
In a book called The Creed in Christian Teaching, James Smart says that Sunday Schools have been known to use a series of slides to picture the ascension. The first slide shows Jesus hovering in the air just above his disciples’ heads. He looks big. Then each slide shows him higher up and getting smaller and smaller, until Jesus is out of the picture altogether. (In Winn, A Christian Primer, p. 140.)
Now I know that the story can lead people to picture the ascension that way, as if Jesus takes off from the earth like a rocket and disappears above the clouds. But there’s a problem with that picture. The main point of the story is not to move Jesus out of the picture. The point isn’t that Jesus got smaller and smaller until he disappeared. Isn’t the point really that Jesus got bigger and bigger? The point of the story is to help Jesus’ disciples to see with the eyes of faith a much greater, grander picture of the way things are, a great vision of where Jesus is and what Jesus is doing.
Sometimes it certainly feels as though Jesus is out of the picture. Where can Jesus be when every day there are new reports of atrocities? Where can Jesus be when so few people consult him in decision making, whether it’s on a small scale or a large scale? Where can he be when everybody seems to be going their own way, people, families, nations going their own way, and so much of what is happening is not God’s will or way? Where can Jesus be when there’s all this hurt? He seems out of the picture, and even worse, there are those who want him out of the picture.
It must have been wonderful for the first disciples to have Jesus so near and so touchable, to be able to ask him questions and to hear him answer just as clearly as we hear one another. If we could just talk with him, face to face, maybe we would know the way better and follow it better. Maybe we would understand things better and be able to hang in there better. Seems like things would be so much easier for us.
But that wasn’t God’s plan. A good-bye was part of God’s plan.
The story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a good-bye story, but it is not a disappearance story. The disciples had to say good-bye to the way in which they had always known Jesus. Good-bye to being able to see him with physical eyes. But that was only so that they could say hello to knowing Jesus in a new way, to seeing Jesus with the eyes of faith through the Holy Spirit.
What would they see? When Paul spoke of the ascension, he told the Ephesians, “I’m praying for you, that you can see with the eyes of your hearts the hope and the power of God that has raised Christ from the dead and seated Christ at his right hand, far, far above any earthly ruler.”
The ascension means good-bye to the earthly ministry of the man named Jesus, but hello to the King of the whole universe! God lifted Jesus up to occupy the highest throne there is: the throne at God’s right hand. It was God’s plan to lift up the one who was crushed on the cross, and make him ruler over all: over everything and everybody, not just over the few who were privileged to see him with physical eyes so many years ago.
That is what the ascension is: God lifts Jesus up and crowns him Lord of all. That is why the story says that a cloud took Jesus out of their sight. Remember that cloud? We’ve seen it before. It’s the same cloud of God that went ahead of the Israelites to lead them on their journey to the Promised Land. It’s the same cloud that covered Mount Sinai when Moses met God on the mountaintop. It’s the same cloud that surrounded Jesus, Peter, James and John on the mountain of transfiguration. God’s voice came out of the cloud, and God told the disciples to listen to Jesus. The cloud is a symbol of the presence of God. When people are caught up in the cloud, they are caught up in the embrace of God.
God enveloped Jesus, lifted him up, and gave him power and authority and a name that is above every other name. The one who died the death of the lowest of the low is now the highest of the high. Through the Holy Spirit, the living Lord Jesus Christ is utterly free to be a work everywhere, and in all times. The ascension story is the coronation of the king. God has gone up with a shout Psalm 47 says. Amen! That’s right!
Now Jesus Christ is acting and ruling everywhere from the highest throne there is. That is a more accurate picture of the ascension than the rocket-ship image, an image of a great and glorious ruler over and above all things, all times, all people, all places.
But it is true that people are still resisting Christ’s rule. Even we who love Jesus Christ resist his rule, choosing to center our lives on ourselves, our own comforts, wants and wishes. Is Christ’s power really as great as Paul says it is?
Yes it is. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. That means that everything must finally submit to his will. God is steadily, steadily, day in, day out working towards his ultimate goal. Nothing can stop God, not even sin. Christ the Lord even subdues sin and makes it do his bidding.
No, I’m not saying that he wills the sin in the first place. I’m saying that he takes the sin that happens and bends it to fulfill his purposes. To put that another way, God will not let the enemy win. Sometimes we can see God working good things out. But often we can’t see, and we just have to trust the God who can see the big picture, the one who designed the big picture, the one who can see over everything. Though the wrong seems often so strong, and though it is often so painful, God is the ruler yet.
Where is Jesus? Jesus isn’t out of the picture. Jesus is over the picture and under it, and all around it and all through it. He is living and reigning everywhere, doing his good will even in the places where he seems to be absent. Jesus Christ is Lord.
The ascension story points us to this marvelous mystery, where Jesus is. But it also tells us where we are headed. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God, and your God,” the risen Christ declared. “You’re going where I’m going,” he had promised them earlier. Home to God.
Everything Jesus did was for our benefit: he died for our benefit. He rose for our benefit. Now he has ascended into heaven for our benefit. Because he rose from the dead, we will, too. Because he ascended into heaven, into the very presence of God, we will, too.
Christ has blazed the trail for us into heaven, into the very heart of God. That’s where we’re going to live. We’re going to be caught up and wrapped in the cloud of God’s presence. That is our eternal dwelling place, in the gracious, loving heart of God forever.
Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, and he has carried out dear ones there. He picks up worn out, broken people, and heals them there, near to the heart of God. He is Lord. Christ our God reigns—even over death.
He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. Crown him with many crowns!