A sermon in my continuing series on the Apostles’ Creed.
Departure scenes almost always feel heavy and sad, don’t they? You can easily picture it in your mind. A man and woman embrace at the airport, one obviously flying to some far-flung place. There are tears. There is sorrow on each face. There is one long last look over the shoulder as the departing person passes through the security gate. Departure terminals aren’t the most joyful places to spend time. The one who is left behind often goes with hunched shoulders out the door and into – well, it almost has to be rain, doesn’t it.
As we continue our series on the Apostles’ Creed today, another departure scene is set before our eyes. It is the departure of Jesus from his disciples and, indeed, from our world. The New Testament tells us that Jesus stayed with his disciples forty days after his resurrection – and then came his ascension to glory. In a sense, of course, we are getting ahead of ourselves since the church year sets aside May 21st of 2009 for the celebration of the Ascension. But since we are making our way through the Apostles’ Creed, we arrive at the Ascension a little earlier than usual.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third rose again, he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.
Throughout the New Testament there are references to the ascension of Jesus – explicit and implicit references to the fact that he has gone up to sit at the right hand of God – that he is in heaven. In terms of an actual description of the ascension, the closest we get are the accounts given at the end of the Gospel of Luke and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles’. Of course Luke and Acts were both written by the same person – they were both written by Luke. It’s for that reason we sometimes refer to these books together Luke-Acts. They are two stories in one larger narrative.
The gospel of Luke of course tells the story of Jesus’ life – of his days on the earth, of his suffering, his death, and of his resurrection. And at the end of the Jesus story comes the ascension.
The Acts of the Apostles’ on the other hand tells the story of the beginnings of the Church. And at the very start of the church story is the ascension.
So the Ascension is the end point of one story – the Jesus story. And the ascension is the starting point of another story – the church story.
Departure scenes – they are so often difficult, sad affairs, aren’t they? If you haven’t been involved in such a scene yourself, you’ve no doubt seen them in films or read of them in novels. In a departure scene a relationship is either coming to an end or at least entering a new phase of distance – thus there is almost always heaviness and sorrow. Distance and separation are anticipated, and with these there is an uncertainty and sadness that enters the relationship. Departures scenes are almost always heavy.
Yet with Jesus’ departure, it’s interesting that we don’t see these heavy emotions. We read: “While Jesus was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”
Jesus ascends in this mysterious departure, leaving them behind, leaving them to enter a reality from which they are in some profound sense cut off. And their response is one of great joy.
They aren’t sad. They aren’t grief-stricken that their companion and Lord is removed from them. Rather, they are joyful. But why?
Perhaps they are joyful because the ascension of Jesus, the departure of Jesus, makes sense. It is the right thing for Jesus. Perhaps they are joyful because the ascension is an appropriate ending to his life, to his ministry, to his post-resurrection sojourn with them. As we confess in the Creed, Jesus ascended to sit at the Father’s right hand – and that is an appropriate place for him. It is an appropriate end for the one who lived the truly human life, who offered himself in love for the world, whose way of humble service has been vindicated in resurrection – exaltation to the throne-room of God is the right ending for vindicated God-man.
The disciples are filled with joy at Jesus’ ascension, because this is the best, most fitting end to the Jesus story. What matters is that the Son of God is receiving the acclaim and vindication that belong to him.
As we think about this we realize that this isn’t actually too far from our own experience. Even in our departure scenes there can be a note of hope and confidence. As in other sermons I would appeal here to my own experience – perhaps you can think of a parallel experience in your own life. Just 7 months after I met Becky, and after we had begun to get to know each other, she left to spend two years in West Africa. I remember very well that departure scene – as Becky went through the gate at Pearson Airport – it was a very sad moment for me. I was going to miss her. Yet on another level it was not a sad event. Her departure meant that she was going where she was supposed to go – into an experience of service and learning and growth that was right for her.
From our own experience we can attest that departure scenes are not only heavy – for inevitably they can be moments in which the one who departs embarks on a season of life to which God has invited him or her – they go to a place or event or to an experience that is right for them in this moment.
The disciples know that Jesus goes to the place he belongs – so they are not sad. They return to Jerusalem with great joy.
Before we continue to explore the joy of the disciples we should perhaps briefly attend to a question that might be in our mind. This question: Where is Jesus? What does it mean that Jesus ascended? Did the ancients believe that Jesus had somehow gone up beyond the sky and was now hiding behind a distant star – biding his time until his return? Did he ascend beyond the celestial spheres of ancient cosmology, into the heavens that supposedly lay beyond?
No doubt the ancients, and those who belonged to the New Testament era, had a different cosmology than we have – we who live after Copernicus and Galileo and Newton.
Nevertheless, the question of where Jesus is, was just as much a mystery to them as it is to us.
Too often we look back on the ancient world and think: “Well, back then people could believe stuff like that – back then could believe in the resurrection of dead people – back then they could believe in the ascension of people into heaven.”
But in the New Testament world resurrection was just as impossible as now. In the early church the ascension of Jesus to heaven was just as impossible as it is now.
The writers of the New Testament, and the early church confessed the resurrection of Jesus, and confessed his ascension, because this was true to what they had seen and heard. It didn’t completely make sense, but this is what they saw, they heard, they believed.
But we come back to the question. Where is Jesus? The simple answer is that he is in heaven. To say that he is in heaven is to say that he is with the Father who is beyond time and beyond space – he now has his life and existence outside of the motions of time and outside the dimension and confines of space. Where is Jesus? In one sense, we don’t know. We have no idea. It is a profound mystery.
At the same time we confess – he is with the father in heaven. As Jesus puts it in the 16th chapter of John’s gospel, the Son of Man ascends to where he was before. He returns to the place from which he came – his place with God the father.
Where is the risen and ascended Jesus? We don’t know.
Where is the risen and ascended Jesus? He is with the Father, beyond the confines of the created order – outside of the time and space, the world, we inhabit.
But enough of the where question. We come back to the disciples and their joy.
And doing so we can perhaps add this word – that there joy is also rooted in the fact hat Jesus’ departure will occasion something wonderful. In the Acts of the Apostles, just before Jesus ascends, he says to the disciples: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” There is a genuine absence of Jesus. And yet the disciples await the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit – a powerful presence of God that will mark the creation of the church.
The Spirit will give his followers courage as they share his love.
The Spirit will remind them of who Jesus was and is.
The Spirit will put them in touch with the departed Jesus.
The Spirit will fill them with love for one another.
The Spirit will give gifts by which men and women can serve one another and reach out to others.
Here again – the ascension of Jesus, the departure of Jesus, is not a sad or heavy event. The ascension marks a new possibility for the followers of Jesus and indeed for the world – an immediate presence of God with his people in a way that had not previously been the case. Surely this is a reason for joy – not only for the first disciples, but for you and me, inheritors of that gift of the Holy Spirit.
A third and final reason for the disciples’ joy.
In the Acts of the Apostles’ we read that after Jesus had disappeared from among them, two angels appeared alongside the disciples and said to them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand 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.”
Jesus has ascended, he has departed. But the promise of the angels is that just as he has ascended, so will he descend. He has departed, but he will return. He will come back to them, to be with them, to dwell with them. Their joy, then, flows from their conviction that this same Jesus, who departs now, will return to them.
What will that return look like?
What does it mean?
These are questions we leave open for today – today we simply acknowledge the joy of the disciples in knowing that Jesus’ departure is not permanent. He will return. This is reason for joy.
Throughout this series on the Apostles’ Creed, we have acknowledged that we live in a sceptical society – at least, in a society that is sceptical about the faith handed down in the church. Doubt comes at us again this morning.
When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus the response is – that’s impossible.
When it comes to the ascension of Jesus the response is – that’s science fiction.
When it comes to the promise of Jesus’ return the response is – you’re going to be waiting for a long time.
And doubt enters our hearts and minds. In the church there is a crisis of confidence. We have experienced a crisis of faith. When so many around us oppose the possibility
of Jesus’ resurrection,
the possibility of Jesus’ ascension,
the possibility of Jesus’ return,
we feel so much like we are swimming against the tide. Yet swim we must to be true to our faith, true to Christ, and to be true to the joy of the first disciples.
Can we answer every question? No.
Is our faith at heart mysterious? It is.
But why should we apologize for this? Why should we feel insecure about this?
Who, in fact, has an answer for every question?
Who can resolve every mystery?
In the wider culture we swim against the tide – and swim we must.
Not blindly or unintelligently or naively.
But swim against the tide we must – above all, in the confidence and joy of the early disciples. As we swim against the tide, their joy becomes our joy.
What is the source of our joy?
Christ is risen, and with him we are risen to new life.
Sing for joy.
Christ has ascended to the place where he belongs, the place of glory and exaltation at the right hand of the Father.
Sing for joy.
Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell among us, to lead us into the truth, and to equip us for ministry.
Sing for joy.
Jesus will come again in the same way that he departed.
Sing for joy.
Luke 24:51 “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.