The Mystery of the Ascension (Acts 1:1–11; Ephesians 1:15–23; Luke 24:44–53)
Rev. David French
Behold, I tell you a mystery: Christ has ascended into heaven. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’s ascension is indeed a mystery of God. Certainly that’s what St. Paul wrote to Timothy in the third chapter of his first letter where we read, “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great (and then those mysteries of godliness are defined as) He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”
The divine revelation we consider this evening does indeed gives us cause to humble ourselves before Him and reflect on the truth that human wisdom – even a Christian human, truly, can never fully know our God. But then that is the nature of a faith relationship. Many of you have heard me use a paraphrased example from Scripture about the pot and the potter to explain the nature of our relationship with the One who sent His Son to live and die in our place. That is, if you make a salad bowl, how well does it know you? Ridiculous question right? You’re the pot. God is the potter.
You see, we can only know God by what we can learn from nature and the Scriptures, but our God is a God who reveals and hides Himself both for our good. To think we know God is like thinking our salad bowl knows us. The truth is we don’t really know our Lord as well as we would like to think we do.
At times we may deceive ourselves into thinking we have God pretty well figured out. As Christians we speak of the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Christ; things that we’re more familiar with are also divine mysteries. Yet, our familiarity with them tends to demystify or make them ordinary so that they can stand side by side with worldly things, almost like they belong together.
Each December the world celebrates a jolly fellow who comes from the North Pole bringing gifts to the nice, but nothing for the naughty, while the church gathers to hear of the One who comes from the Father, taking on human flesh that He might bring gifts to the naughty, because as we are taught in Romans 3, “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Santa and the incarnation side by side as though they belong together.
In the springtime the world speaks of a bunny that brings tooth-decaying candy to children, while the church gathers to hear of the One who rose from the dead and whose body saw no decay. The world speaks of Mother nature coming to life, and we speak of the One from whose pierced side flowed water and blood so that sinners might be washed clean and made alive with Him who saves us from decay. A bunny and the resurrection side by side as though they belong together
But, we’re not naïve. We know that even many Christians have been tricked into demystifying God’s mysteries, something they do by answering questions God has left unanswered. But, to do that, they have no choice but to turn to the wisdom of the world. The result of those efforts is that, today, many Christians deny the blessings God offers through divine mysteries like baptism and His Supper, while thinking they glorify God with their own good works.
The other side of that coin is that those who do hold His sacred Word often become so familiar with those mysteries of God that we approach them like looking at our watches or like we’re approaching a fast food counter, paying little attention until we’re challenged by someone asking why we do this or that, and we suddenly find we are also looking for more than, “It’s a mystery of God” as an answer because, well, that just isn’t enough.
But with the Ascension of our Lord, we really don’t find very much false teaching. It’s just sort of there in the Creed, quickly said, often without much thought and then forgotten. I mean, when was the last time that you had a discussion with anyone about the mystery of Christ’s Ascension? Christ being taken up in glory just doesn’t come up very often, not even in my world.
When it does, however, we may find the reason we don’t think about it is that, with the Ascension, we’re forced to face the tension that exists between living by faith and living by sight. Maybe that’s why so many churches have stopped having Ascension services. That is, on this day we come face to face with the tension that exists between reason and faith, that place where things just don’t make sense.
I mean, Jesus ascends into heaven, but is always with us. His is seated at the right hand of God, but is also present with His very body and blood in His Supper. Jesus left us so that we can be sure He is with us. And while we believe it all, none of it makes sense … not even to us.
You see we’re simply not able, in and of ourselves, to speak of the Ascension or any other of the mysteries of God with words other than the words He’s given us in the Scriptures. And that always brings us back to the Cross, where we are reminded that because of the things we hide in our hearts, we need what God freely offers in Christ. And by God’s grace through faith, we have it, but as St. Paul reminds us, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
He understands how hard it is to live by faith as he writes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.”
Yes, in the mystery of the Ascension we are often left with more questions than answers, and we see that sin is still alive in us by the fact that we do want, or at least would like, those answers. But, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”
My friends, while we may not understand, we do, by God’s grace, believe. And so our hope is found not in what we see, but in what we have heard from the One who loves us and gave Himself for us that we might be His Own.