May 12, 2024

He Ascended into Heaven

He Ascended into Heaven

12 May Easter 7: Ascension
Readings: Acts 1. 1-11; Eph. 1. 15-23; Lk. 24. 44-52
Theme: He ascended into Heaven.

Today we are celebrating the feast of the Ascension of the Lord into Heaven. It is a major feast in the church (even a public holiday in Germany which was hard fought for by the trade unions back in the day!), and it calls us to reflect on one of the central doctrines of the creed, namely, that Jesus ‘ascended into heaven’. What does this mean that Jesus ascended into heaven?
Now this is clearly not a straight forward question and no sermon could possibly ever answer this question in a way which leaves no matter unexplored. Nevertheless, the point of Christian doctrines is not that they should present us with a brick wall of impenetrability when we try to understand our faith, but rather that they should open us up to a revealed mystery, a mystery which unveils a truth that is truly good news for us. In other words, doctrines teach us about what our salvation means and how the Lord effects these mysteries in our lives, so it is important that we take the time to reflect on them.

So, let’s begin our exploration of the meaning of the ascension of the Lord into heaven by considering why it is that the Lord departs from us at the end of the period which the church designates as ‘Eastertide’. As John 16. 7 teaches us, Jesus leaves us so that the Advocate/Paraclete (Holy Spirit) will come to us. There is an intrinsic connection between the absence of the resurrected Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit or Advocate. But what is it? Why does one require the other? The answer to this question is given earlier on in John’s Gospel at John 4. 23, when it is said, ‘But the hour is coming—indeed it is already here—when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth’. In other words, in order that the will of the Father shall be fulfilled it is necessary that Jesus returns to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit. It is the sending of the Holy Spirit which allows us to worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. This phrase, ‘returning to the Father’, means that Jesus had to die for our sins so that we could be redeemed, so that the Holy Spirit could wash us clean. Jesus’s departure at the ascension is thus already announced by his death, his first departure from us. At his death, he leaves the disciples for three days, his body is absent from them, and after this his resurrected body will be made present to them through the action of the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son. This sending of the Holy Spirit makes us new creatures, members of the New Creation, who have been ‘inspired’ to worship the Father in spirit and in truth. That is to say, the Holy Spirit is the one who worships the Father in us. This act of true worship fulfills the message of Jesus, that God is love, and to worship God is to love God with the love which is God. This is the truth we are called to worship in, namely, that God is our Father and that we are to love him with all our being. It is the meaning of worshipping the Father in spirit and in truth, and this is the goal of our redemption brought about through the death and resurrection of Christ, so that we too can now worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Consequently, we are revealed by the ascension of the Lord to be homo adorans, ‘worshipping beings’ who achieve fulfillment when we discover our true purpose of worshipping the Father in this way.

But if this is why the Lord departs from us, namely, so that through his death and resurrection, we can now fulfill our purpose of worshipping the Father in spirit and in truth, what is the meaning of the Lord ascending into heaven? What is meant by heaven here?

In a sense, the answer to this question has already been given by the answer to the first question of, why the Lord departs? Heaven is the place where the Father resides. It is the place of the victory of God through the self-offering of the Son on the cross, the eternal home prepared for us from all eternity, where we will share, through adoption, in the infinite love between the Father and the Son, who is the Holy Spirit: the vinculum caritatis (chain of love). As John 17. 24 puts it, ‘Father I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world’. As a result of seeing this glory, which is called the ‘beatific vision’ in Christian theology, we share in the overwhelming love between the Father and the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit who adopts us into the Son. This adoption means that we are grafted into the true vine; the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Just as the branches are grafted and pruned by the vinedresser (Father), so that they may bear even more fruit (John 15. 1-2), so too, through his ascension, is a place prepared for us at the right hand of the Father with the Son. In other words, it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to go home, to go and to join the Lord Jesus in heaven at the right hand of the Father.

The name of this pruning or preparation by the Holy Spirit is called the process of sanctification. This is the process of being made holy so that we are able to share in the eternal love between the Father and the Son, which is the Holy Spirit. The place of this union with God, we call ‘heaven’. It is traditionally associated with the heights, the top of the mountain, the summit or the peak, and so the imagery of ascension into heaven expresses the mystery of our faith that our return to God, our union with God in the Son through the Holy Spirit, is an intensification, a raising of us up to an ultimate peak of perfection of which this earthly life gives us occasional glimpses, or tasters as Psalm 34. 8 speaks of it: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’.

It is therefore, little surprise, that we humans are often in search of ‘peak experiences’ in life. The perfect partner, the ideal home, the best place to live and work and so on. All of these natural desires that we often long for are echoes of a supernatural desire within us to go home to God. We desire to return to our heavenly home in order to share in the eternal life for which we have been created. This is a desire for the life of infinite love that the ascension of the Lord to the right hand of the Father prepares for us through enabling the Holy Spirit to come and to ‘inspire’ us to worship him in spirit and in truth.

Happy Feast of the Ascension of the Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.