Christ is risen, Alleluia!
He is risen indeed, Alleluia;
Acts 1: 1-11
Ephesians 1: 15-23
Matthew 28: 16-20
We say this acclamation because we are still in the season of Easter, but in this service we are celebrating Ascension Day, which falls on Thursday, 40 days after Easter.
Ascension Day is important because it marks the end of the actual historical incarnation, of Jesus’ presence in this world as a human being. Jesus was an actual Jewish man from Galilee, a real person with a human body, human weaknesses, and subject, as such, to illness and death. Thinking (seriously not superficially) about Jesus as an actual individual man in the world forces us to think about our views of the incarnation – which is very good for us!
First, it is the big division between Christianity and other religions – the big monotheist religions (islam, judeaism) worship the one God, Creator of the whole universe, but totally reject God ever becoming a human being. On the other hand, for the religions who accept gods becoming human (Hinduism, the gods of the greeks, romans, and Egyptians in biblical times) it is “a god” not “The God” who becomes a human being. They often had gods who became human, and humans who became gods, but as one of many gods, not the one true God, Creator of the whole world.
This distinction – between a god and the God – was the BIG issue for early Christian theologians – they spent 300 years arguing (& even fighting) over how Jesus could be truly God and yet also a man, and how God could be Jesus the man as well as God-in-heaven, and yet be the one indivisible God. Theologians can split hairs with the best of them, hence the repetitive language of the creeds. If you ever get bored in church, or run out of something to read in lockdown, try the Athanasian creed which you’ll find on page 836 at the back of the big red prayer book. Guaranteed to send you to sleep!
But it is a serious theological point, because it is critical for how we think about ourselves – in modern jargon, it is the basis of our self-esteem as humans. Orthodox Christian theology, which is also what I believe, is that God truly became a man, with all the weaknesses of a man – inadequate knowledge, limited powers, subject to temptation – and therefore we humans, despite having all these frailties, are valued by God. Much more, our humanity is in some way “incarnated, incorporated’ into God, through the person of Jesus in the Trinity.
We therefore must put a very high value on humans and on human nature as such – because God took on that nature. And this is never more critical than now, when views are being expressed that the premature or avoidable deaths of the weak or frail or disabled somehow don’t matter. They do matter, because God values all of human nature.
The period (in human time) of Jesus’ actual worldly presence “in the flesh” lasted from his conception, when the angel announced it to Mary, to his Ascension. Up to his death, clearly he had a real actual human body – he was an individual man living in Galilee. Like all of us, he started life as a helpless child, totally dependent on his parents, and – also like all of us – grew slowly into adulthood. Luke’s gospel says “he grew in stature and wisdom, and God’s favour was upon him.” Not perhaps equally true of us all! – but the point is that Jesus was fully human, he did not suddenly spring into the world fully-grown and all-knowing. Luke’s gospel has the story of the 12 year old Jesus sitting at the feet of the teachers in the temple, learning – clearly he had to learn, just as he had had to learn to walk, talk, think as all human children do.
Then, after his three years of ministry in Galilee and Judah, Jesus was killed. He suffered and died as a man. His body suffered pain, lost blood, weakened and finally died. His dead body was put into a tomb and stayed there for the two nights from Friday to Sunday morning. Then – everything changed – Jesus rose from the tomb, and his physical body was resurrected, transformed into a risen body.
The gospel accounts are clear – and they are the only accounts we have – when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, he had an actual human body – one they could touch, walk alongside, watch prepare and eat food – cook and eat fish on the beach in Galilee. Not a “normal” body, because he could appear and disappear, and they didn’t always recognise him immediately, so there was something different/ unusal – but not an apparition or vision either. He was clearly there in the flesh with them.
After the Ascension, no-one – in nearly 2000 years – has claimed to have seen Jesus in the flesh, to have had Jesus standing there in the room beside them. Saints and mystics from Sts Stephen, at his martyrdom, and Paul on the road to Damascus, onwards, have had visions of Jesus, or (most often) have met or been aware of him as a voice or a light or a loving presence beside them. But no one has ever seen him as an actual human body there in the room with them.
So the Ascension marked the end of this earthly incarnation. And that too is important – because it shows us that all earthly things must end. God is in eternity, but earthly things are not; ultimately, this world will come to an end. Our lives end, though we may like to believe they won’t. Even if we are convinced that God will heal our current sickness – cancer, heart failure, whatever – we do recognize that in the end we will die – though we may well pray “not now, not so soon, not while I still have so much to do”.
The human incarnation of Jesus ended with the Ascension, and our individual human and earthly lives will end with our deaths. But Jesus at his Ascension went to live on eternally with God, and we too will live eternally with God – in whatever reality “heaven” turns out to be. And I recommend reading the passage in Ephesians 1: 15-23 for a wonderful statement of the power and glory of God and of Jesus raised into God’s presence.
Prior to his death, Jesus said to his disciples “because I live, you too will live.” And in the gospel we have just heard `I will be with you always, to the end of time.” We can be confident in Jesus’ promise that, as he is now with the Father, he is also with us. We do indeed have eternal life with him, now and forever.
I finish with the prayer for Ascension Day:
Eternal God, by raising Jesus from the dead you proclaimed his victory, and by his ascension you declared him Lord of all: lift up our hearts to heaven, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen