Ascension: What does it mean?

Posted by on Jun 19, 2014 in Faith Words |

Words of Faith

Rev. Rita S. Platt

June 1, 2014

Ascension: What does it mean?

 

Scripture: Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Today is one of those relatively obscure days on our liturgical calendar. This is the day when we celebrate the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. In all honesty, the ascension is a rather difficult idea for the modern mind to handle. It’s the story of how Jesus went to the Mount of Olives after his resurrection from the dead. There, according to Luke, Jesus literally flew off into heaven. In Acts “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9).

In the first century, the understanding of the cosmos was very different from ours. People understood heaven to be a place that was literally, geographically, “up” from the earth. They could visualize Jesus leaving them and going “up” into heaven. With our scientific view of the cosmos, we know there is no up or down in the universe. Even our notion of heaven is not of a geographical location or direction. When contemporary people think of the ascension, it is a little hard to imagine the Lord Jesus Christ flying off like a one-person space shuttle into the skies.

Yet, despite our scientific reservations, the story of the ascension is spiritually important to us. The ascension was the church’s way of dealing with a fundamental fact. The earliest disciples had experienced the bodily presence of the risen Lord, the one who was no longer under the claim of death. After a passage of time, this experience of the risen Lord as bodily present with them seemed to pass. They had to go forward without his physical presence.

Christians today have the same circumstance. We believe in a risen Lord who is no longer physically present. The body of Jesus is not here any longer, except in the church as the body of Christ. So on Ascension Sunday, it is important to think about what Jesus’ physical absence means for Christians today.

First, the absence of the physical Jesus calls us to take seriously the church as the body of Christ. This is a concept with which we all are very familiar. We say that the church is the body of Christ without much thought. Most of the time when we think of church our mind goes to a different image:

Here is the church; Here is the steeple

            Open the doors; See all the people.

 

That little finger play reinforced the church as building – a place you go to. They didn’t have that concept in the first century. They understood church as the gathered community. They gathered for a purpose.

Acts 2:42: Devoting themselves constantly to the instruction and fellowship of the             apostles, to the breaking of bread (including the Lord’s Supper) and to prayer.

 

It is vital for us to return to this understanding because the church is often thought of as just one more volunteer community organization. Now civic clubs do good work; health-related charities appeal to us, especially if we have lost a loved one to the disease the charity seeks to overcome; organizations that support our schools do important work. But none of these organizations are the body of Christ. Only the church is Jesus among us.

Second, Ascension Sunday reminds us that we are each, individually, a part of Christ’s body. When we neglect our part in the mission of the church, we disable the body of Christ. As Paul said, each of us is a physical part of the body of Christ. We are the arms and legs, the eyes and ears; we are limbs and organs of Christ’s present body. When we fail to do our part, the body becomes disabled.

Many persons work tirelessly to overcome physical disability. Double-amputee snowboarding champ, Amy Purdy, lost both of her legs as a teenager. She pushed to become a world-champion adaptive snowboarder. Some of you may have watched her on the past season of Dancing with the Stars. Week after week one word was repeatedly used…INSPIRATION. And we have used that same word to describe the people we know…struggling daily to learn a new way of being.

But when the body of Christ becomes disabled because we don’t do our part, “inspiring” is not the word. Sometimes others in the body try to over-function…taking on more and more responsibilities…causing them to burn out. At other times the church limps along unable to do vital ministries. The result: Christ’s presence is less than it could be.

Last, Ascension Sunday reminds us that if Christ’s work is to continue, it is up to us to do it. Now that is not to say we receive no godly help. Next Sunday is Pentecost, and we will celebrate our empowerment by the Holy Spirit. But this divine help comes to empower us in doing the work of Christ. Jesus is no longer here to touch the one others label as “the outcast.” He is no longer here to feed the hungry. He is no longer here to show the unconditional love of God. It is up to us, the body of Christ, to continue this work. If the church fails to be the body of Christ, Jesus is absent. If the church fails to be the body of Christ, then Jesus has left the building.