Why Jesus Had to Go: A Sermon for the Celebration of the Ascension
This week is the celebration of the Ascension, which is bound to make more than a few of us a little nervous. Most of us can easily discuss the significance of the life of Jesus, his teaching, his death, and his resurrection, but his ascension? Not so much.
I can never remember if it’s Istanbul or Constantinople, but whichever it is, it’s part of the ancient Byzantine Empire. The Greeks called it Anatolia—the place of the rising sun. The scriptures call it Asia Minor. Today we call it Turkey. It was once home to the city of Tarsus, the kingdom of Troy, two of the Seven Wonders of the World, perhaps the oldest Christian church on the planet (The Hagia Sophia, 537AD), and some of the most beautiful cathedrals ever built.
For six hundred years Christianity flourished in the Byzantine Empire. Kings, queens, and rulers would spend a small fortune building massive Cathedrals that housed incredible works of art and literature. Today, most of them are in various stages of disintegration and collapse. (take moment to Google the images. They are stunning).
Ani Cathedral is perched alone on a barren hillside near the border between Turkey and Armenia. It’s a domed cruciform church completed in 1001AD would house Christian worship for a mere seventy years before it was turned into a mosque. Oshki Monastery (973AD), was a major center of art and literature during the Middle Ages; its stonework—centuries ahead of its time—now overgrown with weeds and shrubs. Oskvank Cathedral (960AD), was constructed by the sons of a Georgian King named David. It had a church refectory and a scriptorium where ancient manuscripts were copied by hand. It remained a major center for Christian thought until the 15th Century. Ishkhani Cathedral (641AD), Otkhta Cathedral (961)… they are all incredibly beautiful even as they are abandoned as ruins.
These once inspired churches with their art, frescoes, sculpture, carvings and architecture are now plundered shells of a bygone Christian era that has come and gone. Anatolia’s slow transition from a predominantly Greek-speaking Christian people to a Turkish-speaking Muslim people took place over the first century of the second millennium. The Mongols took over in the thirteenth century. Islam took root. Within a few centuries the Christians were gone. Turkey is now 99% Muslim.
One could argue that wars, politics, earthquakes, acid rain, and neglect destroyed the cathedrals of Anatolia, but the truth is that they were destroyed by a powerful foe named absence.
Perhaps this was the concern nagging at the heart of Jesus’ disciples in the days that followed the resurrection. Two thousand years later we know the answers, but at the time there was only one question that mattered: What would happen to this fragile gospel community once their central figure was gone?
In the two hundred years either side of the cross there were a good ten or twelve Jewish Messianic movements. Each one flourished around a central figure promising signs and wonders, political deliverance, and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Each one ended with the death of its central figure, except for one. For some strange reason Christ’s followers never stopped following. In fact, they began claiming that Christ had been raised from the dead. Yet, in the days before the ascension, as Jesus popped in and out without warning, the questioned still loomed large. How would the kingdom Jesus inaugurated continue in his absence? Would they crumble like those Byzantine Cathedrals? Or, could they find a way to flourish.
“In the last days,” the prophet Joel foresaw, “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; your sons & daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions... even on the male & female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” The followers of Yahweh, always on the wrong side of history, were expecting not only a new political reality, but a new spiritual reality as well. Of course they thought of the kingdom of God in nationalistic terms, but none of it could ever last if Jesus’s promise were left unfulfilled. Something—someone—would need to counter this absence with a presence.
“I am going to send you what my Father has promised,” Jesus said, “but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” The promise will become more explicit with next week’s text. “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.”
This kingdom advances as the spirit of God comes to life within the hearts of the people, and in the life of the very community itself. It spreads by witnesses, not by soldiers or wars, and it is preserved in the absence of Christ’s physical presence, by a new spiritual presence. Yet on that day when Jesus disappeared into heaven, they had to be standing there going, “What just happened? Did you see that? Where did he go?”
Jesus’ absence created an acute theological crisis. Absence is actually kind of a fascinating thing. Absence can only be felt after some kind of presence has been interrupted. Absence is only difficult when the presence has been meaningful in some way. Our kids spent a week with their grandparents most summers. When they are gone I feel their absence all week. I’m used to their presence. Their presence is meaningful to me.
The stronger the presence, the more powerful the absence; this is why there’s so much pain involved when children go off to college, or when we lose a job, or a loved one. Jesus’s presence meant everything to his disciples, & now all of the sudden he was gone. His absence caused a powerful crisis.
If you think about it, Jesus’ absence is still causing a crisis. His absence among the human community explains much of the tension and trouble we experience day in and day out. Christ’s absence can be devastating because Christ’s presence is so powerful and good.
In a world where interpersonal communication is increasingly mediated through a screen, there seems to be a kind of absence creeping into our everyday presence. How often are you with someone who is not really with you? Though they are sitting right next to you, they are tethered by a screen to somewhere else—someone else. They are present to an absent someone, and absent to a present someone. Presence in absence, absence in presence, this is our current reality.
The drive to find presence in his absence would sensitize Jesus’ followers to the power of the Holy Spirit. His presence meant everything. His absence was devastating. His Spirit would solve the crisis. The church would not crumble, disintegrate, or flounder, because his kingdom advances as the spirit of God comes to live within the hearts of the people and the community itself.
So, in small ways, and incomplete ways, but nevertheless real ways God is doing in and through you, what God did in and through Jesus. God’s Spirit was present with Jesus. Now it is present within you and me. Just as Jesus bore witness to the good news of God’s redemption, not you and I bear witness. The key part of this transition, however, was the reason for the crisis: Jesus had to go.
And now we come to the real significance of the ascension. In order for Jesus to accomplish his mission, and God to move his plan for the redemption of all things into its next phase, Jesus would have to leave.
The Hebrew view of the universe was that heaven and earth are not totally separate realms. They are two conjoined dimensions. Earth is the realm where we live. Heaven is where God lives… so to speak. The two dimensions are separated as if by a veil. The New Testament seems to indicate that after the resurrection, Jesus is able to navigate both dimensions at once. He was at home both on earth and in heaven. He was still fully human. He could touch people. He ate meals. Yet he was able to be present in a dimension the rest of us can only glimpse on rare occasions when the veil between heaven and earth grows thin.
He ascended to whatever is beyond this dimension, and there we have a very limited frame of reference. The bible doesn’t give us a lot of detail about it. I’m skeptical of those who claim to by privy to the details of a dimension far beyond our pay grade. What we know is that Jesus lives on—still fully incarnated, still in bodily form—reigning and ruling as a part of the community of the Triune God. And this means something very important for us as persons. It means that we have a fully sympathetic representative in that place. Someone who is fully human—just like us—is now there on the other side, at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf.
His promise, as he left, was that in his absence he would send the gift of the Holy Spirit to be the presence of God to his people. The Holy Spirit is nothing short of the power and presence of God that has been unleashed into the world. The Spirit of Christ lives on in the world thru you and me, as we’re drawn into this new community. After all of these centuries Christians still have the audacity to believe the church can be the place where God is present in the world, even though Jesus is no longer present among us.
The church is not in ruins, no matter the state of our ancient cathedrals. Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way: “The roof may be gone, and there may be sheep grazing in the nave, but Christ is still there—half a face, with one wide eye looking right at us, one hand raised in endless benediction—still giving his blessing to a ruined church. He cannot, or will not, be separated from his body. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”