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Central UMC Blog

The Pastor's Corner: An Important Day We Probably Missed

Posted by Dr. Steven K. Pulliam on

In his book, Give Them Christ, Stephen Seamands tells the story of taking a trip a with his wife and another couple to a Mennonite Community in the Southern Fork area of Case County, Kentucky. Part of their agenda for the day included visiting Nolt’s Bulk Food Store. Seamands comments, “Nolt’s is known for its canned goods, homemade jams, jellies and breads, fresh spices and herbs, and handmade items like soap and hats.”[1] When they arrived at Nolt’s Food Store there was a handwritten sign on the door which read, “Closed Thursday for Ascension Day.”[2]

Ascension Day? Really? Yes. It is a day, and an important one! It slipped by us on Thursday, May 21—40 days after Easter and 10 days before Pentecost. I recognize that, for the most part, many of us in protestant denominations pay little, if any, attention to Ascension Day. Yet, the ascension of Jesus is an important part of our Christian beliefs. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed in worship, we confess the scriptural witness that Jesus “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” Why is this so important that Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father that these two ancient creeds include them as a part of their confession of faith?

Acts 1:6-11 tells the story of Jesus’ ascension. This is what it says, So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (ESV).  Furthermore, Hebrews 10:12 tells us that Jesus sat down at the right hand of God.

As we think of Jesus ascending into heaven and sitting at the right hand of God the Father, we should not think of heaven as a “location” somewhere in the sky or beyond. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright says, “Neither Luke [the author of Acts] nor the other early Christians believed that Jesus had suddenly become a primitive spaceman, heading off into orbit or beyond, so that if you searched throughout the far reaches of what we call ‘space’ you would eventually find him.”[3] Instead, notes Wright, “Jesus has gone into God’s dimension of reality; but he’ll be back on the day when that dimension (heaven) and our present one (earth) are brought back together once and for all.”[4]

But why did Jesus have to ascend? Why didn’t he just physically stay on earth among his followers as he was from that point until now? First, as Timothy Tennent explains, the full exaltation of Christ includes not only his resurrection but also his ascension.

His Ascension back to Heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. … This language conveys that Jesus rules and reigns over all. … He is sovereign in power, glory, and majesty. Christ rules and reigns, which is why the very earliest confession of faith in the Church was the three-word phrase, “Jesus is Lord.[5]

The ascension not only points us to Jesus’ lordship but also to his love. It’s comforting to know that our sovereign, powerful, and majestic Lord loves us! Just as Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection point to God’s love because God is on a search and rescue mission to restore what has been lost, the ascension reminds us of God’s love as well. While there are many reasons why Christ’s ascension is important for us, let me point to just a few.

When we think back to Jesus’ last night on earth, we remember that he said he would not leave his followers orphaned. He even said, "it is better that I go away” (return to the Father) so that Holy Spirit, the Helper, the Spirit of Truth could come to be with us always (see John 16:7, 13). Through the Spirit, Jesus’ presence is not limited spatially to one location. Jesus can be present with us anywhere and everywhere. This tells me that Jesus loves us so much that he wants to spend time with us everywhere. I remember reading somewhere that loving someone means wanting to spend time with them. Or perhaps it could be worded like this, “spending time with someone says, ‘I love you.’” That’s true! We want to spend time with those we love. The same is true for Jesus. So, he says, “It is better that I go away. But I love you too much to leave you orphaned. I want to be with you always.” So out of the same love that brings God in human flesh in Jesus—out of that same love—God comes to us in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Another way the ascension illustrates God’s love is the posture Jesus takes toward the Father on our behalf. In Romans 8:34, the Apostle Paul tells us that “Christ died for us and was raised to life for us, and is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us” (Romans 8:34, NLT). Allow me to point out the obvious: You don’t plead on someone’s behalf unless you love that person immensely.

I caught a glimpse of what this might be like in my late teens when I was home from college on a break. I was going through what I would call a “rough season" of life. I was angry with the world, angry with myself, and most likely experiencing depression. My mother knew it and when she would try to talk to me about it, I would give her the Heisman—you know, the stiff arm and metaphorically pass by her questions and attempts to engage. One morning, she attempted to discuss some struggles she knew I was going through, with no success. Later that afternoon, I had been out with some friends and returned home to find my mother on her knees on the floor of her bedroom interceding for me before the throne of grace. She was speaking my name before God.  Actually, a woman who came to clean our house once a week was there and my mom had her on her knees, too, so she could intercede with my mom on my behalf. When I think of Christ interceding for me, and for you, I think of my mom on her knees.

So, whoever you are, know that Christ has ascended into heaven, into God’s dimension, and is pleading for you. He is saying your name before the Father. In fact, the writer of Hebrews says of Jesus: “He lives forever to intercede with God on [your] behalf” (Hebrews 7:25, NLT). Why? Because he loves you.

As I wrap up, we need not forgot what the two men in white tell the disciples, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11, ESV). The good news of the Kingdom of God is not only that Christ has come but that Christ will come again. At his coming, all will be made new, all will be healed, all will be whole, and all will be made right. The original relationship of love which existed between God and humans that was lost in Eden will be restored. “Look, God’s home is now among his people. He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them” (Rev. 21:3, NLT). Why? Because you want to spend time with the ones you love.

Be well, my friends, and may the peace of Christ be with you always!

Steve

 

[1] Stephen Seamands. Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Return. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2012), 139.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nicholas Thomas Wright. Acts for Everyone, Part 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Timothy C. Tennent. This We Believe: Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed. (Wilmore, KY: Asbury Theological Seminary, 2011), 62-63, 68.

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