Good morning, Friends!
Easter was a couple of weeks ago, and I think most of us have moved on already. “Ho, hum! Back to business as usual! See you again next year!”
But for the people who were there that first Easter Sunday, and for a long time afterward, it wasn’t just business as usual. Easter changed their world. Things would never be the same. Jesus was alive. He was present in their world. They felt his presence beside them, every day.
They still had questions, but they had lost their fear. Death was not the worst thing that could happen any more. Death did not have the last word. The tomb was empty. And even through they couldn’t always see Jesus, they knew that Jesus was out here, working mysteriously, showing up in all kinds of places without warning.
He might show up while you were praying. He might show up at suppertime. You might be walking down the road, and suddenly you’d find him right there beside you. He might show up at work, when you’d been working all night, and you were tired. He might show up when you were in prison, or standing in front of a judge. Jesus could turn up anywhere!
Eventually, even though people felt that Jesus was always here, they saw him physically less and less. And that led people to ask, “Where did he go?” That’s the question this morning’s Scripture tries to answer.
Jesus said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
– Luke 24:44-53
The gospels tell us all the things Jesus did, and the things Jesus taught. In all four gospels, it says that Jesus overcame death. But what happened next? How did it end? Every gospel tells us the story a different way.
If you look at Matthew’s gospel, for example – Matthew chapter 28 – it says that the eleven disciples who were left went back home, to the hill country around Galilee, and there on a mountain, they saw Jesus. It also says that some of them doubted.
And Jesus told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make followers of me in all nations, baptize them; teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the world. . .” (Matthew 28:19-20)
So, Matthew finishes up the story with the Great Commission, and he leaves it at that. According to Matthew, Jesus will always be with us, so don’t worry about where he went.
Mark’s gospel, if you’ve ever studied it carefully, seems to have several endings. Many serious Bible scholars think that Mark originally ended in chapter 16 at verse 8. On Easter morning, it says, they heard the news of the resurrection, and “they went out and fled, in trembling and astonishment; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid. . .”
They were scared. They were terrified. That’s the way the story ends.
Then Mark tries a couple more times to end the story. Jesus appears to Mary, and then to some other disciples, and when they tell the story, nobody believes them.
And then Mark tries to end the story a third time. Mark says, “Jesus appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he scolded them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. . .”
And then Jesus said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. . .” And he told them about the mighty works and signs which they would do in his name, which would prove to everyone the truth of what they were saying.
And then Mark finishes up, “. . .So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by signs that accompanied it. . .” (Mark 14-20)
So, the last way Mark finishes the story is with people who go out into the world, into the whole creation, and share the good news. They shout it from the mountaintops! And Jesus worked with them, and confirmed the good news, wherever they went.
Luke’s gospel is the one we read together today. Luke always likes to explain things. Luke likes details. As Luke opens the story, Jesus gives a summary of what it was all about. Jesus came as a fulfillment of the whole history of Israel, and the teaching of the prophets.
Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day, he rose from the dead. His message was, that people should turn their lives around, and that everyone needs to hear about the forgiveness and mercy of God. And all these promises now rest on us. We are the witnesses, in this generation.
And then, it says, “. . .he led them out of the city, as far as Bethany. . .” Jesus went for a walk with them, just as he’d done so many times before. And he lifted up his hands, and he blessed them, and they said good-bye, while he was in the act of giving them his blessing. And then, without giving any more details, Luke says that Jesus was carried up into heaven. And they all went back into the city with great joy, and they were continually in the temple, blessing God.”
That version of the story always bothers us. It sounds kind of like the tall tales and stories people used to tell us when we were little children. Jesus gets carried up into the clouds, just as if he had his own private little invisible elevator. It’s too much for grown-ups to believe, these days.
I’m not asking you to believe that. I’m only asking you to understand it. Our world view today seems to make more sense to us than that ancient one. And our modern world view seems to us to be immensely larger. The universe really goes way out there, into depths and distances we can’t even imagine. We’ve sent astronauts up into space, and we’ve probed the universe with the most powerful instruments we can create. And if heaven’s out there, we still haven’t found it.
If we say that “Jesus went to heaven”, or if we say that “Jesus sat down at the right hand of God”, that doesn’t mean so much a physical place, as it means a relationship. It means a place of love and approval. Being at the right hand of God means being the favorite, the beloved, the one who made good.
I remember a story about an old preacher who asked the congregation one Sunday if they knew where God was at the beginning. “Why, God was in the garden of Eden,” they answered.
“No, no,” said the preacher, “Where was God, back before the garden of Eden?”
“Why, God was the spirit, moving on the face of the waters,” they replied.
“No, no, no! I want you to tell me where God was, back before anything was created.”
They were all silent for a minute. And then the preacher said, “I’ll tell you where God was. God was in his GLORY!”
I think that’s what all the gospels are driving at, in all these stories of the Ascension. Jesus joined God. Jesus was fully re-united with God. Jesus sat down at the right hand of God, in glory. We may never be able to say much more than that.
Have you ever noticed that John’s gospel doesn’t mention Jesus’ departure at all? In John chapter 21, there’s a story where Jesus meets Peter on the beach, and they eat breakfast together. And Jesus asks three times, “Peter, do you love me?. . .”
nd Peter says, “Yeah, sure I do!”
And Jesus says to him, each time, “Feed my sheep. . .feed my lambs. . .feed my sheep. . .”
And then John says, “. . .there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
Maybe that’s the real truth. Maybe the story isn’t over yet. My own feeling is that although the days when Christ appeared physically on earth may be over, that the work of Christ is still going on.
Jesus still does wonderful things. Some of them happen directly, through prayer. And some of the things Jesus does happen indirectly, through the service and ministry of Jesus’ friends.
But the work of Jesus still goes on. And John is right. “. . .if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain all the books that would be written.”
Part of the problem we have with the Ascension is that for us, it comes at the end of the gospel story. Jesus does all these things, he gets killed, he comes back to life, and then he goes away. It’s over. It’s ended.
The first Christians didn’t see it that way. From their point of view, the whole story was just a prelude, up to now. They didn’t say, “This is where the story ends.” They said, “This is where the story begins, for us. This is the beginning of the story. This is the beginning of our story. Today is when it all starts!”
We have a tendency to think that the glory days are all in the past. We don’t hear Jesus when he says, “whoever trusts in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. . .” (John 14:12)
The early Christians felt that everything up to their time was just the prelude. The glory was just beginning.
And that glory appears, God’s glory is made visible on earth, when people follow Jesus, by doing the things he did. When people teach and heal; when people tell the world that God has come very near to them; when we look beyond our own needs, and embrace the needs of our neighbor; then heaven is here.
Our job is to go out into the whole of God’s creation, and both discover and demonstrate the marvelous works that God is already doing. Our job is to proclaim God’s peace, just as Jesus proclaimed it.
Our job is sometimes to suffer, just as Jesus suffered — to suffer hostility, and rejection, and sorrow, and pain, maybe even death. Because in that suffering, the beginning of God’s glory can sometimes be seen.
One of the Bible verses my wife and I taught to our children when they were little is Paul’s great affirmation from his letter to the Christians at Rome: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. . .” (Romans 8:38-39)
Jesus has gone away. But Jesus is still here.
Heaven isn’t anyplace that we can point to. But heaven is all around us.
And wherever we gather, by ones and twos, or in small groups, or in larger gatherings, to do the work of Jesus, in his name, when we share in Jesus’ work of suffering and redemption, then here, in this place, Christ is among us.
Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown