What good is a resurrected body? Why Easter needs the Ascension.

In my Father’s house are many rooms… And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:2-3

Today we celebrate one of the most central teachings of our faith; an idea equal with the messages of Christmas and Easter, and one that we confess every time a faithful follower of Jesus says the Creed: Jesus ascended into Heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and from there He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

In the official teachings of the Church – found in those essential beliefs laid out in the Prayer Book for us to read, learn, and share with the world around us – a lot hinges on the Ascension.  Yet, this major celebration and its message became largely ignored; not least because it was one of those celebrations, like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday that traditionally fell in the middle of the week on a Thursday, the 40th day after Easter, and as busy work schedules took over, it was lost in the mix.

The problem, though, is that Jesus’ ascension into heaven is absolutely central to understanding our faith.  No kidding: skipping Ascension is as if we decided that Christmas just didn’t matter anymore, or if we decided to skip preaching about Easter for a couple generations. 

Seriously: Christmas tells us that Jesus, God’s Son, was born and raised to share our humanity; Easter tells us that Jesus experienced death in a human body, and did what we couldn’t do for ourselves – conquering the grave, and making human flesh incorruptible, making it able to last forever.  And the Ascension tells us how that matters for you and me.

Think about it: Every time we gather to worship, we confess Christ’s resurrection.  But how does Jesus coming out of a tomb long ago and far away have any impact on your physical body?  If the resurrection isn’t just about spiritual thoughts and warm, happy feelings about a fuzzy afterlife – and it isn’t! – then how, exactly, does his body, raised to new life, have any impact on what happens to you, so that you and I no longer fear the grave?

These are essential questions that make your faith make sense… and, it’s the Ascension, the return of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, that holds it all together.

The Plan:

We all believe, one way or another, that God the Father created us so that we could share in the overflowing life and love of the Trinity: a relationship so profound that it creates and invites the creation to join in their endless life of joy.

And, we all believe, one way or another, that for love to be real, it has to be freely given and freely chosen; so God invited us to love him and become infused with his eternal life and the fire of eternal love, knowing full well that giving us that option to love him freely includes the possibility that we could reject that offer instead.  As humankind decided to trust itself and seek our own glory, we went the way of all things that trust in themselves: we found darkness and the grave, as the spark of life given at our creation became something that grows cold and flickers out, like a candle left unattended that hollows out the middle until the very flame that gave it purpose causes it to collapse and snuff itself out under the weight of the heavy walls it has built.

But, God, knowing that darkness and the grave was our choice to make, built a solution into the system.  This is the message of Christmas: God’s plan was to build a bridge, a ladder even. If Creator and creation, God and humankind, are separated by a chasm, by the steep walls built as our flame burned inward rather than sharing light with the world, then the solution could only be one who was fully God and fully man: one who could enter the deepest, godless pits of despair built by humanity, and yet, being God, had within himself the very flame and source of life that cannot be extinguished, even when the heavy walls of the grave collapsed in.

And that is the message of Easter: as those heavy, waxy walls of darkness and the grave closed in, they found not a weak, flickering flame as they always had before; they found a mighty, blazing torch, unending life itself, and the more the walls of death closed in, the more they were consumed and melted away.

Jesus rose from the grave, blasting a hole in the gates of death, and emerged from the tomb with our flesh, but now as it was meant to be when that choice was first given: our flesh no longer attempting to be self-sufficient inside the walls we have built; our flesh transformed into forever flesh, connected intimately to the source of life itself, now able to accept the invitation to share in that everlasting relationship of the God who created us for eternal life in an everlasting creation; an eternity without pain or grief, without tears and sadness, without wars or disease, where the lion and the lamb can lie together with satisfied appetites because they’re connected to the source of all that is.

So Jesus rose, but what impact can that have on me?

Well, that’s where the Ascension comes in. 

As we see even in Jesus, there’s not much use for “forever flesh” in a world that is still full of death and decay.  And, truly, in spite of our attempts to put off aging – expensive creams and gallons of hair dye – there comes a point when we must admit: who would want to live forever in a world based on self-isolation behind walls of greed?

Yes, we absolutely believe that God will restore creation; that, in his time – and it’s not for us to concern ourselves with the time or date – the time of God inviting the flickering flames of human life will one day come to an end, and whether it’s the opposite of a big bang as scientists speculate, or some other spectacular mystery as prophets have attempted to put into words, there comes a time when time stops – and then all is made new, but this time, without the possibility of the universal pain and regret: this time of making choices (and the painful consequences of making them) has ended.

Christ the Forerunner

And so, 40 days after Easter, Christ, showing us the first glimpses of what humanity will be like when the deadly walls we’ve built no longer have dominion over us, then takes that glorified, forever flesh out of a decaying world.  He returns to the right hand of the Father, to that original life-giving relationship of the Trinity, but, bringing our flesh, he has a mission:  “do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God, believe also in me”, he says.  “My Father’s house has many dwelling places… and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that where I am, you may be also.”  And, he adds, “you know the way to the place where I am going”.[1]

He, having brought our humanity into the presence of God, is preparing a place for us to be with him until that final day – guest rooms where we may wait in the palace of the King; not our eternal resting place, but where we will rest in peace and be satisfied until that time when all is made new, when our forever flesh finds a home in the kingdom that shall last forever.

And we know the way: when the walls of death close in, there’s the well-trodden path of stubbornly holding out until the weight of our own choices leads to destruction; or, knowing where to look, we see the way, the truth, and the life: Jesus reaching out and leading us through the hole that he blasted; a steep and narrow path, one that requires full reliance on the one who has walked it before, but one that leads to a peaceful rest, to the words “well done” being spoken over us as the door swings open, and the Father sees not the flickering flame of a weary life, but hears the Son saying “this is my brother; this is my sister, who now shares my flesh and blood”, as the Spirit clothes us and ushers us into the feast.

Think about it, every time you say the Creed.  He ascended into heaven: not to leave us, but to blaze a path and prepare a place for us.  And, even now, he’s at the Father’s right hand, waiting; and when I die, when you die, he reaches out, leads us in, presents us as his friends, and leads us to our rest, as we, too, await his coming in glory, that day when finally, clothed in his righteousness alone, our forever flesh meets our forever home, standing faultless before his throne.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.

[1] John 14:1-4

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