Sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension
“Which way did he go?”
There is no such thing as a dumb question; in fact, we learn new things and roll back our ignorance only when we dare to ask the questions we have all too often brushed aside. In working over the text for today’s sermon, I found myself faced with a question such as a small child would ask – just before being shushed by the grownups present. In trying to answer it, I found myself in some strange territory. And like a mathematician whose figures tell him what he thinks can’t be so, I began to check and re-check all the steps in my theological equation – and I believe they check out. I want to share the results with you this morning.
The question is disarmingly simple. It is, “Where is Jesus NOW?”
The Creed says, “he [has] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” meaning that he has returned whence he came, taking back with him the victory over sin and death and hell. The text we have just read describes his leaving, and also promises his return.
And he had to go; we know this, because he told us so. Only if he left could the Holy Spirit be poured out in power upon the earth. For as long as Jesus was physically present, he could only be in one place at a time, do one thing at a time, and deal with a few people at a time – just like us. But if the Son of God returns to the Father, he can be present in every place, all the time, and dwell in every heart by his Holy Spirit; in effect, he takes back the omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience which he laid down to become incarnate as the Son of Mary.
“But where is he NOW?” (I’m being as obstinate as a child in asking this question.) Well, he went back to heaven. “Where’s heaven?” Well, it’s not a place – not a part of the material universe – it’s outside it, or beyond it, as God is. “Then what happened to his body? Did he abandon it?”
Now, the Scriptures are very clear: Jesus’s risen body is glorified, and never saw corruption. And he will return in that same body. But if bodies belong to the material universe, and heaven is not part of the material universe, then does the Son of God returning to the Father mean that the incarnation of God in human flesh was a temporary thing? And now, suddenly, we’re in very, very deep waters, indeed.
For let us be very clear, here. Incarnation – God being made flesh – means more than the Son of God becoming a human person. It means that, yes: Immanuel (God with us) is our teacher, our high priest, our elder brother – one of our human tribe. But God the Creator becoming one of his own creatures means that God has entered his creation, and joined himself to it.
And that’s no big deal if your god is some nature God or Life Force or what have you. But Judaism and Christianity are very clear about God being utterly separate from his creation. Dame Julian of Norwich had a vision of God in which he walked through the void, utterly alone, and carrying in his hand a thing no bigger than a walnut. “What is that?” she asked. “That is all that is made,” said God. For the Creator to enter his creation is astounding; and now, either God must shrink to the level of creatureliness, or the creation must be raised to the level of divinity.
Which is why the Scriptures teach us that Redemption is about more than just God forgiving our sins. Jesus Christ died on the cross, not just to be the sacrifice for our sins, to buy our pardon – though he did that, indeed, and no one else could have – but the immortal Son of God had to become mortal, and die, so that he could raise all creation in his resurrection! This is why the ultimate goal of the righteous in the Scriptures is not “going to heaven when you die,” but God creating a new heaven and a new earth – and new sons and daughters to inherit that new creation and share it with him.
And so, when this same Jesus who left – who went “thataway,” wherever it is he’s gone to – returns, we shall recognize him, shall see him as he is, for we shall be like him. We shall be part of that new creation, raised and glorified.
And the point I’m trying to make is, if God the immovable and unchangeable has gone so far as to allow the Laws of his Being to be changed – joining himself to his creation, in fact, in order to make us righteous and raise us together with the entire created order in a salvation beyond all imagining – then the Incarnation of the Son of God as the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, cannot be a temporary expedient. So: the Incarnation of God is irreversible; and therefore, the risen and glorified Christ still has a physical body.
So where is it? And the answer is, I don’t know. But I found a possible answer, and it made me start checking and re-checking my work. And I speak here under correction: if anyone can find a flaw in my reasoning, I’d like to know it. But what I’m finding excites me, and moves me.
Dorothy Sayers handled this problem in writing her drama series, The Man Born to Be King. She noted that the risen Christ appears and disappears, like a ghost. But the whole point of his appearing is to show that he is not a ghost. He is physically himself, alive and undying (though he has chosen to retain his wounds as a testimony to his passion).
And Sayers suggests that Christ simply assembled a body – recognizably the same body – whenever and wherever he had to be physically present, out of whatever matter was present. And when he was done, he simply let it go. And this is not too far-fetched; our bodies, after all, are constantly adding and casting off cells, molecules, whatnot, and we are still and always recognizably the same persons. But what would it mean to be able to put on and take off one’s body like a suit of clothes, particularly since the Scripture affirms that the resurrection body is not merely worn, but is a transformed vehicle of the self?
And if these molecules are equally available as those molecules to present the physically risen Lord to his followers, and all matter is equally capable of doing so, then is Scripture being more than merely poetic when it refers to Jesus’s followers as “The Body of Christ?” Are we the physical presence of Christ in this world?
But more than that: can it be that Incarnation and Resurrection mean that Christ’s body is now (or eventually will be) the whole of creation? That God the utterly separate has decided to become the living soul of the universe? That the promise of a new heaven and a new earth where God shall be all – and in all – is that even lifeless matter shall be enabled to feel the life of God within it, through us? When we call Jesus the King of Creation, and declare him ascended to the right hand of God, is this what we’re saying?
And yet, even as God designs to be the Soul of the Universe, and bring all creation to life, the Son of God is still our same old Jesus – the shrewd teacher, faithful friend, welcomer of children, healer, our companion on life’s dusty roads, and the Master who died in our place when we all ran away.
And if all this is so, then it has some very practical consequences. For we live in an age intolerant of particular Saviors, among people who want a generic God. You can hear them saying, when you invite them to church, “I can worship God just as well by my lake – or in my garden – as I can up there at your church.”
And then you’ve got all the folks who see how all religions address the same basic hints and hopes and feelings, and so on. (One of them imposed on me to do vespers at Scout camp one time, and then tried to tell me what to say, playing up the wind whispering in the trees, and the sky, and so on. “I don’t do generic,” I told him, and that ended that.)
And then you’ve got your Re-imagineers, who want to re-define God as the Womb of the World, and worship the creation, exalting natural processes as divine actions. (Ultimately, everything is about sex to these people.) And all of them – the lazy, the mushy-minded, and the radical -- think we are bigoted or backward to insist upon allegiance to Jesus Christ first, last, and always.
But listen! There are two huge problems with all these easy, nature-exalting, everybody’s-on-the-right-track religions. The first is, “natural” religion sooner or later loses the ability to maintain a firm grip on right living. Alexander Pope said it best: “Whatever is, is right.” Lots of people believe that. But we know that’s not so.
Lots of natural things are wrong. Crime is natural; sin is natural; hate is natural; indifference is natural; cancer is natural. And all religion built upon a natural foundation sooner or later ignores, or excuses, or even participates in, evil – tyranny – oppression – slavery, leaving the poor to suffer and the sick untended (for it’s natural for there to be poor and sick persons), as in India before the advent of Christian missions.
Justice, meanwhile, is UNnatural; and our God is a God of Righteousness who judges the world. But look here: if I insist upon following Jesus Christ, and despise the world’s claims, I get not only the righteousness of God, but the King of Creation hands me back the glories of his world as a gift. I can receive every flower and every star as the imprint of his foot and the touch of his hand. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was right:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more from the first similitude.
The other problem with “natural” religions that emphasize God as the Life of the Universe is that they tend to say (eventually) that God is the only thing there is. All is the Ultimate Self, and we are only part of it. But the Ultimate Self would be a lonely Self. And there is precious little to say of love in New Age religion, even though they trumpet their philosophy of harmony and unity.
But look here: If I dare to be divisive, and say that Jesus died for me – me in my aloneness, me in my separateness – and he died for you, in your utter isolation and uniqueness from me, then between separate selves love is possible.
G.K. Chesterton pointed out that the Eastern saint (for example, The Buddha) is typically shown in art with his eyes closed, for if everything is just another part of the self, then there’s nothing to look at. Meanwhile, the Western – the Christian – saint is typically shown with eyes wide open, staring in rapture at this Something Other he can see and hope to embrace.
The Christian saint has been united – without loss of self – with God, and the People of God. So if I follow Jesus Christ, I get both the glory of being uniquely myself and the glory of being joined in love with the God whose life courses through all creation, and with every other unique self in that same love.
The End of the whole matter is this: the New Agers (and the Old Naturalists, and all the hosts of indifference) would have you believe that all religions are merely different paths leading to the same destination. But it is not so. Most paths are dead ends; some are worse. Only Christianity starts out in one place, and then leads you to every other place, so that the hints and hopes of all mankind with its manifold religions are fulfilled.
In other words, Christianity is not merely true (and all the others merely false); rather, only Christianity is complete (and all the others merely fragments of the truth). And you can prove it, by starting at any point, and working your way out to the ultimate conclusion. Even a difficult, literal question, like “where is Jesus NOW?” can lead you, step by step, to affirming that Jesus Christ is the King of Creation, and the only true way to the Father of us all, the only true Redeemer with a real redemption to offer.
The first Soviet cosmonauts reported on their return from outer space that they did not find God there, and they thought they’d said something profound. But the angels said the same thing to the disciples long ago: gawking up at the sky is not going to get you anywhere. You won’t find God there, Jesus is gone away. But this same Jesus will return. And in the meantime, you will be meeting him everywhere: in the gathering of his Church; in Word, Water, Wine and Bread; in the voice that speaks in your heart; and in the majesty of wind and tree and star, with which the King of all Creation is robed.
Blessed be his Name for ever. Amen.