While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you startled? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like you see I have.” As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. Because they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness, he said to them, “Do you have anything to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish. Taking it, he ate it in front of them. Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.” He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God. (Luke 24:36-53, CEB)
The most recognizable architectural feature of most churches is the steeple. Whether a person has ever stepped foot in a church, or not, point to a steeple and most people can identify the building attached as a church.
Churches have had steeples at least since the 6th century C.E., many reaching high into the sky. In fact, long before the invention of modern sky-scrapers, churches were often the tallest structures in any city or town, seen from many miles away.
We certainly have a grand steeple at First Church, standing vertically the length of a football field. The golden Celtic cross, at the steeples peak, is twelve feet high! My understanding is that our steeple might be the tallest of all the downtown Orlando churches!
First United Methodist Church of Orlando’s Steeple
For years, before some of the newer, taller buildings were constructed, when I drove into Orlando from I-4 or the SR 408, I looked for our steeple. Seeing it felt like home!
Some of you can still remember when our steeple was a prominent feature of the downtown Orlando skyline.
Though no one really knows why steeples were originally invented for churches, most architectural historians generally agree they were meant to symbolize the Church’s role and purpose – through worship – to reach out to God in heaven above.
Of course, that’s based on the notion that heaven is “up,” above us, which comes from the very old belief that the earth is flat. If the earth is flat, naturally God and heaven are above us, and the “other” place is deep below. But, as we know now, the earth is not flat, so heaven can’t be up. Heaven, as the dwelling place of God and the faithfully departed, is certainly a different spiritual dimension. It just isn’t necessarily above us.
I’ve always been partial to the Celtic Christian belief that heaven is close, and that there are places around us the Celts called “thin spaces,” where the veil between heaven and earth, the spiritual and material worlds, is very “thin.”
Today is “Ascension Sunday,” when we celebrate the resurrected Jesus ascending to heaven, forty days after his death and resurrection.
As we say in the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds, Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Theologian, Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “For creedal Christians, Jesus’ story does not end with his death. It continues into the present and into the future, more powerfully than before.”
Following Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, for the next forty days he randomly, unexpectedly appeared to the Disciples. Jesus’ final post-Easter appearance occurred when the Disciples were in Jerusalem. After a short meeting, Jesus led to the neighboring village of Bethany. He blessed them, and then was “taken up to heaven.”
- Mark 16:19 says, “After the Lord Jesus spoke to them, he was lifted up into heaven and sat down on the right side of God.”
- Acts 1:9 says, “He was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
- Hebrews 12:3 says, “(Jesus) endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.”
According to Luke’s version of the story, prior to Jesus’ ascension, there was an interesting interaction between Jesus and the Disciples. Apparently, when Jesus appeared, the Disciples didn’t recognize him, and assumed he was a ghost. Afterall, he just “appeared.”
Jesus said, “Why are you startled? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like you see I have.” (Luke 24:38-39)
Then, just to prove his point, he asked for a piece of fish, and ate it. He showed them his nail-pierced hands and feet. Jesus was proving that, even after dying and rising, he was still fully human. His flesh and bone were resurrected flesh and bone, capable of appearing and disappearing. But, nonetheless, he was still human as they were.
When we think of Jesus’ birth and life, we say that Jesus was God incarnate. “Incarnate” means God took on flesh – that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. The point of Jesus’ ascension was that even after his resurrection, he was still incarnate – he was still human. A resurrected human – but still human.
And, in Heaven, the resurrected, incarnate Jesus took his seat at the right hand of God. It seems to me, this represents a fundamental shift, or change, in heaven. For all of eternity, heaven has been the dwelling place of God, who we say is a Trinity – one God, in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God has always been a Trinity. That means, before Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the eternal Son already existed as the second person of the Trinity. His birth, as a human, was the first fundamental shift in heaven, and the nature of God.
Philippians 2:6-7 says, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.”
Before Jesus ever ascended to heaven, he first descended from heaven, to take on our flesh and lives. But, then, at the Ascension, the risen, incarnate Jesus was raised to heaven and seated next to God. The Trinity now included raised human flesh. That’s the second fundamental shift.
Romans 8:34 says, “It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us.”
Though the image is a bit overly simplistic, and to anthropomorphic, try to picture this: In heaven, God the Father, Almighty, as we refer to God in the Creeds, is seated on the throne. Seated beside the Father, is Jesus, in resurrected human flesh. And, from his perspective and experience, living in our flesh, Jesus makes our case before God. Jesus brings our human struggle to God. In essence Jesus is saying something like, “Dad, listen, I’ve been there. It ain’t easy being human. There are all these temptations, and desires, and hungers, and distractions. And, they get tired, and weak, and sick. And, sometimes they just do really dumb things. Sometimes they hurt each other, and sometimes you get hurt – I know. They hurt me. Human life can be really, really painful. And, death really, really scares them. Remember? That’s why you sent me.”
One of the MANY things I appreciate about working with Pastor Emily is that she often serves as a sounding board for me when I’m frustrated about something. She’s often a voice of calm and wise perspective. To some degree, that’s the meaning of the Ascension. 1 John 2:1 says, “When we sin, we have an advocate with the Father.”
If you ever parented, I suspect you or your spouse may have been the voice of reason from time to time, when the other parent was boiling angry.
Now, obviously, Jesus didn’t experience everything you and I go through. He lived in a world that thought the earth is flat. To the best of our knowledge, he never married or parented. Though he must have gotten sick, we’re not aware of any major medical issues. He died when he was just 33, of unnatural causes. He never experienced growing old. We don’t think he ever got fired from a job. We don’t know of any pandemics during his lifetime. He never lost money in the stock market.
But, those are just details. Jesus experienced our humanity fully. He experienced temptation and weakness. He experienced hunger and thirst. He experienced rejection and accusation. He experienced loss. He experienced pain and death. That means, no matter what we ever go through, Jesus can identify with our struggles, our pain, our suffering.
The Ascension means that at the heart of heaven is one who fully knows, who fully understands, and advocates for us. That’s good news in the midst of our current struggles. God is aware – fully aware – of our anxieties and fears, our doubts, our impatience, and our daily needs. God knows. God understands. God cares.
The Ascension means that at the heart of heaven is one who fully knows, who fully understands, and advocates for us. That’s good news in the midst of our current struggles. God is aware – fully aware – of our anxieties and fears, our doubts, our impatience, and our daily needs. God knows. God understands. God cares.Tweet
And, as I said in the beginning of my message, to say Jesus “ascended” is based on an old idea that heaven is up, above us. But, what if, since the world isn’t flat, and heaven isn’t “up,” what if heaven isn’t really very far away. What if saying Jesus “ascended” is just a way of saying Jesus stepped out of our reality, into God’s reality?
And, if like the Celtic Christians believe, heaven is close; and, if Jesus is God in human flesh; and, if the incarnate Jesus was raised from the dead, lives, and ascended to God’s right hand; then the ascended Christ is potentially very near – near to you, near to me, near to us, right now, wherever you are.