He ascended into heaven

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary thereafter.

Ascension day is one of those days that Christians can easily miss – it takes place mid-week (on a Thursday) and is not a public holiday in most countries. And many would be hard pressed to give a good account of why the ascension is important. Fortunately, there are several online blogs that speak to the meaning of Christ’s ascension, e.g.,

But I find that the reasons many give are really descriptions of what Jesus does after his ascension – such as sitting at God’s right hand and sending Holy Spirit to us – rather than explanations of the ascension itself. Luke includes a narrative of the ascension both at the end of his Gospel narrative (Luke 24:50-51) and at the start of his sequel about the Apostles (Acts 1:9-10). Clearly, Luke thought the ascension was important.

Let me offer a way of thinking about the theological and practical significance of the ascension.

Let’s go back to the incarnation. In the incarnation God inserted God’s self into human nature at the conception. We can almost thinking that God integrated divine DNA into human DNA to create a new entity – a God-man – Jesus Christ. Orthodox theologians see the incarnation as central to salvation. God redeems and transforms human nature. (Click here to listen to a sermon where I set out the centrality of the incarnation in more detail.)

Let me suggest that in the ascension there is a similar but inverse process. As Jesus ascends to the Father, and as the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is reunited in the ascension, God the Son brings with him some aspect of human nature, including his body, which is woven into the being of God.

What is the evidence for this? Perhaps most importantly, Luke emphasises in both narratives that Jesus ascended bodily, much as he rose bodily. When Jesus rises from dead, he rises with his body – he does not leave it behind and rise as a spiritual being. Of course, his body has been transformed – it has both physical and spiritual qualities. But the BODY is important. We affirm this in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe … in the resurrection of the body”.

So too, in the ascension, Jesus rises with his body – he does not slough off his body, to release his spirit, which rises up to heaven. He ascends with his body. The disciples are described as “looking intently up into the sky as he was going” (Acts 1:10). It seems certain that Jesus physically rose up into the sky until he disappeared in the clouds.

Let me suggest, cautiously, that before the incarnation God did not have first-hand experience of what it is like to be a human being. God is spirit; God transcends time and space. But in the incarnation, God becomes a human being, with all of its limitations. God the Son experiences the joys and the pain of being human. He experiences friendship. He experiences betrayal, torture and death. When God the Son ascends bodily, these experiences are woven into the being of the triune God. God no longer just imagines what human life is like; God now truly and experientially knows what it is like to be human, with all its ups and down.

What this theology offers us in our daily life, is a deep assurance that God really knows what human life is like and what suffering feels like. God is not watching ‘from a distance’ (as Bette Midler so nicely sings). Rather, God is deeply immersed in our human experiences. So, when you are going through dark times, we can be sure that God is fully present with us in the darkness, experiencing them with us, sharing our pain and distress.

God is immediately available and fully experiences all we go through.

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Featured image: Jesus ascending into heaven by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

God’s great forgiveness

Click here to listen to the audio of this 6-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text that follows after that.

The Lord is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!! Alleluia!!!

During this past week, we have confronted the dark side of humanity and of ourselves. We have recognised that it is our sin – each of ours – that contributed to Christ’s death. Humanity, in its arrogance, attempted to murder God the Son! What greater sin can there be? One might imagine that a God of justice would wipe the earth clean.

Instead, God forgives humanity. God returns to us the very Son that we murdered! What greater forgiveness can there be? All the rest of our sins are caught up in God’s great forgiveness of this greatest of all sins. All God asks of us to acknowledge our sin – Father, I am sorry; please forgive me. God says “Yes!” to humanity. God says “Yes!” to maintaining and enabling fellowship with each of us.

Moreover, Christ’s triumph over death, he rising from the grave to new life, is God’s “Yes!” to life and “No!” to death. Particularly during the COVID-19 plague, which has already taken the lives of over 100,000 people, we are in need of this reassurance that God has already triumphed over death. COVID-19 will do its worst, but it will die, and humankind will live. God will triumph over death.

Almighty God,
this night explodes with the radiance of the risen Christ;
set us ablaze with the power of your love
and propel us into the world
to live and proclaim the gospel of the living Lord;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen

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Painting of The Resurrection, by El Greco, 1597-1600. From here.

Featured image: Resurrection of Christ, by Raphael, 1499–1502. From here.

Painting in the YouTube video: Resurrection of Christ, by Rottenhammer (1564–1625)

 

Dying to live

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I am still reeling at the destruction of Notre Dame through the fire yesterday. That cathedral was a symbol of God’s presence in France, and its burning reverberates powerfully with me. The burned church evokes images of Christ’s death on the cross. Like the cathedral, Christ is damaged and destroyed. Its devastation leaves an empty shell. We are shocked, dismayed. How is this possible?

But in John 12:20-36, Jesus talks about his own death, not as something to be avoided, and not even as something inevitable, but as something necessary, intended, perhaps even desirable. He uses the analogy of a seed, that must die in order to produce more seeds.

And he also says that we who follow him, must similarly die; that if we love this life on earth too much, we’re in trouble; that we need to hold on to it just lightly. Instead, if we follow him, through death, we will be with him in glory.

He raises the question of what we have to die to today. Of what in our lives needs to burn to the ground, so that something new can spring forth.

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Feature image: Interior of Notre Dame following the fire on 15 April 2019, CNN.

Resurrection Church

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On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the upper room, where he showed them his wounded hands and feet. John describes this in John 20:19-23. This narrative is followed by the story of Jesus’ engagement with Thomas. And John ends the chapter with a reflection on his version of the Gospel – that he has selected from the numerous stories about Jesus these few, whose purpose it to facilitate our belief in Jesus, so that we may enjoy the fullness of Life.

John’s purpose in the John 20 narrative is to guide the church towards the end of the first century to be a resurrection church – a church that is centred on the risen Christ, empowered by Holy Spirit and focused on Christ’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this is hard when you are 60 or more years away from the living Christ Jesus. Because of this distance in time (most of the eye witnesses had passed on) John’s message is of particular relevance for us who live two thousand years distant.

This is quite a long sermon for me and our parish – sorry about that! But I hope it moves quite briskly and provides some food for thought about a fascinating and rich passage in the Gospel narrative. To assist with the denseness of the message, I provided my congregation with a slip of paper with the nine points (yes, nine!) written down. Here they are:

  1. This is the start of Sunday worship for Christians – resurrection Sunday.
  2. Jesus’ body is still physical, but also transformed – it does not conform to the laws of nature.
  3. Christ stands in the middle of us, and is the centre focus of Christian life and worship.
  4. Jesus’ presence bring peace (Shalom) and is his central message.
  5. Jesus’ transformed body retains the wounds in his hands and side, and are assimilated into the triune Godhead at the ascension, so that there is now woundedness within the being of God.
  6. Jesus commissions his disciples (including us) to be his presence in the world – when people see us, they should see Christ.
  7. Jesus imparts Holy Spirit to us – we have Holy Spirit in us, not as power and gifts, but as the relational presence of God within us.
  8. We are given the ministry of forgiveness, which Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.
  9. All of this culminates in a statement of faith – a creed – ‘My Lord and my God’.

Resurrection Life

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Click here to listen to the MP3 of this 18 minute sermon.

Today is the first Sunday after Easter and we centre our thoughts on the resurrection and what it means for us. In John’s Gospel, resurrection is virtually synonymous with Life, and so this sermon is about the Resurrection Life. Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life”. He also says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”.

I am including the readings from John (New International Version) so that you have them readily at hand.

Love, peace and joy
Adrian

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Resurrection and Life are intimately tied together in Jesus

  • Jn 11:25 – Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;

Jesus repeatedly speaks as if he embodies Life itself

  • Jn 1:4 – In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
  • Jn 5:26 –  For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.
  • Jn 6:63 – The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.

Jesus repeatedly says that he IS Life

  • Jn 14:6 – Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
  • Jn 6:48 – I am the bread of life.
  • Jn 8:12 – When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus repeatedly says that we obtain Life through him

  • Jn 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
  • Jn 4:14 – but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
  • Jn 6:27 – Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
  • Jn 6:35 – Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.
  • Jn 6:51 – I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
  • Jn 6:54 – Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

Jesus repeatedly says that we must believe in him to gain eternal life

  • Jn 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
  • Jn 17:3 – Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
  • Jn 5:24 – “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
  • Jn 6:40 – For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”