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.


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

Where is God?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 11-minute message. Or watch the video below.

During difficult times, such as we experiencing now with the Coronavirus, many of us find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” And even, “How can God allow such suffering in the world?”

This question is formally called ‘theodicy’ – the doctrine of how a good God can allow evil in the world. Theologians have grappled with this question for centuries. Augustine generated a solution that is widely accepted by the church, illustrated in the graphic below (from https://www.slideshare.net/SharanpreetKaur/augustines-theodicy).


But such answers provide little comfort when we are in the midst of suffering. These are intellectual and theological answers, not pastoral answers. Over the years, as I have grappled with this question in my own sufferings and particularly in responding to the suffering of others, I have reached two main conclusions:

First, God is always immanently present in our suffering. When God the Son incarnated into the human named Jesus of Nazareth, God fully entered into the human experience, with all its ups and downs. Ultimately, God experienced even death, on the cross, an experience God had not had until this moment. We read in John 11 of Jesus’ grief at the grave of Lazarus – he was genuinely distressed and saddened by the death of his friend and by his witnessing of the grief of Lazarus’ family.

Jesus was then, and always is, present in the midst of suffering. Where is God? He is right here, sharing our grief and pain, standing with us in the darkest of times. He is by no means far off and emotionally disengaged.

Second, while this is usually of little comfort in the midst of suffering, God repeatedly shows the capacity for bringing good out of bad. This does not make the bad good. No! The bad remains bad. But god has the capacity to give birth to good through bad. Paul assures of this in Romans 8:28, when he writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We this most dramatically on the cross. Humanity murdered, executed God the Son. This was a fundamentally bad and depraved thing we did. And yet through this, God gave birth to salvation for humankind, reconciliation and forgiveness for all who would seize it.

God is always working to bring good out of bad, giving us the capacity to transform darkness into light. This is not about persuading ourselves that a bad thing is actually good, but rather about being open to something good emerging out of the bad.

As we continue to journey through the crisis of COVID-19, which looks set to get worse before it gets better, I encourage you to keep turning towards God. I encourage you to ask the “Where is God?” question, because God wants to engage us honestly and sincerely with this tough question.

May God journey closely with you during this difficult time.


Being God’s Beloved: Day 26: Jesus Touched

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Ten times in the Gospels we are told that Jesus “touched” people in the context of healing:

  • People suffering from leprosy (Matthew 8:3, Mark 1:41, Luke 5:13).
  • People with a fever (Matthew 8:15).
  • People who were blind (Matthew 9:29, 20:34, Mark 8:22).
  • People who were deaf (Luke 22:51).
  • People who were mute (Mark 7:33).
  • Dead people (Luke 7:14).

In nine passages, other people “touched” Jesus to obtain healing:

  • The woman who had been bleeding for 12 years (Matthew 9:20, Mark 5:27-31, Luke 8:44-47).
  • Many who were sick (Matthew 14:36, Mark 3:10, 6:56, Luke 6:19).
  • Children, though these appear to be more related to blessing than healing (Mark 10:13, Luke 18:15).

In addition Jesus “touched” the disciples during the transfiguration when they had fallen to the ground, saying, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7). And Jesus invited the disciples to “touch” his resurrected body as proof that he was not a ghost (Luke 24:39).

There are also other passages where touch is clearly implied even though the word “touch” is not used, for example in John 9:6-15, Jesus heals a blind man by making mud from saliva and dust and putting it on the man’s eyes.

Given that the Gospels are a selective presentation of Jesus’ actions, it is likely that these were typical of how he interacted with those in need. Jesus frequently, even typically, touched people in the process of healing them. I am always struck by how tactile Jesus was – the extent to which he wanted to be in physical contact with those he healed.

John 9:6 is evocative in its meaning: “[Jesus] spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.” It reminds me of God creating Adam in the Genesis 2:7 narrative, which we studied on Day 4: “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” There is a similar use of mud and a similar use of one’s physical self (breath or saliva) and a similar result (life or sight). It suggests that Jesus’ healings were works of creation; that in healing someone of some illness, he was re-creating them, restoring them to the original design of God the Creator. It is as if Jesus remembers that illness and suffering were never part of God’s plan for humanity – these resulted from the Fall – and repeatedly desires to return us to our original state of wholeness and perfection. Healing as re-creation.

In my training of social work students in the skills and processes of counselling, I caution them about touch. Touch is a most powerful action, but unpredictable – comforting for some but traumatising for others. For those who have experienced abuse, a touch, no matter how well-intentioned, can evoke traumatic memories and elicit visceral reactions. The person may cry out in terror, lash out in rage, respond sexually or emotionally disintegrate. It is terribly hard to judge what kind of reaction you might get when you touch a vulnerable person. Particularly for young and inexperienced counsellors, and particularly when counselling someone of the gender to whom you are attracted, touch can cross a professional boundary and rapidly become sexualised rather than therapeutic. So for undergraduate students who are in the early stages of learning our craft, the rule is “no physical contact other than a handshake”.

But those in the medical profession will testify that physical contact, which is appropriate and inevitable in their trade, is seldom traumatising and most often comforting and encouraging. A doctor or nurse will press your body and ask, “Does this hurt? And how about here?” Their touch is evidence of their competence and of their caring. It conveys a sense of closeness and human connection. It evokes memories of being mothered, cuddled, caressed, nurtured. And so we commonly speak of someone as having a “healing touch”, because we easily associate touch with healing. A doctor who will not touch her or his patients might be considered no doctor at all – that is how closely we associate healing and touch.

We can imagine that Jesus’ touch was not experienced as traumatising for the people Jesus’ encountered, but rather that it was experienced as healing. We see this most clearly by the fact that half of the healing-touch references are initiated by the patients and not by Jesus. Everyone wanted to touch Jesus to get healed.

The most vivid of these is the woman who had been haemorrhaging for 12 years. Mark says of her, “She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.’ Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering” (Mark 5:26-29). After innumerable and probably expensive but ineffective treatments at the hands of many doctors, she becomes convinced that Jesus’ touch will cure her. Her conviction was probably based on witnessing or hearing testimony from others who had been healed by Jesus’ touch. So convinced is she, that she is sure that she does not even need to touch his body and he does not even need to know he was touching her – the power in him would flow into her at the slightest contact, even indirect contact – through his clothing. Of course, she was right!

That Jesus felt the power go out of him (Mark 5:30) suggests that physical touch was more than a psychological demonstration of caring, but that there was in fact healing in his touch. In touching people, Jesus becomes a bridge or a conduit that crosses a gap between the sick person and God. It is a “thin place”[1] in which God comes particularly close to a human being and healing is experienced. If we believe that the fullness of God dwells in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), then in fact touching Christ brings the “toucher” in direct contact with the Divine – Jesus is not so much a bridge to God, but God in the flesh.

The healing of this woman seems to have become widely known and many people drew the same conclusion I have and thus sought Jesus out: “Wherever [Jesus] went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed” (Mark 6:56).

In addition to all of this, there is something beautifully intimate and delicate in Jesus’ touching those who are ill. We believe that God is Spirit, not corporeal. Thus God has no hands or body with which to touch humans. After aeons of imagining humanity and thousands of years of interacting with humanity, God finally has the opportunity actually touch humanity – to not only experience life from within the human body, but also to interact with others physically. Each touch between Jesus and another person is another unique experience for God.

Such touches are dual edged. Initially, such a touch brings God into contact with human pain and suffering, with the fragility of human life and the vulnerability of our bodies and minds. Those of us who work in the human services know that regular contact with suffering takes its toll on us – we experience the pain of those we serve and can become overwhelmed by it, to the extent that we can no longer separate our own pain from those around us. We call this ‘burnout’. Jesus’ initial touch, then, is a further expression of the immanence of God, which we have encountered several times before – on Day 7 in relation to God’s seeing, hearing, concerning and coming down to the people of Israel suffering in Egypt and on Day 19 in relation to the incarnation as God’s immersion into the experience of humanity. We will come to it again when we reflect on the cross.

But in terms of Jesus touching people, each touch is a coming close to us in our suffering, of God exposing Godself to our fallenness. This points to God’s courage, God’s love, God’s presence, God’s empathy. God is not remote in a safe, protected heaven. God is not unmoved by our suffering. Rather, God is fully present and both emotionally and physically connected to us.

The other side of the dual edge of Christ’s touch is that after connecting with and experiencing our suffering, Christ heals. Once Christ has shared in our suffering, we can share in Christ’s wholeness – His joy, completeness, fullness, peace and love. Like the woman who bled, when we allow Christ to touch us or when reach out to touch Him, we may experience the healing presence of Christ, an outpouring of His power into ourselves. Although not every touch of Christ is so distinctively powerful and even when we are not miraculously healed like the bleeding woman, we can trust in Him to impart healing to us. We trust, because we have seen that touching and healing is habitual and second nature to Jesus, and that this reflects the character of God, who loves us and who longs to touch and heal.

Meditation for the Day

Recall a time when someone’s touch brought comfort and healing to you. What was it about that touch that was helpful? What was it about the relationship with that person that was helpful? Recall a time when you felt touched by God. How did that come about?

Prayer for the Day

Healing Lord, please touch me today in those places in my life that are wounded and sick. Bring healing and comfort, that I may rise up to love and serve you.


[1] Borg, M. J. (2003). The heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a life of faith. New York: HarperCollins, p. 149.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 7: The God who Draws Near

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Moses has fled for his life into the desert after killing an Egyptian guard. One day, while tending the sheep, he sees a burning bush. Oddly, although it was on fire, it doesn’t burn up, so he goes closer to get a better look. Then God speaks to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” Moses says, “Here I am.” (I don’t know about you, but this sort of things doesn’t happen to me much. Actually, if I think hard, I can’t ever recall God speaking to me out of a burning bush! It’s enough to blow your mind.)

Then God says, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Generally, when the Bible speaks about God as holy or the things of God as holy, it means two related things. First, it is about purity and second, it is about being separate. God is God, holy, exulted, powerful, tremendous, pure, untouchable, unseeable, unspeakable. God is so high and lifted up that we cannot even look upon God’s face. The theological word for this is ‘transcendence’. It means that God is enormously different from us, to such an extent that we cannot really connect with God. It includes all the omni’s – omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence and so on. It is why some people kneel or bow or genuflect – a sign of our smallness in comparison with God’s greatness, our unworthiness in comparison with God’s sublime splendour.

Here God says to Moses that even the ground around the bush through which God’s voice is projected is so holy that Moses must remove his shoes. It is, in a way, the holy of holies before the temple was built, before even the tabernacle. This is a great example of transcendence.

Transcendent is often how we perceive God to be in the Old Testament. God seems massive and fearsome, austere and remote, more likely to smite you than bless you. The Old Testament God is not the Jesus who draws alongside people, who shares a meal of bread and fish, who touches the leper, who weeps at a graveside, who calls God ‘Abba, Dad’. The New Testament God seems to us to be much warmer and a lot more approachable. The Old Testament God has to be appeased with offerings before being willing to forgive, setting out strict rules and striking down those who accidentally look into the Ark. And because of this, many of us spend a lot more time reading the New Testament than the Old Testament – it helps us feel closer to God, because God seems more accessible to us.

But here in Exodus chapter 3, we now read a most remarkable passage:

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers. And I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

This is absolutely one of my all-time favourite passages in the Bible! It is hard to write when you’re jumping up and down with excitement.

Notice how God describes his actions:

  • I have seen…
  • I have heard…
  • I am concerned…
  • I have come down…

Do these sound like burning-bush, holy-ground words? Are these the words of a transcendent and remote God? Is this an austere and slow-to-warm deity? No! Not at all!

These are the words of a God who is intimately connected with human experience, particularly human suffering. These are the words of a God who empathises – who shares our feelings and suffers along with us. These are the words of a God who does not observe passively from afar, but who engages and intervenes. These are the words of a God who moves into human experience rather than remaining aloof. These are the words of love.

God says, “I have seen the misery of my people… I have heard them crying out.”

As a counsellor and as a person who has been in counselling, I have come to learn that being present with someone in their suffering is very often all that is needed. Not everyone is willing to see and hear another person’s suffering. Truly, it is painful to see and hear suffering. Sometimes when someone starts talking about their not-so-happy life, we’d prefer to change the topic, or cut them off because we have an appointment, or do the empty-hearted uh-huh’s that mimic real listening while our thoughts wander. It hurts to really listen and truly witness another person’s suffering. This is exactly what God does here: I have seen… I have heard. God is willing to be emotionally present with us in our pain.

Many years ago, I suffered from a major depressive episode and wound up in a psychiatric ward. I spent my first week there trying to make myself feel better – pulling myself up by my bootstraps, putting on a brave face, hoping that I could trick myself out of depression. Of course, that did not work. One day, in the second week, I surrendered to the depression, and spent an hour long therapy session weeping. I could not speak – only tears – I had dropped to the depths of my despair and pain. My therapist spent the hour sitting beside me, saying nothing, passing me tissues. She saw me. She heard me. She did not flinch away or try to patch me up. She did not offer comfort or advice. She did not give me medication to dull the pain. She simply sat with me in the darkness, like Job’s friends (initially) sat with him in his despair. This was the first day of my recovery.

God’s willingness to see and hear the misery of his people reveals God’s love. God is willing to sit with us in the worst of our experiences, in the darkest or most savage feelings, in the worst thoughts. God does not close his eyes or block his ears. God opens Godself to hear and see our lives, just as they are.

God says, “I am concerned about their suffering.”

It is possible to see and hear someone’s suffering without being moved by it. Sometimes caregivers become so burned out that they witness suffering without feeling it – they are emotionally disconnected and shut down. But God is emotionally engaged and present. God feels! God is not unmoved. God suffers with us.

There is a difference between physical presence and emotional presence. Physical presence involves being present with someone without emotional connection. You are there, listening, using all the right counselling skills, doing your job well, but not allowing yourself to be impacted by the person’s experience. On the other hand, emotional presence involves also allowing oneself to be touched by and even hurt by the other person’s experience. It involves emotional risk, because sometimes another person’s pain can be overwhelming and frightening. It hurts to engage with another person’s hurt.

The Hebrew word translated ‘concerned’ is yada.[1] It has a range of meanings, including to recognise, perceive and care about. It is also the word used for ‘know’ – to really know someone, to understand, to have insight. And it’s the word used in Genesis 4:1 for ‘know’, as in Adam knew (had intercourse with) Eve. It is used some 20 times in Hosea to speak about our knowing and loving God. The word conveys an intimate and deep knowing of another person. It is about being in continuous and open-hearted relationship with someone. So, when God says, “I ‘know’ their suffering”, God is speaking of an intimate knowledge of human experience rooted in God’s relationship with us. It is a knowing that is so intimate it is as if God is the one who is suffering.

Today, we’d call that empathy. God empathises with us. Think on this. God is perfect wholeness and balance. There is no want, distress, need or lack in the experience of God. God is like custard with no lumps – smooth and satin. But when God chooses to be ‘concerned’, God allows the crunchiness of human experience and the sharpness of human suffering to disturb that perfection. No-one likes lumpy custard! But God chooses the lumps; God chooses to be immersed in these aspects of our life. Because God loves the whole of us – the joys and triumphs, and the darkness and sorrow. God is whole-hearted towards humanity, towards you, embracing every aspect of your life, not only certain parts of it.

God says, “So I have come down.”

The transcendent God becomes immanent – God draws near, coming right into the human sphere. God is not watching from a distance. God is present and active. ‘Coming down’ might not seem like a big deal, but consider that God is beyond time and space. God created space and time, thus lives outside it. So ‘coming down’, entering our world, is a very big deal. It is a foretaste of the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity into the individual named Jesus of Nazareth – that great emptying out of God’s divinity to be immersed into a single human life. ‘Coming down’ is, perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of God’s engagement with humanity.

The presence of God makes all the difference. God’s presence in human suffering gives suffering perspective. God’s presence in suffering gives us hope. God’s presence in suffering gives us comfort. God’s presence gives us the assurance that God knows what it is like to be us.

We cannot adequately explain suffering. But there is comfort in the testimony that God sees, hears, knows and comes. All of these are real demonstrations of God’s love for humanity. God did it for the people of Israel, which lead up to the Exodus. God did it for me when I was depressed in hospital. God does it for you in whatever situation you find yourself facing today.

Meditation for the Day

God is nearby, seeing and hearing you, knowing and feeling concerned about you, desiring to come down to be with you. Reflect on the nearness of the God who loves you and open yourself to experience God’s presence with you. 

Prayer for the Day

Oh God, my parent. Be present with me today. Help me to recognise your heart, turned towards me, with empathy and compassion. Let me lean on you.


[1] VanGemeren, W. (Ed.). (1997). New international dictionary of Old Testament theology and exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.