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.”

Being God’s Beloved: Day 36: The Resurrection

“On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.”[1]

It is important that we dwell on the suffering and despair of Holy Week, as we journey towards the cross. But it is also important that we journey past Holy Week and into Easter, because the Christ we worship has been raised from the dead.

Two days ago I used the term “Godforsakenness” to describe Jesus’ experience as he approached death.[2] This term emerges from Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, also Matthew 27:46).

While it seems true that Jesus experienced God forsaking him, it is also true that God never forsook him. There is sometimes a difference between how we experience God and how God actually is. Sometimes we feel that God is absent, but in fact God is present. Remember the story of the footprints?[3] We are often unaware that God is carrying us, feeling that God has turned away, but in fact God was there all along. It is similar with Jesus. There was a terrible break in fellowship resulting from Jesus’ death, but God the Father and God the Spirit never abandoned Jesus, never forsook him.

Instead, God the Father and God the Spirit stood alongside Jesus throughout his time of suffering. They were in solidarity with him. They took his part. We have previously reflected on God’s preference for the poor (Day 22). For this one time, Jesus was the poor – remember that ‘poor’ is understood in broad terms, not only economically. Indeed, he was the poorest of the poor. God does not abandon those who are poor. God does not abandon those in need, those who are hungry, those who are downtrodden. It is at these times that God comes closest!

In his crucifixion, as he takes on the sins of the whole world, Jesus embodies poverty. Or rather, he embodies all those who are poor. He becomes the representative of those who are poor. He stands in the place of the poverty stricken. Jesus had sufficient power and authority to liberate himself from the cross – he could have done it in a blink of an eye, and how amazing that would have been! How it would have shown up those who scoffed at him. But rather than a flashy display of power, Jesus opted for the lot of those who suffer, because it was for these that he came. It was the poor he came to liberate. As Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31).

God remained present with Jesus in his death, steadfast at his side, championing him. God never forsook Jesus.

And on the third day, God raised him from the dead. Peter said, “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this” (Acts 3:15). This was a tremendous exercise of God’s power, giving us confidence in God. As Paul says, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). It is also a vindication of Christ – God showing that Jesus was indeed the anointed one of God. Peter, again, says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

The resurrection is God’s great “No!” to sin and death and the devil. God did not allow the Son of God to see decay. God did not allow human sin and hatred to overwhelm the Son of God. God did not allow Satan to triumph over the Prince of Peace. God says “No!” to all of that. God says “No!” to everything that undermines God’s vision for the cosmos, God’s purpose for life. God stands up, and puts his foot down, and says “No!”

Many Christians do not give much thought to Satan and the powers of darkness. They live in a world where there is a good God (and perhaps also angels and saints) but no devil or demons. But in the Biblical worldview, and in Jesus’ worldview, Satan is alive and well and busy in the world. Satan crowed at the death of Christ – finally, Satan would get mastery over the Son of God and gain the upper hand in the spiritual battle for cosmic domination. But God says “No!” We are reminded of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, who falls into the clutches of the White Witch and is executed. But there was a ‘deeper magic’ that she did not understand and Aslan was raised to life, breaking the stone altar. Christ’s resurrection is God’s “No!” to the Devil.

Christ’s resurrection is also God’s “No!” to Law and Wrath. This notion emerges in Martin Luther’s writings.[4] The Law is the expression of God’s Will. But it is impossible to keep, even eliciting greater sin, and thus becomes something that creates a barrier between us and God. When the Law functions well, it leads us towards obedience and compliance, and not towards a heartfelt alignment with God’s heart. And so, Law does not lead to Love, because Love must be free to be love – Love cannot be motivated by obedience and conformity. So there is a contradiction in Love and Law, and Luther intuited that this contradiction was located within the Godhead – these two Wills of God for Law and Love:

Luther presents us here with an antinomy, a conflict, between the Divine curse, the Wrath, and the Divine blessing, the Love. The wrath is the Wrath of God; yet it is the blessing that represents His inmost nature. The curse must give way; for if the blessing could give way God Himself would have been defeated. … Thus the Love of God breaks through the Wrath; in the vicarious act of redemption the Wrath is overcome by the Love which is ultimately, as Luther says, die Natur Gottes [God’s nature].[5]

“Christ’s victory was therefore also the victory of God’s love over God’s justice.”[6] Christ’s resurrection is God’s “No!” to Law and Wrath, and God’s “Yes” to Love and Blessing.

The resurrection is also a further step in God’s plan to undo the effects of the Fall. On Day 32, for example, we reflected on Jesus’ creation of community while hanging on the cross as a re-creation of the fellowship and harmony that was lost after Adam and Eve sinned. The resurrection undoes another effect of the Fall, namely death. Christ died and was raised again, opening a pathway for us to follow. We, like him, die and will be raised to new life. Indeed, in becoming Christians, we die to self and are raised to new Life in Christ. Paul really understood this well:

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:4-11)

Christ’s resurrection is God’s “No!” to death and God’s “Yes!” to Life.

And the resurrection points towards the New Creation. There will come a time when God renews the earth, which Revelation refers to as the New Jerusalem, the Heavenly City. In the same way that God restored Jesus, God will restore the earth. God will make all things new. We’ll return to this next week, but for now let us recognise that the resurrection is God’s “No!” to the decay of creation and “Yes!” to the new creation.

The resurrection is the most important event in the history of God’s great plan for the salvation of the cosmos. Without it, we would surely be lost. The resurrection is God’s great demonstration of forgiveness and God’s “No!” to all the negative results of the Fall (particularly sin, death and the devil) and God’s “Yes!” to all the divine blessings (which we discussed on Day 6). It does not get more central than that!

In short, the resurrection is God’s great demonstration of Divine Love. We often emphasise the power of God demonstrated in the resurrection, but it is more correctly the love of God or the power and efficacy of God’s love that we see in the resurrection. God exerts an extraordinary and extravagant effort of love for the Son and for humanity and for the whole cosmos, turning back all that is evil and making real all that is good. Easter Sunday is indeed a day of love.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect back on everything we have covered this week on the cross and the resurrection. What stands out for you the most in relation to God’s love for you? How will embracing this truth impact on the life you live?

Prayer for the Day

Christ, my Redeemer, thank you for the extravagant demonstration of love that you lavished on us through your incarnation, your life and ministry, and your death and resurrection. Inspire me with your Spirit to say “No!” to sin, death and the Devil, and “Yes!” to love, life and God. Please re-create me.

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[1] Anglican Church of Southern Africa (1985). An Anglican prayer book.Jeppestown, RSA: HarperCollins, p. 108 (from the Nicene Creed).

[2] Moltmann, p. 227.

[3] Written by Mary Stevenson, http://www.footprints-inthe-sand.com/index.php?page=Poem/Poem.php

[4] Aulén, G. (1931). Christus victor: An historical study of three main types of the idea of the atonement. London: SPCK Classics, pp. 111-116.

[5] Aulén, pp. 114-115.

[6] Gaybba, p. 93.

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 5: God’s Love Revealed Through The Cross

This is the fifth and final talk in the series on “Being God’s Beloved”, presented at St Martin’s Anglican Church, Irene, South Africa, on 9 April 2014. We conclude the talks by focusing on the Cross and Resurrection, and the way in which the sequence of events over the Easter weekend reveals God’s love to us.

Click here to open the video from YouTube