With the Ascension we bookend the life of Jesus, in a way. Having become incarnate and having endured death, Jesus now returns to God. There’s a great Advent hymn that says it well: “From God’s heart the Savior speeds/ Back to God his pathway leads/ Out to vanquish death’s command/ back to reign at God’s right hand.” I don’t know about you, but that’s always the troublesome thing with the Ascension: where is this right hand? Or as a theologian once put it, where did the body go? From a received view of history, the ancient peoples may not have had as much a problem as we do. They had a heaven above where it made sense for Jesus to reside. John Lennon asked people to imagine that there’s no heaven, no hell below us, above us only sky, but with all due respect to him, we don’t need to imagine that. We know that. We can see it with our own telescopes.
Where did the body go? It’s not a dumb question. We believe the resurrection of Jesus. By dying, Christ destroyed our death; rising, he restores our life. If there was not resurrection, our lives have not been restored. So this question about the body seems to me to be important. It is foolish to believe it, I know. We do a lot of foolish things here at church, and we believe a lot of things that, at first blush, seem like nonsense. We are at a disadvantage, we moderns, with our mastery over nature, our marvelous movie heroes, and our astronauts. I think it keeps our imagination confined to what Luke and the whole of Holy Scripture is trying to tell us about Ascension. So I propose we look a little bit at Martin Luther, who had never seen a superhero movie or watched Spock disappear from a planet’s surface. I would say, however, that Luther was better versed in Scripture than anyone alive today, and I think we could learn a thing or two from him.
First, he calls the idea of God sitting on a golden throne “childish” and made up. Christ is not sitting beside a king in a court. “The Scriptures teach us, however, that the right hand of God is not a specific place…but is the almighty power of God, which at and the same time can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere.” God is not measured or restricted to a place or a region. Where did Jesus go when Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father? Up, down, and all around. He didn’t go anywhere. He went everywhere at once. I like the way Luke says he withdrew from the disciples—it’s almost like he took his presence away from them. It’s very courtly in its own way: the Christ has withdrawn and shall we not all retire unto Jerusalem? But I think it’s almost the perfect way of speaking about Jesus’ presence.
So where is Jesus then? Luther goes on to say about the location of the power of God: “…it must essentially be present at all places, even in the tiniest tree leaf. The reason is this: It is God who creates, effects, and preserves all things through his almighty power and right hand…nothing can be more truly present and within all creatures than God himself with his power.” I love this idea: God is more present to us than we are to ourselves, just as God is further from us than the furthest reach of space. Where did Jesus go? To the right hand of God, which is everywhere and nowhere, within and without us. Is it strange? It is strange to say that someone was raised from the dead.
But do not look for him with microscopes and telescopes. He can…withdraw. Luther was eager to say that even the resurrected Jesus is at the right hand of the inexpressible God—but that we are not there. All space and time might be present to God at once; but we don’t have such a vantage point. We are all vanishing in the swift river of time. So, God searches us out and gives us something to grasp: God’s promise in the Word. Where did Jesus ascend? Jesus ascended to the church, which is his body birthed in Baptism and nourished by Holy Communion.
God’s power is evident in our Ephesians reading today. There’s a strange moment at the end of our Ephesians reading today, after Paul starts talking about the power of God and God seating Christ at his right hand. He says, “And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Reverend John Flack