“And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight…”
It would be easy to simply pass over the Ascension of our Lord and jump right to Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, especially since that seems to be when the action picks up once again. Maybe the cosmology is embarrassing? Even the Epistle and Gospel for the Sunday after the Ascension direct our attention not to our Lord’s rather obvious return to his Father in Heaven, but to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. After all, his departure, his “going away” as it is put it in John’s Gospel, was a natural unfolding of the story’s plot. We have seen over these last few Sundays after Easter that our Lord was raised physically from the dead and Luke is careful to point out to his readers that Jesus presented himself to his disciples after his resurrection and continued to teach his disciples up until the day he was “taken up.”
According to Luke’s account in Acts at the end of that period Jesus and his disciples once again gathered together at Mount Olivet one last time. The word Luke uses here that we have translated “come together” literally means, “sharing salt,” which suggests the possibility that they were sharing a last meal. In fact the Aramaic verb for eating salt had come to mean simply eating together. It is certainly consistent with Luke’s assertion that after his resurrection Jesus offered “proofs” of his corporeality to his disciples.
Now, they all stood there together outside Jerusalem. Jesus commissioned them to go into the whole world and preach his gospel. But he told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Paraclete, the Comforter is come upon them. And then right before their eyes he was taken up until a cloud received him out of their sight. This is what the Church calls the Ascension. They were awestruck of course. Ascensions do not occur everyday and they stood there apparently gawking till two men dressed in white said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven. This same Jesus that you have observed departing will one day return in the same way.” Christ was taken out of their sight that is the resurrected Jesus would no longer be empirically available as he had been post-resurrection because he returned to his Father, to the abode of the Trinity, which is “higher,” than this space-time continuum.
Throughout the Last Discourse and presumably during this post-resurrection, Jesus had been preparing his disciples:
“A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father…”
“Jesus said, Now I go my way to him that sent me…”
“It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you…”
“I came forth from the Father and am come into the world; again, I leave the world, and go to the Father…”
I want to think about some of the implications of Jesus’ return to his Father. Exactly, what is the upshot of his return to his Father for creation and especially for humanity? First of all realize that the Ascension did not bring an end to the Incarnation. The Incarnation is the permanent state of being of the uncreated Son of God. The Subject, the Person of Jesus Christ, has two separate natures; true God and true Man. Jesus is not two Persons, one human and one divine. Jesus Christ is only one Person and that one Person, that one Subject is the Second Person of the Trinity and has two separate natures. His divine nature is whole and undiluted by his humanity. And his humanity is whole and undiluted by his divinity. In other words, Jesus is not a hybrid of divinity and humanity; nor did Jesus’ divine nature swallow up his humanity. In his Incarnation the eternally begotten Son esteems the integrity of human nature. And what is important today is one human being who died and who has been raised from the dead eternally. And that means human nature is such that it is may be joined to God’s nature, and it is such that it is capable of being raised from the dead and then to participate in the Divine life.
Jesus Christ is One Person who subsists in two natures. Now the Person, the Subject of the two natures, is not a creature himself. The Person, the Subject, did not come into existence at the Incarnation. So who is the Person of Jesus Christ? The Person, the Subject of the two natures is none other than the Logos, the eternally begotten Word of the Father. He became flesh by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. The fact that it could happen at all is very big news and a very big deal. What it means is that there is a fundamental compatibility between the Creator and his creation. It means that the uncreated Word of the Father has become the Subject, the Person of human nature by assuming it into his life, making it his own life, without destroying it or altering it in any way. He did this by receiving human nature from Mary. Thus, human nature is assumable into the Godhead. Human nature is created with a capacity for openness to God. And now with the Ascension, we know even more about the capacity of human nature: Jesus Christ has taken human nature into heaven – a human being is sitting at the right hand of God the Father.
And all this is “for us men and for our salvation,” to cite the Nicene Creed. But you must see that “salvation” is not merely an escape from death and hell. Nor is salvation a matter of changing or altering human nature into something other than human nature. Salvation does not mean that we become hybrids of God and Man. By assuming our humanity our Lord did not change human nature into something else, he perfected it. And that perfection is not merely a moral perfection; it is far more than that. Now conforming our behavior to the model of Jesus Christ will necessarily follow, but that is not the endgame. This is the endgame: The perfection of our nature, which is an action of grace, is participation in the life of God himself – that is the endgame, the telos, our destiny; indeed, that is our common vocation.
In this Jesus is the Pioneer of our Faith. He has demonstrated by the Incarnation that human nature is open to God, open to assumption, capable of participation without being altered. Remember this: Grace does not destroy nature; grace perfects nature. Here’s a formula that helps me remember this: “The Creator entered into the life of his creation as a creature so the creature may enter into the uncreated life of the Creator.” What this means for us is, yes, God’s solidarity with humanity and indeed his solidarity with all of creation is declared in the Ascension. But further we are the offspring of Divinity.
“Beloved, now we are the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear; we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
“We shall be like him,” in his humanity. And our destiny is to live in Jesus and he in the Father and the Father in him and we in them.
Now in light of this, I want to look at the text for this Sunday and make only one point. I want you to see that the Witness of the Paraclete or the Witness of the Spirit involves our giving voice to the Spirit, which is the same as giving voice to Jesus in this World. The voice of Jesus is the voice of the Spirit and the voice of the Spirit is the voice of the disciples in the World:
“When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me and ye also shall bear witness because ye have been with me from the beginning… They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.”
The Paraclete will bear witness to the truth of Jesus’ life, words and works. This is happening now. The Paraclete will bear witness that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of God. The World has rejected Jesus and the World continues to reject him. This has been a constant theme in the Sundays following Easter and especially in the Final Discourse. The World does not know God. The World has rejected God’s offer of Life.
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came unto his own and his own received him not.”
The world will treat his disciples just like it treated him. The Beloved Disciple presents a narrative in which the Christian community is to be locked in mortal combat with the World. And for the Beloved Disciple that included the Synagogue. There is an evil alliance between the Synagogue and the rest of the World against Jesus. Two times in the Revelation the Beloved Disciple refers to
“The synagogue of Satan (and those) who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie…”
I’ve said this before and I know you realize it already: the World is not evil in itself. God created it and declared that it is “good.” What makes it bad is what is missing. God has offered the World the possibility of participating in his life through Jesus Christ, but the World has declined his offer. Israel rejected Christ as well. And today much of what used to be the Church has declined Jesus’ offer. Where this absence of the good of God’s life is most concentrated in the world, is in the thrones and principalities of power, even if that principality happens to be vested in the people, that is in a democracy. Every kingdom, even one elected “by the people” is set against Christ and his Kingdom. In light of that rejection, the World and her tamed religious institutions have been shaped and continue to be shaped by a consuming obsession with what is here below. The higher life in Christ is not within the horizons of the rulers and nations of this world. Participation in the Life of God has been rejected and a passion, driven by self-interest, compels men to strike out against Jesus even though Jesus is at right hand of the Father. The World strikes out against Jesus by striking out against his disciples. We reject participation in this dying World that has rejected its Creator!
“The World is passing away along with its desires…”
“The Darkness is passing and the true light is already shinning…”
The Paraclete indwells the Church and indwells each disciple. It is the Church and the disciples who give voice to the Holy Spirit’s witness, making his witness their own witness. The Holy Spirit makes Jesus present in the world. The disciples give voice to the Holy Spirit who indwells us. By hating us who are the dwelling places of the Holy Spirit the world continues to strike against Jesus. We, you and I, the Church, the Bride represent Jesus; we stand in for Jesus contra mundum!