Grace Presbyterian Church
May 16, 2021, Ascension B (recorded)
Jesus Lifted Up, Yet Again
It was back on March 14 that two of the scriptures for the day, from Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21, hinged on an image of something (or someone) being “lifted up.” The Numbers passage told of a bronze replica of a serpent being lifted up before the stricken Israelites after their rebellion against Moses and God had resulted in an infestation of poisonous snakes ready to bite: their instruction was to look up at that bronze snake if they wanted to recover and live. The passage from John’s gospel trades on that very image to anticipate Jesus’s own being “lifted up” on a cross, showing the world the consequences of its own sinfulness and rebellion and yet offering that “the world might be saved through him.”
Today’s account of being “lifted up,” however, is a bit different.
The Ascension is a curious story for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it only appears twice in scripture, and those appearances are in two different books of the Bible that were most likely written by the same author, most frequently identified with Luke, the physician who also worked alongside Paul on some of his missionary journeys. This author (we’ll call him “Luke” for convenience though no name is actually attached to the two books) tells us up front in Luke 1 that he is no eyewitness to these things, but instead is writing this missive to the otherwise-unknown Theophilus as the fruits of a research project. He speaks of all of this as coming about after “investigating everything carefully from the very first.”
At the beginning of Acts he acknowledges this first book briefly and quickly gets back to his reporting, perhaps having garnered some new information about the Ascension from further research; the Acts account is slightly elaborated, acknowledging for example that Jesus remained on the earth for forty days after his resurrection, whereas Luke’s first book almost seems to suggest that all of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances took place in one day.
This particular characteristic of the Luke version of the event brings up a point that carries loads of theological freight. It’s possible you might have recognized a large chunk of this scripture reading, since it was the lectionary gospel reading for a few weeks ago, on April 18. You might remember that it picked up immediately after the Emmaus road story, with Jesus appearing before his disciples and showing them his scars and asking for a piece of fish to eat. He then “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” and gives them the charge that they will bear witness to repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’s name “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
The “new part” of the gospel reading we heard today only begins at verse 49, where Jesus commands the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem for the time being, until they had been “clothed with power from on high” (pretty clearly a reference to the Pentecost event). Then, seemingly without skipping a beat, Jesus leads them out to the fringe of town, blesses them, and was lifted up into heaven.
Notice what this extended narrative seems to mean: the Jesus who was lifted up into heaven at the end of the narrative is the same Jesus who was showing his scars to the disciples. The same scars in his hands and feet and spear wound in his side that he challenged the disciples to see in that closed room were still part of the body that ascended into heaven. Jesus didn’t shed that body and drift away in some vague spiritual form; he ascended complete with wounded and broken body.
It would seem clear that no amount of woundedness or brokenness is going to keep anyone out of the welcoming embrace of God.
As we’ve already noted, Luke expands this account slightly at the beginning of Acts. We have already noted that Jesus’s post-resurrection time on earth is recorded here as being forty days, which is how the date of Ascension is placed on our modern liturgical calendar forty days after Easter and ten days before Pentecost. Jesus apparently spends those days with “many convincing proofs” and teaching them to the last about the kingdom of God. The charge to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Spirit is repeated here, with the promise of being “baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
The disciples had one question for Jesus before he left, which Jesus dismissed as not theirs to know, and then issues the same charge again in the form in which it has perhaps become most famous, in verse 8: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then Jesus is lifted up and taken from the sight of the disciples.
This time, though, Luke has a small epilogue to the story. Two men in white robes have somehow appeared with their own addendum to the message, a promise that the same Jesus they had just seen lifted up would return in the same way they had just seen him taken up. The departure is not for good.
In this curious coda to Luke’s story of Jesus’s earthly ministry we are given two distinct hopes. The lifting up of Jesus’s broken and wounded body reminds us that we cannot be broken enough for God to do anything but receive us. The “parting shot” from the Acts account gives us hope that our separation from the Son of God is not forever, not permanent.
The promise of the Holy Spirit is real, but that’s next week’s story. For now, in the time of waiting, let us hope in these things. Especially after this very extended time of waiting, as we seek to gather in person in our sanctuary for the first time in a very long time, let us hope in these things: our brokenness will never keep us from God, or God from us. Jesus will come to be with us again. Think on these things.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #263, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!; #262, Since Our Great High Priest, Christ Jesus.