By Linda Rex
May 24, 2020, 7th SUNDAY OF EASTER/ASCENSION SUNDAY—Last week in this blog we wrestled with the reality that what we believe influences how we respond to what is happening in our lives. We often do not realize, nor do we intentionally deal with, beliefs we may hold dear which are actually undermining our ability to be relationally connected in healthy ways.
One of the beliefs which often keeps us closed within ourselves is the belief that we are alone, that no one understands what we have been through or are going through right now. This is one of the reasons that support groups are part of the healing process for people who struggle with addictions. The insidious lie that no one understands—that we are all alone in this world, that we can and need to handle this issue all by ourselves—keeps us locked in unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and living.
We may struggle with opening up to others because everyone we have done this with in the past has betrayed us or failed us in some way. Or, in our life, we may experience safe relationships as anything but safe. But whether we like it or not, the path to our genuine healing lies on the continuum of healthy relationships with safe people, and we have to stop isolating in order to find renewal and restoration.
On Ascension Sunday in the Christian church we celebrate an event in Jesus’ life which directly speaks to this issue. For many years, Christ’s ascension really didn’t mean a lot to me. My church taught me he did send the Spirit to help out the people he called to himself, but that didn’t really seem to help much with the everyday issues of our lives. Our church’s view back said that when he left, he went home and left us all here to struggle until he came to punish the people in the world for failing to live rightly—that is except all the sainted people who managed to keep all the old covenant laws and observe all the days correctly. Back then I desperately hoped I would be counted as one of the obedient few.
But now, every year on Ascension Sunday, my associate Pastor Jan invites us after church to join her in the parking lot for a visible lesson on Christ’s ascension into glory and what that means for every human being who has ever lived. We cannot gather this year for Ascension Sunday and to eat William’s fried fish, but we can take some time to reflect on scriptures we will read on this day. They tell us how Jesus, after he had risen from the grave, spent forty days walking and talking with his disciples. His glorified humanity was still tangible but somehow different—he ate and drank, cooked fish at a campfire, and he walked through walls. He didn’t stop being human when he was resurrected. Instead, his humanity was glorified—transformed by his indwelling presence as God in human flesh.
He spent these forty days after the resurrection opening the disciples’ minds to the Old Testament scriptures, explaining how everything which had happened to him had been predicted and now was fulfilled. There was still some misunderstanding by the disciples—they were still looking for him to restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). But instead of restoring the kingdom of Israel as they wanted him to, he told them they were to wait for his Spirit to come and that they would be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and going throughout Judea, to Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.
The kingdom which Jesus was inaugurating had a lot to do with who he is now—God in human flesh. The uniting of the divine life with our creaturely human existence meant that our turning away from God to ourselves and the things of the earth no longer defines us. We now have the capacity to participate in the oneness in which the Father, Son, and Spirit dwell. In the sending of his Spirit, Jesus enables those who believe to participate in the divine life and love. They experience God’s indwelling presence now, being empowered by the Spirit to bear witness to the living Lord Jesus who is seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We find in Jesus Christ—and this is the magnificence of the ascension—someone who is God who has experienced what it is like to be an infant, a child, a teen, and an adult. This is a God who knows the feeling of being held by his mother, taught by his father and other teachers, and being called names by those who questioned his parentage. He has experienced tears, the death of dear friends, and betrayal by those he loved. He knows in a real and personal way what it means to be human and how difficult it is for us to live in relationship with one another and with God.
Jesus, who is still God in human (but glorified) flesh, holds our humanity in the presence of our heavenly Father, and sends the Spirit. As we place our faith in him, Christ by the Spirit empowers us to bear witness to the Father’s love expressed to all humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. We do this not only by our words, but most significantly by our lives lived in unity of the Spirit—expressing the oneness of the other-centered love we were created to reflect and participate in as image-bearers of our Creator.
We were created for relationship and it is in healthy spiritual community that we find renewal and restoration. Many of our emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds occur within the context of relationship, and it is in this same context where our best healing occurs. The ascension of Jesus Christ teaches us that undergirding all other relationships, there is a Person who is intimately familiar with our situation, who shares our wounds, and who is closer to us than any other human being could ever be. In Jesus we have an advocate and helper like no other.
As we place our faith in Jesus, we begin to experience the reality of our inclusion in the divine life and love. We are joined in union and communion with the Father through the Son in the Spirit, so that all of life is now lived in participation with them. We share in their mission in this world—to testify of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus Christ. God, by his Spirit, calls us into spiritual community—what we commonly call the church, though spiritual community can exist in many other ways.
Church is an unpleasant topic for many. It has and is often the cause of many relational hurts. But that is not God’s reason for drawing people together into spiritual community. It is meant to be the place where Jesus is present in this world, testifying to the love and grace of God. It is meant to be the place where people encounter safe relationships in which they can find healing and wholeness. God calls people together, not so they can impress everyone with how good they are or so they can protect themselves from being contaminated by sin, but so that the other-centered love they express to one another and to the community they live and work in is a living testimony to the love of God expressed to us in Christ, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
Perhaps it is time to reflect on where we are in our relationship with God and with the other people in our lives. Are we intimately connected with the God who has gone to such lengths to be intimately connected with us? What are we placing between us to keep us from opening ourselves up to his love and grace? And if we have placed our faith in Christ, is this manifest in the way we live with those around us? When others look at us and how we interact with them, do they see an expression of God’s other-centered love? Our reflections should not be discouraging, because on God’s side—all is done. Jesus stands, hands out-stretched, inviting us on the journey—knowing exactly what we need in this moment to move deeper into his love and grace, and to find healing and renewal.
Abba, thank you for loving us so, for drawing us to yourself. Thank you, Jesus, for going through all that you did and for bringing us into glory in your resurrection. Holy Spirit, please finish in us what you have begun in Jesus—we are open. We receive your living Presence, God, and seek to bear witness to your grace and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” John 17:1-5 NASB
“… and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Luke 24:46-51 NASB
By Linda Rex
ASCENSION SUNDAY—Today I have on my mind one of those tragic circumstances in which people whom I care for and love are bound by either habit or choice to things which hold them captive. Their relationships aren’t all based on love but rather on convenience or need, or even on whether or not they can get what they want or need from the people they profess to care for. This breaks my heart.
How do you love such a person? Love in their minds seems to mean getting what they want or believe they need even when it is at the expense of the people they get it from. Love, for them, seems to have to do merely with the fleshly passions of the human soul rather than the aspects of our being which reflect the divine glory.
To tell such a person no, or to limit their ability to have the things which give them pleasure, doesn’t feel loving to them. Rather it feels restrictive and uncomfortable. It feels like the person who is setting limits on them doesn’t care about their feelings or needs, when in reality there is deep love and compassion behind all and any efforts to help by setting limits or restricting behaviors.
We as human beings can become very confused about the difference between love and lust, concern and condemnation. To tell someone their behavior is self-destructive and/or hurtful and that it needs to stop is perceived as interference or being judgmental and condemning, when in reality the person trying to intervene wants to help save them from their self-harm before it is too late. People can lose all ability to recognize the glory inherent within their being unless someone else points it out to them, but even then, they may refuse to recognize it or live in the truth of who God meant for them to be.
In reality, each and every human carry within themselves a divine glory. Each of us was made in the image of God after his likeness to reflect the glory of God. We are made to manifest God’s very nature as Father, Son, and Spirit living in perichoretic oneness, purity, and holiness. It is God’s nature to be loving, gracious, compassionate, and just (Ex. 34:6-7). This is the nature we were meant to reflect as we live our daily lives. The reason Jesus came was not so we could be more self-indulgent and self-serving, but rather so that we could be more Christlike—living a life of loving humility, service, and sacrifice in healthy relationship with one another and God.
The Christian church is meant to be the place where the glory God has given us is manifest in the way in which we interact with one another. Believers are to live with one another in a way which reflects the glory and majesty of God as expressed to us in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in his completed work on our behalf and given to us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
When we live in ways that are self-indulgent, hedonistic, and self-serving, we are living in denial of the truth. We are missing out on the blessing and joy of living in the truth of our humanity—that we are accepted, forgiven, beloved, and healed in Christ and meant to reflect the glory of God. We are created to live in community, in outgoing concern and service to others around us, walking in grace and in truth in our relationships.
God made us his very own adopted children and has done what was needed so that we may be forgiven and freed from all the things in this world which bind us and hold us captive. As we gaze upon Jesus, we find ourselves living in him—his humanity is real. He was just as human as we are, with the same everyday need to eat, drink, and sleep. He knew what it was like to hunger, to ache with strained muscles, and to lay his head back to catch a quick nap when he had the chance. He understood the ache we feel when we have broken relationships and understood with great compassion how we feel when we lose someone dear to us.
It was not enough for the Word of God to join us in our humanity. He joined us in our human experience, but then was willing to go through the sorrow and agony of the worst of it—betrayal, shame, humiliation, abuse, torture, and crucifixion. Whatever we may perceive of as pain or grief, Jesus experienced it too, carrying within himself our very own brokenness as human beings. And having done all this, he entered into the depths of death—going through what every human must experience one day—he died and was laid in a tomb.
But bearing our humanity in this way was not the end. It was necessary that Jesus carry our humanity with him from Mary’s womb on into eternity. The Lord of all rose from the grave bearing our glorified humanity. The newness of our being as humans made in the image of God is something Jesus Christ bears even now. For forty days following his resurrection, his disciples saw, touched, and heard the reality of our resurrected glorified humanity in Jesus. He walked, talked, and ate with them—living life in ways which showed he was still very human but also very glorified.
Jesus said that the only way we could share in this divine glory was through the endowment of the Holy Spirit. He had to go to the Father so that the Spirit would come and each of us could share in this marvelous gift Jesus had forged on our behalf. In Ephesians we learn that Jesus even now bears our glorified humanity in the presence of Abba—who we are as human beings has been reestablished in the glorified risen Lord and is there for us awaiting our own transformation.
The ascension is a significant day on the Christian calendar, for our humanity ascended with Christ when he rose to be in the presence of Abba forever. We are given the gift of everlasting life in Jesus Christ, but we can continue to choose the ways of death instead of receiving this gift and living in the truth of it. Are we willing to surrender to Christ being the One who defines our humanity and how we live our lives, or will we continue to seek our own ways of living and being?
The path Jesus trod when he was on earth was the path of death and resurrection and he calls us to join him there. This path requires surrender, relinquishment, and submission to the will and purposes of the God who made us and who came to redeem us and bring us to be with him forever. Are we willing to lay it all down so that we can share in this marvelous and wonderful gift?
We were meant for so much more than this broken and twisted life. We weren’t created to be slaves or captives. We were created for glory. We were meant to live with God in glory forever in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22), rejoicing in the goodness and love of God on into eternity. Will we turn away from ourselves and turn to Christ? Will we receive the gift of life God has bestowed on us through Christ in the Spirit? Will we fully participate in Christ’s ascension?
Dear Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for sharing in all aspects of our humanity and for freeing us from all that binds us and holds us captive. Grant us the grace to acknowledge our dependency upon you, our inability to live in the glory which you intended us to shine with, and to, this day, do the next right thing you give us to do. Holy Spirit, empower us again to bear witness to our glorified Lord in all we say and do, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“God has ascended with a shout, / The Lord, with the sound of a trumpet.” Psalm 47:5 NASB
“These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Ephesians 1:19b-23 NASB
By Linda Rex
Wednesday night I stood in front of the church building near the road with Maria, and later with Betty, so I could hand out candy and invite people in for cocoa and cookies. It was fun to see the kids in their costumes, and to appreciate the efforts of their parents to see that the kids were kept safe while they trick-or-treated.
I was reminded of how when I was a kid, my parents did not observe Halloween. We watched the kids go by, having left the lights off in the front of the house so they wouldn’t ring the doorbell. When we could sneak out, brothers and I liked to hide in the camelia bushes and ferns in front of the house so we could startle those who walked by. I don’t think we were ever very successful in our efforts, though.
My parents were diligent in their efforts to please God, and since they believed Halloween was a pagan holiday which celebrated darkness and evil, they didn’t want anything to do with it. I can appreciate their heart with regards to wanting to do what was right in God’s sight, but I have since learned that the Halloween we celebrate today is different than what was originally on the Christian calendar. Halloween was converted to Christian use in conjunction with All Saints’ Day.
All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) occurs the night before All Saints’ Day, which occurs every year on November 1. All Saints’ Day is celebrated by many traditions as a day to honor faithful believers who have died. For example, the Episcopal Church in America says this feast commemorates all saints, known and unknown. They consider All Saints’ Day to be one of the seven principal feasts of the church year, and one of the four days recommended for the administration of baptism. Many churches celebrate All Saints’ Day the Sunday following November 1 rather than on that date which often falls in the middle of the week. All Saints’ Day is meant to be a time when believers celebrate the miracle of the resurrection, in that those who have already died are safely at home with Jesus because of what he did in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The All Hallows’ Eve celebration which occurs the night before All Saints’ Day was originally intended to make a mockery of the powers of darkness and evil. Death has no real power any more because Jesus entered death and penetrated it down to its very core and exited the other side in glory, taking our human nature with him. The apostle Paul celebrated what Christ accomplished for us in 1 Cor. 15:20-22: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” We often read this section of Scripture at funerals because we need to be reminded of our hope.
We are freed from death’s power once and for all in and by Jesus Christ! As Paul wrote: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:51-57 NASB).
There is a victory over sin and death which is ours in Jesus Christ. It is only right to celebrate the miracle of what Jesus has done for us. Death and sin have, in reality, reached their end—their time of influence and power are over, even though we still experience their effects in this life. The hurt that comes when we lose a loved one is real—we were not created for separation but for union and communion. But we must always remember, this life is not the end. It was never meant to be. In Christ and because of Christ, there is life beyond the grave.
The early Christians faced death often—they were persecuted, tortured, and martyred for their belief in Jesus. Yet even the weakest of them, and the women and children, bravely faced such horrific experiences because of their strong belief that in Christ, death wasn’t the end. Death, and the suffering which went with it, was only a door they would go through so they could once again be with Jesus. Even though death and suffering to us are horrific and awful, to those who trust in Christ they are merely passing birth pangs in preparation to our birth into our glorified humanity.
When I worked at the nursing home, death was part of the normal course of events. We cared for people, and when it was their time (and sometimes when it seemed it wasn’t), they moved on. Death for anyone left behind is not easy. We know death is a time to celebrate their new birth, not just to grieve our own loss. But it is still hard, and it is still painful.
Lately I have found myself unaccountably brought to tears or deep sadness. The truth is, I am grieving, and have been grieving for some time—grieving the loss of several very dear people and important relationships. Over the years I have lost my parents, grandparents, and my father-in-law, and some close friends. I have lost companions in the faith, and dearly loved members of my congregations. Each of these people held a special place in my heart and I miss them. My life has not been the same since they left. I have moved on, but I still feel their loss.
Sometimes we are angry with those who have left because they didn’t take better care of themselves, or because they left everything in a horrible mess, or because they were such an integral part of our lives, we don’t know how to go on without them. We feel guilty about being angry, but anger is what we must feel and deal with before we can move on. Death is a violation and an invasion of our peace and our safety, and such violations naturally create anger. We use that anger to deal with what is—the reality of our loss—and we, step by agonizing step—move on into a new place. We create a new existence which doesn’t involve those who are gone in the same way.
Halloween can remind us that evil, sin, and death are destined to come to a complete end because of Jesus. All Saints’ Day can remind us that moving on with our lives doesn’t necessarily mean we move on without those we love. The truth is we are all connected to one another in Jesus Christ. And that connection doesn’t end when someone dies. In reality, death cannot in any way separate us from one another, for we are all one in Christ and by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus took on our humanity, he did not only take on the humanity of good people. He did not just die bearing the humanity of good people. He took on every person’s humanity, becoming sin for us, in our place, on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Jesus in our place and on our behalf, stands in glory today, bearing our humanity—which has been cleansed and glorified. This is our hope, and our expectation, and our joy. This is what we celebrate!
Dear Abba, thank you that in the face of evil and death we have hope. Thank you that we can trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ to bring us beyond death into our new life in him. Thank you that you are with us in the midst of grief and sorrow and will carry us through our pain and loss into a new existence. We trust in your faithfulness and love, in Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;/A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,/And refined, aged wine./And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples,/Even the veil which is stretched over all nations./He will swallow up death for all time,/And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces,/And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth;/For the LORD has spoken./And it will be said in that day,/‘Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us./This is the LORD for whom we have waited;/Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.’” Isaiah 25:6–9 NASB