Ascension Day was three days ago. It used to be one of the great days of the Christian year, but now most of us never even notice it. The Lord's Ascension has lost out to Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Don't get me wrong. Valentine's Day and Mother's Day are a nice way to celebrate human love, but they give us no anchor for love in the Love of God. The most wonderful experiences of human love are fleeting. That is why I am preaching about Ascension Day this Sunday.
The Ascension Day text in the first chapter of the Book of Acts tells us that "After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." Then on the fortieth day he told them to await the empowering of the Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate next Sunday as the Day of Pentecost.
So let's begin with a bit of arithmetic. If we add the three days between Jesus' crucifixion and the resurrection, then forty days from the first Easter Sunday, and then another ten days to the Day of Pentecost we have a total of fifty three days. Why did it take that long for Jesus to move from his death on the cross to the first sign of his reign from heaven?
For us the transition from closing our eyes in this life to waking up on the other side of death will instantaneous. And Jesus could just as easily have moved directly from the moment of his death on the cross to his place in heaven. So it seems that God deliberately opened up and extended the time over a period of fifty three days to enable the disciples to grasp with absolute certainty the implications of what was happening.
First the disciples needed three days to be sure that their teacher had really died. The tomb had to be sealed, soldiers had to be on watch, people had to grieve and visit and comfort the members of Jesus' family. Then the resurrection should be really earth shattering. There was a tremendous earthquake, the tomb was cracked, the stone rolled away from the entrance, and angels came to explain what had happened.
Next, for forty long days they had to be convinced by encountering Jesus' new resurrection body in many different kinds of situation. He walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Later that day he came through closed doors to join them at table. He appeared in Jerusalem and in Galilee. After they had been fishing all night and caught nothing, he told where to cast their net for a huge catch of fish, and they met him cooking their breakfast by the edge of the lake. There were no doubt other situations which are not recorded in the Gospels. Paul adds the astonishing information that "he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died" (1 Corinthians 15:6).
The first resurrection appearance to eat with his disciples was on a Sunday, and apparently the next was again on a Sunday. Paul is careful to record that in Troas the gathering to break bread was on the First Day of the Week. It seems that Jesus got his disciples into the habit of expecting him at their weekly thanksgiving meal. He would be there whenever they met in whatever country till the end of our world. But they should not expect him to appear in the same form as he did during those forty days.
Finally they needed a sign that the bodily resurrection appearances had ended. And the first Ascension Day was certainly impressive. Luke's gospel records that "he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven." It must have been an awesome sight.
Next Sunday will be the Day of Pentecost. We calculated that it comes on the 53rd. day after the crucifixion which is the seventh Sunday after Easter. We will see how it was the special day that God chose to show how his ascended Son is reigning by the power of the Holy Spirit in His Church.
You may say that the events of these 53 days are all very interesting. You agree that God certainly had a hand in this symbolic timing of the events from the crucifixion to the Day of Pentecost. But what does that do for us? And how does it relate to the love of God? Let me suggest an answer to those two questions.
We have seen that Jesus did not move straight from his death by crucifixion to the glory of heaven. God opened up the events from Good Friday to Pentecost so we could grasp the meaning of each step. And each one of us connects with those events. In the Garden of Gethsemane we struggle with the enormity of dying. Some people are killed instantly without any premonition of dying. But most of us will see it coming. The cross pictures for us the slow agony that might be involved in our own death.
It is on the cross that we forgive our enemies. Nurses and ministers who work with the dying tell me that it is often only in the last few days that people who have for years been filled with hate and unforgiveness find themselves willing to forgive and die in peace. It is a wonderful thing to be at the bedside of someone who can say "It is finished" and "Into your hands I commend my last breath."
The next experience will be the realization that we now have a new kind of resurrection body. On Easter Day we thought of the caterpillar suddenly finding himself emerging from the cocoon with a new butterfly body. And after receiving our new body the next step corresponds to the ascension as we move from this world system into the life of heaven. And there we discover that our most wonderful experiences of the Holy Spirit were only a foretaste of the fullness of our freedom and reign with our ascended Christ on the other side.
When parents love their children, they have an idea of perfect freeedom in mind. "I want my children, each in their own special way, to be equipped and freed to enjoy all that life has to offer." And that is precisely what the vastly greater Love of God has in mind for us. You see love is defined as caring for the freedom of the other. And God's one concern throughout all the experiences of our life is that we should begin to find our own freedom now and be prepared to enjoy it to the full in heaven.
Most people picture their life as a series of good and bad events that will end with death, and with no ultimate meaning. For us faith is living by a picture, or model, or vision of life with a view to our ultimate destiny. That means that all the experiences of our life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, the excitement and the long weary delays, being loved and being hated, are all seen by faith in the light of the vast freedom of heaven. That is what ascension is all about.
For us ascension will be instantaneous, but Jesus delayed his ascension and the beginning of his reign for fifty three days so we could see and grasp all that is involved in humans moving from this life to the eternal joys of the City of God.