The Ascension of Christ - Whose Presence Fills the Universe
On Wednesday it was Ascension Day, 39 days after Easter Sunday.
In the Bible, there are perhaps at least three perspectives (one could possibly say three understandings) of the ascension of Christ.
The first is in the book of Luke 24 and Acts 1. Forty Days after Jesus Resurrection, the writer of Luke’s Gospel pictures a scene in which Jesus is standing with his disciples and he begins to rise in in front of their eyes, kind of levitating up into the sky, where he disappears from their sight through the clouds.
It is a concrete pictorial description of something that might in fact be beyond words.
The description in the books of Luke and Acts follows the popular ancient world-view of a three tiered universe where earth was in the middle. Below ground was hades, the place of the dead, and then above the sky, beyond the dome of the sky, or the firmament as the book of Genesis would put it, is the realm of heaven, where God sits on a throne looking down upon us all.
In the books of Luke and Acts then, the author has composed a story to try and enable early Christian believers to picture in their minds how Christ who was now risen, had ascended to God above the sky in the heaven.
But interestingly, John’s Gospel also makes reference to the ascension of Christ, and he doesn't follow the time frame of Luke and Acts. In John’s Gospel, the ascension of Christ happens almost immediately after the Resurrection. You will remember that in John’s Gospel, the risen Christ meets Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the empty tomb. She thinks he is a gardener. He calls her by name, saying “Mary”. In that instant she recognises him, turns towards him and Jesus says to her “Do not hold on to me, for I have to ascend to the Father. God instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. Later that same evening, while the disciples are together behind locked doors, Jesus comes and stands amongst them.
The implication in John’s Gospel is that in the interim, Jesus has somehow already ascended to the Father, for a week later, according to John’s Gospel, Thomas can now reach out and touch the hands and side of Jesus.
So we have two texts in the New Testament that both speak of Jesus ascending to the Father, but the timing is different.
Then we come to the book of Ephesians and we discover more references to the ascension of Christ. Early on in Ephesians, the writer, believed by many to be the apostle Paul, refers to Christ being raised from the dead, and being seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms, with God placing all things under his feet and making Christ the head of all.
In Chapter 1 of Ephesians, the resurrection of Christ and His ascension are not two distinct events, but rather almost two inter-changeable ideas or perhaps two ways of describing the same thing.
But in Ephesians Chapter 4 the idea of the ascension of Christ takes on an even greater and deeper significance. In chapter 1 Jesus is seated next to the Father in the heavenly realms, but in chapter 4 the ascension of Christ is described in completely different terms. In chapter 4:10 Paul writes “He who descended is the very one who ascended, higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.”
Higher than all the Heavens in order to fill the whole Universe. In Chapter 4:10, the ascension of Christ is a cosmic event. In Ephesians 4:10, the presence of Christ is now cosmically linked to the presence of God.
To speak of God seated on a throne is to use picture language to try and describe something that is indescribable. If God is the highest authority in the universe, then using human picture language, it becomes useful to imagine God on a throne. And if God has somehow made Jesus King, then is becomes equally necessary to describe Jesus as sitting on a throne at the right hand side of God. This is language that is meant to help ordinary human beings like us have some image to grasp onto and hold in our minds. But just so that we don’t try to take that image too literally, and to remind us that it is a metaphor and a picture describing something essentially indescribable, the writer of Ephesians then blows our minds with a cosmic picture where the ascension of Christ means that Christ has gone beyond even the highest heavens in order to fill the whole universe.
And so, if we are to ask the question “Where is Christ?” The author of Ephesians tells us that it is almost like the Presence of Christ has exploded and expanded filling the whole universe. In other words, the ascension of Christ means that, like God, the presence of Christ fills all things, the whole universe.
The life of Christ has become a window and a doorway into encountering the One whose Presence fill’s the whole universe. If according to the writer of Ephesians, Christ’s presence fills all things, and the whole universe, then it could be said that Christ is to be found within every atom, within every neutron, within every electron, and within the tiniest particle or wave energy in the universe.
This is an amazing thing when you begin to think about it. If Christ is Love, then by implication, Christ’s ascension means that Christ’s love fill’s the entire universe.To put it another way, everything is in Christ, and Christ is in everything. This is the language that is used in John’s Gospel where in John 14. It was the lectionary passage. In that passage, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to the Father. This sounds like the language of ascension. But he also tells them that “I am in the Father and the Father is in me”. And then in verse 20, Jesus expands this idea to tell us that a day will come when we will discover that He is in the Father, but also that we are in him and he is in us.
It seems that the life of the Spirit is an inside job. To have the eyes of our hearts enlightened, as the writer of Ephesians puts it in Ephesians 1:18 is to have our eyes opened to discover the Presence of God, and the Presence of Christ in all things, filling the entire universe. And according to Ephesians 4:10, when we do that, then we will have truly understood what the Ascension really means.
Or as the Poet William Blake put it… "To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour."
The Gospel of Thomas is a gospel that was never included in the New Testament. It is a book of sayings of Jesus, quite a number of which appear in the 4 Gospels we have in the Bible, as well as quite a few that do not. Within the Gospel of Thomas there is a wonderful saying of Jesus that expresses the same sense of Ephesians 4:10 which speaks of the presence of God and Christ filling all things:
In Saying 77 Jesus says: “I am the light that is over all. I am the All. The All came forth out of me. And to me the All has come.” “Split a piece of wood – I am there. Lift the stone, and you will find me there.”
And in Saying 113, the disciples ask Jesus, “...The Kingdom, what day will it come?” To which Jesus replies, “...The Kingdom of the Father is spread out across the earth, but people do not see it.”
The ascension of Christ reminds us that the whole universe and the whole of creation is the Temple of God’s Presence. Or another way of putting it that the Universe is the very body of Christ and Christ is the heart or soul of the universe.
And so on this Ascension Sunday, may the eyes of our hearts be enlightened (Eph 1:18), that in their opening, we may come to see the Presence of Christ in everything, so that, using words from Ephesians 1:23 we come to see Christ who is the Fullness of Him who fills all things. Amen.
As a meditation on this perspective on the ascension of Christ, I am now going to invite us to reflect on the words of a beautiful song written by Dean Slater “Have you seen Jesus my Lord” that invites us to see Christ in all of creation.