Jesus’ Ascension Challenges Christians to make Him visible by Philip Yancey
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “The Jesus I Never Knew” published in 1995.
Sometimes I think about how different the world would be had Jesus not resurrected from the dead. Although the disciples would not risk their lives trumpeting a new faith in the streets of Jerusalem, neither would they forget him. They had given three years to Jesus. He may not be the Messiah (not without Easter), but he had impressed them as the wisest teacher ever and had demonstrated powers that no one could explain.
After time, as emotional wounds began to heal, the disciples would seek some way to memorialize Jesus. Perhaps they would collect his sayings in a written form akin to one of our Gospels, though with the more sensational claims excised. Or, along with Jews from that period who were honoring other martyr-prophets, they might build a monument to Jesus’ life. If so, we who live in modern times could still visit that monument and learn about the carpenter/philosopher from Nazareth. We could sift through his sayings, taking or leaving whatever we liked. Worldwide, Jesus would be esteemed in the same way Confucius or Socrates is esteemed.
In many respects I would find an unresurrected Jesus easier to accept. Easter makes him dangerous. Because of Easter I have to listen to his extravagant claims and can no longer pick and choose from his sayings. Moreover, Easter means he must be loose out there somewhere. Like the disciples, I never know where Jesus might turn up, how he might speak to me, what he might ask of me. As Frederick Buechner says, Easter means “we can never nail him down, not even if the nails we use are real and the thing we nail him to is a cross.”
Easter puts Jesus’ life in a whole new light. Apart from Easter I would think it a tragedy that Jesus died young after a few short years of ministry. What a waste for him to leave so soon, having affected so few people in such a small part of the world! Yet, viewing that same life through the lens of Easter, I see that was Jesus’ plan all along. He stayed just long enough to gather around him followers who could carry the message to others. Killing Jesus, says Walter Wink, was like trying to destroy a dandelion seed-head by blowing on it.
When Jesus returned after death to vaporize all doubts among the remnant of believers, he tarried a mere forty days before vanishing for good. The time between Resurrection and Ascension was an interlude, nothing more.
If Easter Sunday was the most exciting day of the disciples’ lives, for Jesus it was probably the day of Ascension. He the Creator, who had descended so far and given up so much, was now heading home. Like a soldier returning across the ocean from a long and bloody war. Like an astronaut shedding his spacesuit to gulp in the familiar atmosphere of earth. Home at last.
Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper with his disciples reveals something of this point of view. “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do,” Jesus prayed, ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” Before the world began! Like an old man reminiscing—–no, like an ageless God reminiscing—–Jesus, who sat in a stuffy room in Jerusalem, was letting his mind wander back to a time before the Milky Way and Andromeda. On an earthly night dark with fear and menace, Jesus was making preparations to return home, to assume again the glory he had set aside.
On the day Jesus ascended, the disciples stood around dumbfounded, like children who have lost their parent. Two angels sent to calm them asked the obvious question, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” The sky was blank, empty. Still they stood and gazed, not knowing how to go on or what to do next.
So many times in the course of writing this book I have felt like one of those disciples, peering intently at a blank blue sky. I look for some sign of Jesus, some visual clue. When I glance around me at the church he left behind, I want to avert my eyes. Like the disciples’ eyes, mine ache for a pure glimpse of the One who ascended. Why, I ask again, did he have to leave?
But as I go back through the Gospels, trying to envision how Jesus himself viewed his time on earth, it seems obvious he planned this departure from the beginning. Nothing pleased Jesus more than the successes of his disciples; nothing disturbed him more than their failures. He had come to earth with the goal of leaving again, after transferring his mission to others. The angels’ gentle rebuke might as well have been his own: “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”
The first time Jesus sent the disciples out alone, he warned them about opposition that would likely take the form of floggings and public torture. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves,” he said. Reading these dire warnings, I cannot push from my mind a harrowing scene from Shusako Endo’s novel Silence. A Portuguese missionary priest, bound, is forced to watch as samurai guards torture Japanese Christians, one by one, and throw them into the sea. The samurai swear they will keep on killing Christians until the priest renounces his faith. “He had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him.”
What was it like for Jesus, who saw with piercing vision the terrible consequences of what he had set loose in the world, not only for himself but for the huddled few around him, his best friends in all the world? “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child… All men will hate you because of me. ..”
I struggle to reconcile that point of view—–a parent consigning her children to the gangs, a general ordering his troops into the line of fire—–with what took place at the Last Supper. There, as Jesus disclosed plans for his departure in terms no one could mistake, he said, “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away.” All along he had planned to depart in order to carry on his work in other bodies. Their bodies. Our bodies. The new body of Christ.
At the time the disciples had no idea what Jesus meant. How can it be good that he is going away? They ate the “body, broken for you” without comprehending the drastic change, that the mission God had assigned to the Son, the Son was now entrusting to them. “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world,” Jesus prayed.
Jesus left few traces of himself on earth. He wrote no books or even pamphlets. A wanderer, he left no home or even belongings that could be enshrined in a museum. He did not marry, settle down, and begin a dynasty. We would, in fact, know nothing about him except for the traces he left in human beings. That was his design. The law and the prophets had focused like a beam of light on the One who was to come, and now that light, as if hitting a prism, would fracture and shoot out in a human spectrum of waves and colors.
Six weeks later, the disciples would find out what Jesus had meant by the words for your good. As Augustine put it, “You ascended from before our eyes, and we turned back grieving, only to find you in our hearts.”
Would it be too much to say that, ever since the Ascension, Jesus has sought other bodies in which to begin again the life he lived on earth? The church serves as an extension of the Incarnation, God’s primary way of establishing presence in the world. We are “AfterChrists,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s coinage:
. . .for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in eyes, and lovely in limbs not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
The church is where God lives. What Jesus brought to a few—–healing, grace, the good-news message of God’s love—–the church can now bring to all. That was the challenge, or Great Commission, that Jesus gave just before vanishing from the numbed disciples’ sight. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” he had explained earlier, “it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Propagation by the dandelion method.
Such is the theory, at least. In truth, I must, though, place myself with the disciples who watch with jaws agape as Jesus lifts into the air like some wingless creature defying gravity. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” they have just asked—–and now this. He’s gone! I sympathize with their bewilderment, because I too yearn for a power-Messiah to impose order on a world of evil and violence and poverty. Living two millennia after the disciples, I look back and marvel at how little difference the church has made in such a world. Why did Jesus leave us alone to fight the battles? How can it be good that he went away?
I have concluded, in fact, that the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith—–not whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than the problem of pain, more than the difficulty of harmonizing science and the Bible, more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles. It seems odd to admit such a notion—–I have never read a book or article conceived to answer doubts about the Ascension—–yet for me what has happened since Jesus’ departure strikes at the core of my faith. Would it not have been better if the Ascension had never happened? If Jesus had stayed on earth, he could answer our questions, solve our doubts, mediate our disputes of doctrine and policy.
I find it much easier to accept the fact of God incarnating in Jesus of Nazareth than in the people who attend my local church—–and in me. Yet that is what we are asked to believe; that is how we are asked to live. The New Testament declares that the future of the cosmos is being determined by the church (see Romans 8:19—21; Ephesians 3:1O).Jesus played his part and then left. Now it is up to us.
“It is a serious thing,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or another of these destinations.”
Ancient religions, such as the Roman paganism of Jesus’ day, believed that the actions of gods in the heavens above affected the earth below. If Zeus got angry, thunderbolts shot out. Like kids dropping rocks off highway bridges onto the cars below, the gods rained cataclysm onto the earth. ‘As above, so below,” went the ancient formula. Jesus, though, inverted that formula: ‘As below, so above.” “He who listens to you listens to me,” Jesus told his followers; “he who rejects you rejects me.” A believer prays, and heaven responds; a sinner repents, and the angels rejoice; a mission succeeds, and Satan falls like lightning; a believer rebels, and the Holy Spirit is grieved. What we humans do here decisively affects the cosmos.
I believe these things, and yet somehow I keep “forgetting” them. I forget that my prayers matter to God. I forget that I am helping my neighbors to their eternal destinations. I forget that the choices I make today bring delight—–or grief–—to the Lord of the Universe. I live in a world of trees and telephones and fax machines, and the reality of this material universe tends to overwhelm my faith in a spiritual universe suffusing it all. I look into the blank blue sky and see nothing.
By ascending, Jesus took the risk of being forgotten.
Not long ago, as I was reading through Matthew, I noticed with a start that Jesus himself foresaw the very predicament of being forgotten. Four parables toward the end of Matthew, among the last that Jesus gave, have a common theme lurking in the background. An owner leaves his house vacant, an absentee landlord puts his servant in charge, a bridegroom arrives so late the guests grow drowsy and fall asleep, a master distributes talents among his servants and takes off—all these circle around the theme of the departed God.
In effect, Jesus’ stories anticipated the central question of the modern era: “Where is God now?” The modern answer, from the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Camus, and Beckett, is that the landlord has abandoned us, leaving us free to set our own rules. Deus absconditus. In places like Auschwitz and Rwanda, we have seen living versions of those parables, graphic examples of how some will act when they stop believing in a sovereign landlord. If there is no God, as Dostoevsky said, then anything is permissible.
Reading on, I came to one more parable, the Sheep and the Goats, probably the last one Jesus taught.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”
He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
I knew this last parable well. It is as potent and disturbing as anything Jesus ever said. But I had never before noticed its logical connection with the four parables that precede it.
In two ways the parable of the Sheep and the Goats directly addresses the question raised by the others: the issue of the absentee landlord, the missing God. First, it gives a glimpse of the landlord’s return on judgment day, when there will be hell to pay–—literally. The departed One will return, this time in power and in glory, to settle accounts for all that has happened on earth. “Men of Galilee,” said the angels, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Second, the parable refers to the meantime, the centuries-long interval we live in now, the time when God seems absent. The answer to that most modern question is at once profound and shocking. God has not absconded at all. Rather, he has taken on a disguise, a most unlikely disguise of the stranger, the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, the sick, the ragged ones of earth: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.” If we cannot detect God’s presence in the world, it may be that we have been looking in the wrong places.
Commenting on this passage, the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards said that God has designated the poor as his “receivers.” Since we cannot express our love by doing anything to profit God directly, God wants us to do something profitable for the poor, who have been delegated the task of receiving Christian love.
One night I was absently flipping the channels of television when I came across what seemed to be a children’s movie, starring the young Hayley Mills. I settled back and watched the plot unfold. She and two friends, while playing in a country barn, stumbled across a vagrant (Alan Bates) sleeping in the straw. “Who are you?” Mills demanded. The vagrant jerked awake and, seeing the children, muttered, “Jesus Christ!”
What he meant as an expletive, the children took as the truth. They actually believed the man to be Jesus Christ. For the rest of the movie (Whistle Down the Wind), they treated the vagrant with awe, respect, and love. They brought him food and blankets, sat and talked with him, and told him about their lives. In time their tenderness transformed the vagrant, an escaped convict who had never before known such mercy.
Mills’ mother, who wrote the story, intended it as an allegory of what might happen if all of us took literally Jesus’ words about the poor and the needy. By serving them, we serve Jesus. “We are a contemplative order,” Mother Teresa told a rich American visitor who could not comprehend her fierce commitment to the dregs of Calcutta. “First we meditate on Jesus, and then we go out and look for him in disguise.”
As I reflected on the last parable in Matthew 25, I became aware that many of my own questions of God are actually boomerang questions that come right back to me. Why does God allow babies to be born in Brooklyn ghettoes and by a river of death in Rwanda? Why does God allow prisons and homeless shelters and hospitals and refugee camps? Why did Jesus not clean up the world’s messes in the years he lived here?
According to this parable, Jesus knew that the world he left behind would include the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, the sick. The decrepit state of the world did not surprise him. He made plans to cope with it: a long-range plan and a short-range plan. The long-range plan involves his return, in power and great glory, to straighten out planet earth. The short-range plan means turning it over to the ones who will ultimately usher in the liberation of the cosmos. He ascended so that we would take his place.
“Where is God when it hurts?” I have often asked. The answer is another question, “Where is the church when it hurts?”
That last question, of course, is the problem of history in a nutshell, and also the reason why I say the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith. When Jesus departed, he left the keys of the kingdom in our fumbling hands.
All through my own quest for Jesus has run a counterpoint theme: my need to strip away layers of dust and grime applied by the church itself. In my case the image of Jesus was obscured by the racism, intolerance, and petty legalism of fundamentalist churches in the South. A Russian or a European Catholic confronts a very different restoration process. “For not only dust, but also too much gold can cover up the true figure,” wrote the German Hans Kung about his own search. Many, far too many, abandon the quest entirely; repelled by the church, they never make it to Jesus.
“What a pity that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians,” observes Annie Dillard. Her statement reminds me of a T-shirt that can be spotted at contemporary political rallies: “Jesus save us. . .from your followers.” And of a line from the New Zealand film Heavenly Creatures in which two girls describe their imaginary kingdom: “It’s like heaven only better—–there aren’t any Christians!”
The problem showed itself early on. Commenting on the church in Corinth, Frederick Buechner writes, “They were in fact Christ’s body, as Paul wrote to them here in one of his most enduring metaphors—–Christ’s eyes, ears, hands—–but the way they were carrying on, that could only leave Christ bloodshot, ass-eared, all thumbs, to carry on God’s work in a fallen world.” In the fourth century an exasperated St. Augustine wrote about the fractious church, “The clouds roll with thunder that the House of the Lord shall be built throughout the earth; and these frogs sit in their marsh and croak—–“We are the only Christians!”
I could fill several pages with such colorful quotations, all of which underscore the risk involved in entrusting God’s own reputation to the likes of us. Unlike Jesus, we do not perfectly express the Word. We speak in garbled syntax, stuttering, mixing languages together, putting accent marks in wrong places. When the world looks for Christ it sees, like the cave-dwellers in Plato’s allegory, only shadows created by the light, not the light itself.
Why don’t we look more like the church Jesus described? Why does the body of Christ so faintly resemble him? If Jesus could foresee such disasters as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Christian slave trade, apartheid, why did he ascend in the first place?
I cannot provide a confident answer to such questions, for I am part of the problem. Examined closely, my query takes on a distressingly personal cast: Why do I so poorly resemble him? I merely offer three observations that help me come to terms with what has transpired since Jesus’ ascension.
First, the church has brought light as well as darkness. In the name of Jesus, St. Francis kissed the beggar and took off his robes, Mother Teresa founded the Home for the Dying, Wilberforce freed the slaves, General Booth established an urban Army of Salvation, and Dorothy Day fed the hungry. Such work continues: as a journalist I have met educators, urban ministers, doctors and nurses, linguists, relief workers, and ecologists serving all over the world for little pay and less fame, all in the name of Jesus. In other ways, Michelangelo, Bach, Rembrandt, the masons of cathedrals, and many like them offered up the best of their creation “for the glory of God alone.” God’s hands on earth have reached wider since the Ascension.
I see no point in tallying up a balance sheet to weigh the church’s failures against its successes. The final word will come from God’s own judgment. The first few chapters of Revelation show how realistically God views the church, and yet elsewhere the New Testament makes clear that God takes pleasure in us: we are “peculiar treasures,” a “pleasing aroma,” “gifts that he delights in.” I cannot fathom such statements; I merely accept them on faith. God alone knows what pleases God.
Second, Jesus takes full responsibility for the constituent parts of his body. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” he told his disciples, and these were the very scalawags who so exasperated him and would soon desert him at his hour of greatest need. I think of Peter, whose bluster, love, hot-headedness, misdirected passion, and faithless betrayal preview in embryo form nineteen centuries of church history. On “rocks” like him, Jesus built his church, and he promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
I take hope as I observe Jesus together with his disciples. Never did they disappoint him more than on the night of his betrayal. Yet it was then, says John, that Jesus “showed them the full extent of his love,” and then that he conferred on them a kingdom.
Finally, the problem of the church is no different than the problem of one solitary Christian. How can an unholy assortment of men and women be the body of Christ? I answer with a different question: How can one sinful man, myself, be accepted as a child of God? One miracle makes possible the other.
I remind myself that the apostle Paul’s soaring words about the bride of Christ and the temple of God were addressed to groups of hideously flawed individuals in places like Corinth. “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us,” wrote Paul in one of the most accurate statements ever penned.
The novelist Flannery O’Connor, who could never be accused of glossing over human depravity once answered a letter from a reader complaining about the state of the church. “All your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin,” O’Connor began:
. . .what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time .. . The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and who couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs
In two memorable phrases, O’Connor has captured the choices
God faced, looking out on human history: to engage in “the continuous miraculous meddling in human affairs” or to allow himself to be “crucified in time” as his Son was on earth. With a few exceptions, God, whose nature is self-living love, has chosen the second option. Christ bears the wounds of the church, his body, just as he bore the wounds of crucifixion. I sometimes wonder which have hurt worse. (225-236)