MP3 Audio: WS330354_Dn-Joseph_Ascension.mp3
This homily was preached on Thursday morning, May 29, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.
Gospel Reading: Mark 16:14-20
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is One. Amen.
“So then, after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God.”
We all have heard of the Ascension. We all believe in the Ascension. But until we became Orthodox, not many of us celebrated the Ascension. It’s something we heard about in Sunday school. It’s something that – in the back of our minds – we knew, “Yes, at some point, Jesus went up into heaven.” But in the Orthodox Church, this is a major feast. This is a feast just like Christmas. Here we are on a Thursday – Thursday morning – and we are here in Church celebrating the Ascension of Christ. What is the Ascension of Christ? What is it about it that makes it so important? Why would I take a day of vacation off from my secular job? Why would all of us come here on a Thursday morning just to celebrate the Ascension?
Father Michael, when talking about the Incarnation, has told us before that when Jesus went to heaven, he did not just hang up his “man suit” and then, as a spirit, ascend into the heights. That’s not what happened. According to the doctrine of the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, the Word of God, took upon himself a human body, a human soul, a human spirit, a human mind, a human will – and he still has those today. In heaven right now, Jesus still has a physical body of flesh and bone. He’s not just a spirit. If you think Jesus is just a spirit, you’re talking about something other than Christianity, because Christianity – at its very heart – believes in the Incarnation. God became flesh. He took humanity upon himself.
You see, if the Son of God had simply been a spirit inhabiting a “man suit”, and if he could have taken that “man suit” off and hung it on a hook and then ascended as a spirit up into the heavens, that would get the Ascension wrong in two different ways. It would get it wrong in two ways because – first – it would suggest that a physical human body cannot ascend into heaven into the presence of God. It would be wrong in a second way, also. For if you believe that Jesus just hung up his “man suit” and then ascended as a spirit into the heavens, you might be suggesting that the divinity of Christ was somehow absent from heaven before that point – which it was not.
Let us be very clear about this: During the thirty-three years that Jesus walked on earth, the Father and the Holy Spirit were not up in heaven twiddling their thumbs wondering when the Son of God was going to come back. The Son of God never left heaven.
I repeat: The Son of God never left heaven.
Now, if that’s the case, there’s a lot of old-time songs we’re going to have to throw out the window, aren’t there? Remember the old (Protestant) hymns or old songs that talk about “how much God must have loved me to have left heaven”? He never left it! The Trinity teaches us that there are three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that these three are one God. That’s why when the Cherubim, the burning Seraphim, right there in the presence of God in the heavenly throne room chant . . . they’re chanting:
“Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Heaven and earth is full of your glory.”
They didn’t switch from “Holy, holy, holy” to just two “holies” while Jesus was walking on earth. It wasn’t just the Father and the Spirit up in heaven with the angels chanting, “Holy, holy . . . holy, holy”. No, the three-fold refrain of “Holy, holy, holy” continued, for the Son never left heaven.
How do we know this? How do we know that the Son of God never left heaven? The simplest way to know it is simply to think back to what you know about God – he’s Omnipresent! What does omnipresent mean? It means he’s everywhere. Where in the universe can you go that God is not? You go to the mountain tops, he’s there. If you go into hades, he’s there. If you go into outer space, he’s there. If you go to the moon, he’s there. There is no place in the entire universe where God is not. The Father is everywhere – he’s omnipresent. The Spirit is everywhere – he’s omnipresent. Guess what? That means the Son is omnipresent – he’s everywhere. He’s always been in heaven, he always will be in heaven, he never left heaven. You can’t “leave” anywhere when you’re omnipresent. If he ceased to be omnipresent, then he ceased to be God. And he never ceased to be God.
We also know this by the writings of the Fathers and the liturgical services of the Church. If you read St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, he very clearly tells us that even during the time Jesus was a baby, walking around on earth as a man, and yes, even dead in the tomb, that – as God – he was still holding the entire universe together by the word of his power, just like we’re told in the book of Colossians. Even while the human body of Jesus was a corpse in the tomb, the Logos, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, was still very much alive, holding the universe together by the word of his power. Yes, he was dead and alive at the same time.
If you look at the writings of St. John of Damascus in the eighth century, he writes of the Ascension of Christ. He writes of Christ sitting at the right hand of God. And what does that mean to sit at the right hand of God? St. John of Damascus reminds us it cannot just be a matter of physical location, for God is everywhere. But to be seated at the right hand of God means to come into the full and unadulterated presence of his divine glory and power.
If you look at the services of the Orthodox Church, if you were to go into the Eastern liturgies and look at Little Vespers, Great Vespers, Orthros, and the Divine Liturgy which is celebrated in the Eastern Churches for the Ascension of Christ, over and over and over and over again – not just once, which would still be enough, but multiple times – it plainly says that heaven was never emptied of the Logos, heaven was never emptied of the Second Person of the Trinity. But what happened at the Ascension was that the flesh of Christ – the humanity of Christ – was lifted up.
So rewind a little bit and think about the Incarnation. You have the Father, you have the Son, you have the Holy Spirit – one God. One of those persons, the Second Person, is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, just like the Father and the Spirit. And that Second Person of the Trinity adds to himself – he doesn’t take away, he doesn’t subtract from his Deity. He adds to himself.
He adds to himself a human body, a human soul, a human mind, a human spirit, a human will, and a conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And he takes Adam’s flesh upon himself . . . adds it to himself. He’s still at one with the Father and the Spirit, he’s still in heaven, he’s still holding the universe together by the word of his power, but he adds to himself a human nature.
And this Second Person of the Trinity working through this human nature grows as a man. He grows in favor with God and men. He walks in perfect obedience to the will of the Father.
He dies as a perfect sacrifice. His dead body lays in the grave, even while – as God – he’s still holding the universe together by the word of his power, and even while his human spirit descends into Hades for the Harrowing of Hell.
And then at the glorious Resurrection, his human spirit is reunited with his human body. His human body – glorified – walks out of the grave. For forty days, the human Jesus walks and talks with his disciples. And then on the fortieth day, in preparation for Pentecost which would happen only ten days later, Jesus ascends into heaven. His deity was already omnipresent, his deity was already holding the world together by the word of his power, but the human Jesus – his human body, his human soul, his human spirit, his human mind, his human will – are lifted up into the direct presence of the Father and the Spirit. That’s what happened at the Ascension.
The Ascension is not where the Second Person of the Trinity was “reunited” to the First and Third Persons of the Trinity. There’s never been a point in all of history, and there never will be a point, at which any member of the Trinity could be separated from the others. It can’t happen.
What happened at the Ascension, was that the Second Person of the Trinity’s humanity was lifted up into heaven. It was lifted up to the very right hand of God.
So we know what did not happen at the Ascension.
Now we know what did happen at the Ascension.
And now we have to ask: Why?
What difference does it make that God took the humanity of Jesus and lifted that human nature, lifted that flesh, up into the presence of God?
If you’ll remember, there was a very interesting thing that Jesus said to his disciples while he was still on earth. He said,
“It is a good thing for you that I am going away.”
Now, that should boggle our minds a little bit, because how many of you would love to see Jesus face-to-face? I’m one of them. I would love to! I think we all would. We long for it, we look forward to it, we’re even given a great promise that we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is. And here the disciples were already looking at Jesus face-to-face, and yet Jesus said, It is good for you that I’m going away. For if I do not go away, the Holy Spirit cannot come. But if I go away, then the Holy Spirit can come.
Why is that? There’s another place in Scripture where Christ talks about the Holy Spirit. He says,
“He is with you and (in the future) he shall be in you.”
Now, both are good. But which would you prefer? Would you rather have the Holy Spirit of God with you, or would you rather have the Holy Spirit of God dwelling within you?
That couldn’t happen until Jesus ascended into heaven.
You see, prior to the Resurrection, prior to the Ascension of Christ, it didn’t matter whether you died a righteous man or an absolute sinner . . . you went to hades. Now, according to Luke Chapter 16 in the Scriptures, there was a division in hades. You had the side called “Abraham’s Bosom” where there was peace and joy, and there was another side of hades where there was burning and fire and great torment. But still, everybody went to hades. That means that not only did Pharaoh, and the evil Egyptians, and Cain, and the Canaanites, go to Hades, but it also means that Adam, Eve, Moses, David, Isaiah – all of them – went to Hades also. It says in the book of Hebrews that it was important that they should not become perfect – that they should not become complete – without us, “us” being the Church.
Until Christ was resurrected, until he ascended into the heavens, people didn’t go to heaven. They went to the side of hades where there was peace and joy, and they were awaiting the final coming of the Messiah. They were looking forward to the day when finally he would come.
But on the day of the Ascension, God took human nature and brought human nature up directly into his presence, in heaven, forevermore to dwell. And now that God had glorified humanity, now that God had deified humanity and had brought Adam’s flesh in the person of Christ all the way up into the very presence of the Holy Trinity in heaven, now the Holy Spirit could come and dwell in human flesh. Christ taking human flesh to heaven to be in the presence of the Father and the Spirit, is what makes it possible for the Holy Spirit to descend ten days later at Pentecost, and to literally dwell in human flesh.
So whenever you talk about being filled with the Spirit, whenever you talk about the Spirit indwelling you, whenever you talk about the fruits of the Spirit, you’re talking about things that are so critical, so crucial, so important to the Christian life. And you are talking about things which would be utterly impossible if it were not for the Ascension of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Scripture says that we have the “first Adam” and the “second Adam”. When the “first Adam” sinned, death came to all men. Every trip you’ve ever made to the hospital is thanks to Adam. Every spiritual or emotional problem that you’ve ever had is thanks to Adam. Every single one of us – Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, and all of us – have inherited that same human nature, that same flesh which has received the corruption from that first ancestral sin. But then there is the “second Adam”, Jesus Christ. And it tells us in Romans 5 and in 1 Corinthians 15, that just as through one man death came to all men through sin, so through the man Jesus Christ – the “second Adam” – life comes to all men. Because Jesus rose from the dead, all rise from the dead.
Now there’s a little mistake that we commonly make. We often think,
“Okay, Adam sinned. And so because of him, all men die. The Second Adam, Christ, was resurrected; therefore those who follow Christ will be resurrected.”
But that’s wrong.
You see, you die in Adam whether you believe in Adam or not. You can be an unborn child, you can be a newborn baby, and you can still die. You can still get sick as a result of Adam’s sin. And so it is with the “second Adam”. Because he rose from the dead, everybody will rise from the dead – the righteous and the wicked.
Scripture talks about two resurrections. There’s the resurrection of the godly, and there’s the physical resurrection of the ungodly. Because the “second Adam” has risen from the dead, all flesh will rise from the dead.
If you’re righteous, if you are a follower of Christ, then that will be a glorious physical resurrection. For not just in spirit only, but in spirit and in body, you will dwell in the presence of the Lord in joy forever.
If you rejected Christ, then that will be a horrific resurrection. For not in spirit only, but in spirit and in your physical body, you will endure the torments of hell for all eternity.
And so it is with the Ascension of Christ. Many people believe that “we fall in Adam, but if you trust in Christ, someday you’ll be in the presence of God.” No, no, no . . . You fall in Adam whether you believe in Adam or not. Whether you’re a Christian or an atheist, you fall in Adam. You inherit death and corruption because of Adam. And so it is with the “second Adam”. He has raised human nature up into the very presence of God, in the unveiled light of His eternal glory. But as we’re told in Scripture, our God is a consuming fire. And do not be deceived into thinking that it is only the righteous which will be in his presence. Remember what we are told . . . that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord – that Jesus is Lord. It doesn’t say just the righteous knees. It doesn’t say just the righteous tongues. No, it’s every knee and every tongue. Physically resurrected in physical bodies, all of those who have ever served Christ, and all of those who have ever spat on Christ, will bow the knee and with their tongues will confess that Jesus is Lord.
And this Ascension into his presence, it will be glorious for those who have served Christ. But for those who have rejected him, it will be hell. Imagine in an unpurified, sinful, rebellious state, to stand in the unveiled presence of the flaming fire of the presence of God. Is that something that you could possibly bear, if your sins have not been washed away? Is that something you could possibly stand, if you were still covered in sin? Absolutely not.
We read in the book of Revelation about this horrible place of torment, this horrible place of eternal destruction, and it says that “the smoke of their torment rises up forever in the presence of Christ and his holy angels.” Not outside of their presence, not off in some dark dungeon somewhere where God is far away, but in the presence of Christ and his angels.
Not just the righteous knees, not just the righteous tongues, but every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. Not only the righteous will follow in the footsteps of the Ascension to be in the full presence of God. But yes, even the wicked will finally come to the full, unveiled presence – the flaming presence – of Almighty God.
It is the business of our lives to prepare for that day, because the clock is ticking. And the fact that the “second Adam” has resurrected guarantees that the day is coming when your body, and your parents’ bodies, and your grandparents’ bodies, will no longer lay in the grave, but will be resurrected too. And the Ascension of Christ is the guarantee that you, your children, your parents, your grandparents – whether righteous or wicked – someday will stand face-to-face with God.
If you’re following Christ, if you’ve had your sins washed away through the Sacrament of Baptism, if you have faith in Christ in your heart, if you’re partaking of the “medicine of immortality” which is called the Eucharist – the very Body and Blood of Christ, if you’re praying daily, if you’re working diligently to draw as many other people to Christ as you possibly can, then rejoice and look forward to the day when you, like Christ, will ascend into the presence of the Father.
But if you do not serve Christ from your heart, if you’re more interested in things of the world than you are interested in prayer and in following Christ, if you don’t care much about your family members and neighbors who are on their way to perdition, and you do not try to draw them to the Lord, if you’re not partaking in the Sacraments, and if you’re not believing Christ, do not think that the resurrection will escape you. Do not think that you will forever be able to run from the presence of the Father. For you too will stand in his presence with nothing to veil you from his face.
As Christians, let us live our lives in a posture of repentance, not arrogantly believing that we deserve any place in heaven. But beating our breasts as the publican, trembling lest we even cast our eyes upwards, and calling out from the depths of our soul, “Lord, God, have mercy on me a sinner. O Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. O Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Jesus said, This is the man who will walk away justified. This is the man who will find forgiveness. Not the one who boasts, not the one who proudly lifts up his nose against his neighbor, but the one who – in the terror of the Lord – in a holy fear of his flaming presence, beats his breast and recognizes his own unworthiness and calls upon the name of the Lord to forgive him and to cleanse him and to draw him near to him within the church. And he who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is one. Amen.
This homily was preached on Thursday morning, May 29, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.