Sunday, May 21, 2023

Made Like Him, Like Him We Rise

Though angels lectured to them, they still just couldn't help stare at the clouds. Before their very eyes, their best friend had just minutes ago begun to hover, ever so slightly distancing himself from the ground, then higher and higher, until a cloud had separated him from view. And, once out of sight, he'd crossed the threshold between the realm of mortals and the realm of the divine. The next day would begin nine days of persistent prayer in this earthly Jerusalem. And the tenth? Oh, they couldn't even begin to imagine what was to arrive on the tenth.

Did they understand, these disciples, just what the ascension of the Lord Jesus into heaven meant for them? For from the beginning, their own great-grand-disciples would say, humanity was meant to so mature in paradise in the love of God that they would from there “ascend into heaven.”1 Ascension into heaven, they believed, was the climax of God's plan for Adam and Eve. But then we said, in a spirit of arrogant un-love stoked by the tempter: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High!” (Isaiah 14:14). And so we were cast down, and the heavens were closed to us. At last, though, promises were made to Abraham of children like the stars he saw in heaven (Genesis 15:5), and his grandson Jacob dreamed of a ladder that could reach heaven (Genesis 28:12). When Jacob was renamed Israel and his children became a nation, God descended and Moses ascended to a midpoint at a mountaintop (Exodus 19:20); but the rest of Israel was “afraid... and did not go up” (Deuteronomy 5:5). Even this halfway hint of ascension would have to wait.

Centuries whizzed by, and though Israel grew, they fractured, divided, fell, crumbled, and lost their kingdom. A remnant would eventually return to their historic land, under the thumb of one or another nation, and always be left to ask when the Lord might “restore the kingdom to Israel,” the kingdom of heaven on earth (Acts 1:6). In the fullness of time, it was into this state of Israel's oppression that God the Son “came down from heaven” (John 6:41) – “the leader of the heavenly host, lingering in earthly places.”2 Since earth couldn't raise its eyes to heaven, heaven bent down to kiss earth. Through the hands of a kingdomless priesthood and their oppressor nations working in tandem, heaven-on-earth was nailed to a cross. The Heavenly One was put to death above the cold, cold earth. Yes, for our sakes and by our hands, God himself “descended to the lower parts of the earth,” buried in a tomb, was dropped into the cracks of creation forged by death (Ephesians 4:9). But it just wasn't possible for death to keep its grip on him (Acts 2:24). He stood up from his grave and walked free.

Returning joyfully to his disciples, his friends, over the next forty days “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Declaring that all authority over creation was in his hands, he directed them to go disciple the nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). But first, wait for power. Then, “lifting up his hands, he blessed them” (Luke 24:50), and “while he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51), “and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Now he is a “high priest” who's “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). And, incredibly, that's for our sake: “he exalts himself to show mercy to you” (Isaiah 30:18). In mercy, “Christ has entered... into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24).

Everything we've been talking about this year so far is only possible because Jesus ascended into heaven. We're on a great human journey, we said, but it must be a supernatural journey, and thanks to the fall, not only did we forfeit that first grace, but we wounded our nature too badly to move. What we need is to be born again “of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). That's why among the final words of Jesus was the command for the first leaders of the Church to get busy baptizing. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). So “you have died, and your [new] life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). But that can only happen because Christ is ascended, hidden in God in heaven above, anchoring the direction of our life.

Not only that, but Jesus explained that “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the [Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this” Holy Spirit onto the earth (Acts 2:33). It's only because Christ ascended that we can be “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” preached Peter (Acts 2:38).

And not only does the Spirit apply the ascended Christ's sacrifice and victory to us, to forgive our sins and make us new, but as a gift, he installs supernatural powers into us. We talked this year about some of these, like the theological virtues of faith and hope and love, and all the infused goodness of moral virtues like fortitude and temperance and justice and prudence, and spiritual gifts of wisdom and understanding and counsel and fortitude and knowledge and piety and the fear of the Lord. All those, in seed form at least, are yours the minute you come to be in Christ – and they're the stuff heavenly life is made from. All we need is to hold onto them, grow in them, let them power our way. See, “if, then, you have been raised with Christ,” then you are obligated to “seek” (Colossians 3:1), to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), to “grow up in every way... into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). That's a call to exercise these supernatural powers of virtue, to put them into practice, because then God will spread them throughout your life and root them even more deeply in your soul and fill you up with them, and draw you thereby closer to him, so that you do grow up in every way into Christ. This year, we've been talking about acts that cooperate with God in that.

One action that puts your supernatural powers to work is worship – what you do when you come here each and every Sunday, when you don't refuse God's call. “You shall worship the Lord your God” (Luke 4:8), “worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness” (Psalm 29:2). And this worship is invariably a heaven-aimed act, because the One we're worshipping is in heaven. The Bible describes people who “went up to worship” (John 12:20; Acts 24:11), and records prophecies that even distant nations “shall go up... to worship... the LORD of Hosts” (Zechariah 14:16). A song of worship on the way “to go to the House of the Lord” was labeled “a song of ascents” (Psalm 122:1). And now “we worship by the Spirit of God” poured down by the ascended Christ from heaven (Philippians 3:3). It's only by orienting ourselves upwards toward a Heavenly Jerusalem, only by identifying ourselves with that “church of the firstborn enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23), that we can “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). A supreme moment of grace!

At the summit of that worship, we find that “the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). Jesus explained in advance that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. … Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53, 56). And to those who were shocked by this graphic teaching, he didn't wave it away as a mere metaphor. “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (John 6:61-62). Jesus links his gift of his own flesh and blood, which we commune in at the eucharist, to his ascension – for a sacrifice is only complete when it ascends to God. It's the completed sacrifice – the flesh and blood of the ascended Jesus – that, locally present in heaven, is made sacramentally present to us on earth, so that we've now “tasted of the heavenly gift” (Hebrews 6:4). And Hebrews explains that it's through this flesh and blood of Jesus, the same we eat and drink from the altar, that “a new and living way” is “opened for us” so we can “enter the holy places” of heaven (Hebrews 10:19-20). Here, eating is exercise. The flesh and blood of the ascended Christ are vital gifts to strengthen our supernatural powers and open a way to heaven.

A third action that builds your supernatural powers is reading the Scriptures, which are there to inform your faith, awaken your hope, and deepen your love. These Scriptures have been “breathed out by God, and are profitable for... training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Not long before he ascended, Jesus was spending his time opening up the Scriptures to his disciples. Nor did the ascension put a stop to it. Through the Spirit he poured down, he's continued to guide his church “into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Spirit is only relaying the teaching of Jesus, not through new revelations, but through deepened exploration of everything Jesus taught. And that includes learning to see through Scripture in the four ways we discussed the other week. The words of the Bible have their literal sense, the things they historically referred to. But those things themselves are packed with deeper meaning. This gives Scripture an allegorical sense, where every page in the Bible reveals the mystery of Christ and his Church. It gives Scripture a tropological or moral sense, where every page in the Bible reveals the mystery of Christ at work in your soul. And it gives Scripture an anagogical sense, a sense leading up, so every page in the Bible leads us to the threshold of heaven and what's in store for us in Christ.

A fourth action that builds your supernatural powers and puts them to use is prayer. But for that, too, thank the Christ who ascended. It's only through the ascended Christ that “we... have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Our feeble prayers only gain strength because Christ ascended “to the right hand of God..., interceding for us,” making our prayers complete in his own (Romans 8:34). The psalmist had already asked, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you” (Psalm 141:2), and so Revelation pictures how angels in heaven collect “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8), “and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God” (Revelation 8:4). Our prayers now follow the pathway Jesus marked out in his ascent into heaven; our prayers also must ascend to heaven, like incense or smoke from the sacrificial altar. Every time we offer God prayer, an ascension is happening, patterned after the ascension of Jesus. “Through union with God in prayer, our very nature is changed from earthly to heavenly.”3

A fifth action that builds your supernatural powers and puts them to use is fasting, including any other penitential disciplines. The psalmist professes, “I wept and humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10), and to such a sincere display, God replies: “Your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD..., and you have torn your clothes and wept before me; I also have heard you, declared the LORD (2 Kings 22:19). These disciplines of fasting were hallmarks of the angelic life on earth, taking God more seriously but ourselves lightly enough to fly.4 Jesus assured his disciples that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” for your fasting (Matthew 6:18). Reward them with what? With fresh grace to draw them up! For it's written: “The LORD lifts up the humble” (Psalm 147:6), so Jesus declares, “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). Humbling ourselves in fasting is an occasion for exaltation – it's a kind of ascension training.

But to “fast only to quarrel and fight... will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4). It's a different sort of fast that God chooses (Isaiah 58:5-7). The sixth sort of action that builds your supernatural powers and puts them to use is mercy. Over the past couple weeks, we've talked about fourteen works of mercy. There's the seven spiritual works of mercy: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, admonishing the sinful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, and interceding in prayer. And beneath these, not quite as important but a close runner-up, are the seven corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the harborless, tending the sick, visiting or freeing the prisoner, and burying the dead. These sort of things, done as exercises of love (which is a supernatural power in you!) and with an eye toward God, have a tremendous impact on your soul. Because “the LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9). Just so, Christ ascended to be “a merciful... high priest in the service of God” in heaven (Hebrews 2:17). Acts of mercy conform us to the image of this ascended Christ. Mercy alone lets someone “dwell in the House of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6) – even you.

And the seventh class of action that builds your supernatural powers and puts them to use is simply our journey together, as we stick together and train in righteousness, in holiness, in godliness. It's “the whole body, nourished and knit together,” that “grows with a growth that is from God,” Paul tells us (Colossians 2:19). “The whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple to the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:21-22). And it's only as “held together” and functioning together that “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16). So every time any member of the body pursues righteousness, holiness, godliness, it benefits the body as a whole, it welcomes God's gift of whole-body growth. And thus is the Body filled more and more with the Spirit who overflows from heaven. Our very togetherness, in the context of pursuing godliness, opens that to us! It's together that we're all sharers in a heavenly invitation to our heavenly homeland (Hebrews 3:1; 11:16).

For Christ our Lord has, as we celebrate, “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). And he is determined that our great human journey should climax in us being assumed in his wake, carried up by the force of his ascent, pulled up in and with and by him to the face of God his Father. This is the very force of grace that works itself out in our great human journey, when we act out of our supernatural powers. They're all Jesus' ascension working in us! As Charles Wesley puts it: “Soar we now where Christ has led, / following our exalted Head: / Made like him, like him we rise – / ours the cross, the grave, the skies!”5

For the time will come when all journeys must be brought to an end, successfully or not. The time will come when “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11), appearing again “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command” to raise the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:16). When he does, those who live, those who are yet pursuing their great human journey on earth at that very hour, will be “caught up... to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). So too, those who are raised in the grace of God, whose souls had already approached their good destination, will in body also “bear the image of the Heavenly One” (1 Corinthians 15:49).

Thus, “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). It's in being manifested in his glory that, “seeing him as he is... when he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2) – and that's our goal. The early church confessed that this was the whole reason why God sent us Jesus in the first place: “God wanted his Firstborn Word to descend into his creation and be held by it, and, in turn, for the creation to hold the Word and ascend to him, thus surpassing the angels and coming to be in the image and likeness of God.”6 For the entire creation to be conformed to God, transformed so that divine glory trickles down and soaks all things through, so that the universe itself is assumed into heaven, and all things find their share of “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21)... Well, that can only mean that we, seeing God as he is, are then so like him that we radiate him perfectly through everything. It's conformity to the ascended Christ that makes our ascension, creation's ascension, what it will be.

And that's why it matters so deeply that we even now “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). “Ever upward let us move, / wafted on the wings of love, / looking when our Lord shall come, / longing, gasping after home.”7 Yes, one day, Jerusalem our Golden Home will descend from heaven – because creation, being caught up into heaven, into God, will become one with it. And that will mean us finding our perfect union with God, transformed into the likeness of God more drastically than we dream, as we ascend with Christ and make him, by grace, all our own, and us all his. That's the destination, not just of the great human journey, but of the great universal journey. And God wants you – yes, you – to ascend to such fullness of glory in Christ.

So may “the Lord rescue [you] from every evil deed and bring [you] safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18), and lift you up before his face of glory, and unveil your eyes to the glory, and change you into the glory, and thus fulfill you completely and supernaturally for eternity with himself. I'll close with a bit more good ol' Wesley to cap us off: “Risen with him, we upward move, / still we seek the things above, / still pursue and kiss the Son, / seated on his Father's throne. // Scarce on earth a thought bestow, / dead to all we leave below: / heaven our aim and loved abode, / hid our life with Christ in God! // Hid till Christ our Life appear, / glorious in his members here: / joined to him, we then shall shine / all immortal, all divine!”8 Amen!

1  Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 2.24 (late second century). Translation by Robert M. Grant, Theophilus of Antioch: Ad Autolycum, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Clarendon Press, 1970), 67.

2  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Ezekiel 1.7.1 (early third century). Translation by Mischa Hooker in Roger Pearse, ed., Origen of Alexandria: Exegetical Works on Ezekiel, Ancient Texts in Translation 2 (Chieftain Publishing, 2014), 39.

3  Benjamin D. Wayman, “The Role of the Psalms in the Development of Early Church Teaching on Ascent,” in Don W. Springer and Kevin M. Clarke, eds., Patristic Spirituality: Classical Perspectives on Ascent in the Journey to God (Brill, 2022), 20.

4  G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (John Lane, 1909 [1908]), 221: “A characteristic of the great saints is their levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

5  Charles Wesley, “Hymn for Easter-Day,” in John and Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (William Strahan, 1739), 210.

6  Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5.36.3 (late second century). Translation from Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, The Early Church Fathers (Routledge, 1997), 186.

7  Charles Wesley, “Hymn for Ascension-Day,” in John and Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (William Strahan, 1739), 213.

8  Charles Wesley, “Hymn for Easter-Day,” in John and Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (William Strahan, 1739), 210-211.

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