Ascension May 5, 2013 Ephesians 1: 17-23 Luke 24: 44-53
Rev. Catherine Purves
Elevators used to be entertaining before they were thoroughly mechanized and depersonalized. I remember when there was actually a profession called ‘elevator operator.’ This was back in the day when elevators had metal grills and hand operated doors, when people, apparently, couldn’t press buttons, or remember the floors they wanted. When I worked in department stores in Philadelphia and Edinburgh they still had elevator operators in full uniform who deposited shoppers (without the hint of a blush) in the lingerie department, or in the (less challenging) stationary department where I worked. “Ground floor: stationary, music, costume jewelry. Going up.” It was so helpful to have someone who could tell you where you were and who knew where you were going, someone to usher you up there or down here.
Ascension Day often makes me think about elevators. Stated most simply and literally, that movement of Jesus from down here to up there is what we commemorate today. This ‘elevation’, this ascension, however, confounds our sense of the world. How can we conceive of that departure of Christ without a theological elevator operator to help us understand that upward journey which is necessarily related to his downward journey (all the way to the sub-basement place of the dead)? It does seem that what we need is an elevator operator to help us know where we are and where Jesus is on this theological elevator.
Here is one important thing that I think our theological elevator operator would want us to remember. When you ascend or descend in his theological elevator, you do that as a whole person. There can be no split personalities on the theological elevator. Jesus doesn’t leave his human nature behind when he ascends into heaven any more than he left his divine nature up above when he descended to earth. It is vital for us that the whole Jesus ascended, just as it is vital for us that the whole Jesus descended, even unto the lowest floors that can be reached on a theological elevator: the place of the dead. The nature of Jesus as God-and- man never changes. Our salvation depends upon that. So our theological elevator operator puts our minds at rest on that score.
“Going up. Top floor: glory, worship, angels, and the Father’s right hand.” The top floor reached by our theological elevator is almost beyond description. This is where Jesus steps off the elevator into the glorious presence of his Father. This is what we rather vaguely refer to as heaven. But where is heaven? Where is Jesus? At a recent conference I attended the topic of the ascension was discussed, and the presenter, David Fergusson, described this top floor to which Jesus ascended as “a side of the created world not now accessible to us.” I liked that description because it maintains the connection between earth and heaven, between down here and up there, but, obviously, that place to which Jesus ascended is a restricted floor with limited access. It is not a non-place, a state of mind, a different dimension, and it is certainly not an imaginary place – that’s important. It is a place that is part of the created world, but that is simply inaccessible to us right now, in any ordinary sense. I’ll say more about that in a minute.
So, while we can’t ask our theological elevator operator to deposit us, literally, on that top floor so that we can wander about and see for ourselves the glory, worship, angels, and Jesus’ new place at the right hand of the Father, we do know something about what Jesus is doing there as our ascended Lord. Remember that the whole Jesus, the God-man, ascended and is now in the presence of the Father. That means that all that he was, all that he experienced, all that he bore of our humanity is now taken into the heart of the Trinity. It means that we have an advocate with the Father, whose desire always was that we would have access to that top floor and that we ourselves would be held in that bond of love that unites Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not even death could break that bond of love when Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross for us. Neither will death separate us from that part of the created world where God indisputably reigns. In the meantime, the ascended Jesus lifts up our worship and our prayers and sends down the blessings of forgiveness and faith.
Now there is one more point that our theological elevator operator needs to explain for us. Because we may be thinking that he must be kept perpetually busy carrying Jesus up and down on his elevator so that our Lord can be both with us and at the Father’s right hand. Like the disciples we may long for Jesus to be down here as well as up there. This has long been a point of contention in the church, especially when it comes to our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. You will appreciate that when we say, “This is Christ’s body given for you. This is Christ’s blood shed for you,” there could be some confusion about whether Jesus had just hopped on that theological elevator in order to be the host at the Table and to offer himself to us in bread and wine.
This confusion about where Jesus was gave rise to the notion of transubstantiation when the elements at the Supper were thought to change into something different, the actual body and blood of Christ. Martin Luther countered this with his theological idea of ubiquity, the notion that Jesus’ body can be everywhere at once. Luther argued that what was happening was consubstantiation, and that Jesus, being everywhere present, could be discerned under the elements of bread and wine. This is not how we understand what is happening in the Sacrament of Holy Communion as Presbyterians.
You may now be thinking that our theological elevator operator is trying to explain mysteries that are way above our pay grade. But that is not the case. This is really important for our understanding of what is going to be happening to us, among us, and within us when we celebrate the Sacrament in just a few minutes. We are remembering that the whole Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, and that his place there is vital for us. Jesus’ body is in heaven. It cannot be contained in bread and wine. It cannot be everywhere at once. Nonetheless, Jesus does offer us his body and blood in the Sacrament and that bond of love which connects us to Jesus is strengthened through our sharing in the Lord’s Supper.
Here is how Presbyterians understand what is happening. In order to begin to grasp this mystery we must refer to the secret work of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. I’d like to suggest that the Spirit is our theological elevator operator. John Calvin believed that Jesus didn’t come down to us so that we could partake of his body and blood literally in the bread and wine. He argued instead that in the mystery of God’s grace and the activity of the Spirit within us and among us, we are lifted up into heaven to partake of the true body and blood of Jesus. The Spirit lifts us up and unites us with Christ.
Calvin writes, “Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare…I rather experience than understand it.” (The Institutes, 4.17.31). Nevertheless, Calvin insists that we are ushered into the real presence of Christ who remains in the heaven. And we might whimsically add that when we share the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we are lifted up to that top floor where Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father by our theological elevator operator, the Holy Spirit.
And so, on this day when we celebrate Jesus’ ascension, let us prepare to gather at his Table. When I say, “Lift up your hearts,” respond in faith, “We lift them to the Lord.” Ah, the elevator door is opening. “Ground floor: hymns, prayers, sermons, and the struggles of everyday life.” Then our theological elevator operator, the Holy Spirit, asks, “Where to?” And to that let us respond, “Top floor: where we will be united with our Lord Jesus!”