Acts 1:1In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 6So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11″Men of Galilee,” they said, “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.”
When Becky and I were recently in Washington, D.C., we got a tour of the U.S. Capital Building. One of the places we went was to the Capitol Rotunda, a big round space with murals depicting important scenes from American history, at least up to the end of the American Revolution. At the very top of the Capitol Building, inside the dome over the Rotunda, is a big, bold painting like what you’d see in the Vatican. In fact, it was painted in the 19th Century by someone who had done similar paintings for the Vatican. Its called, “The Apotheosis of George Washington.” “Apotheosis” is an ancient Greek word for “being made God” or “to be declared divine.” It shows George Washington ascending, upon his death, to heaven, in flowing, angelic robes, attended by thirteen lovely young women who represent each of the thirteen original colonies. Everything about that painting is overtly religious. It borrows both from Biblical themes, and ancient Roman ones, when they would regularly declare their emperors to be gods. Not only is Washington going to heaven (which I hope he did), but he almost looks like God himself, at least how Michaelangelo painted God in that famous Vatican fresco, as a bearded old man reaching out to to touch Adam’s hand.
I have mixed feelings about both those paintings, the one of God in the Vatican, and the one of George Washington, in the Capitol Rotunda. From what little I know about George Washington, I suspect that he would have very mixed feelings about that painting too. Just like my high school orchestra conductor would yell at us and say, “If Mozart were still alive to hear you, he’d be rolling over in his grave,” I’d say that if Washington could see that painting, he might be rolling over too, and gnashing his famous wooden teeth. For one thing, he was a modest enough man to refuse a title like “king,” when many people clamored to thrust a crown and a throne upon him. So, to be “apotheosi-fied” or de-ified like that would probably make him blush on every single dollar bill.
But secondly, I don’t think Washington expected to go anywhere after he died, up or down. Like many of our “Founding Fathers,” Washington was a deist, someone who believes that there probably is a Creator God, but not one who is interested in us personally, nor who does miraculous things for us. Certainly not like raising someone from the dead, or raising him to heaven. As my sister remarked when I told her about that painting in the Rotunda, “How ironic, the deification of a deist.”
When you look below the ceiling of the Rotunda, you see all those other murals I just mentioned, depicting important moments in American history. Most of them depict war, weapons and conquest. From a heavily armed Christopher Columbus to the surrender of the British in the last battle of the Revolution, war and conquest are present and implied almost everywhere. You even find armor and weapons in the painting of the baptism of Pocahontas, the Indian woman who saved the Jamestown colony. The most peaceful, least combative picture, is that of George Washington handing in his commission as general to the Continental Congress once the Revolution was over. I find that the most inspiring of all the paintings. It reinforces what was truly revolutionary about us: being a government of laws, not of personalities or dynasties.
But put all the pictures together (except one) and one message you get is this: that conquest and the brute force of arms is the way to ascend to divinity. We rise above our meager station in life, to our destiny in the sun, over the bodies of our adversaries, thus proving that God is with us. With one exception: George Washington, at the peak of his power and popularity, bearing the swords and surrender papers of his vanquished foes, when thousands of soldiers and citizens would have marched behind him in the streets to declare him king, resigning his commission, knowing when to call it quits and submit to the same laws as the most humble of his fellow citizens, friend or foe. You just gotta like a guy like that. Even if he wears a wig.
In today’s Bible passage, we also get an ascension to heaven, but with a totally different history leading up to it. The events, words and images leading up to it are not of conquest but of sacrifice, not of men with muskets driving out Redcoats and Indians, but of the Prince of Peace washing his disciples’ feet, and praying even for his enemies as they nailed him to a cross.
In Acts 1:9 we read, “After he said this, [Jesus] was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” So ends the most stunning and surprising reversal in recorded human history. The One who, for love, stripped and divested himself of his throne in the holiest, most heavenly glory, and who took upon himself the weakness and limits of vulnerable human flesh, and the worst that the human heart could conceive at the time by way of humiliation, shame and torture, to take on the form of a servant, on that day of ascension returned to his holy, heavenly glory. That he, the Exalted One, descended into such weakness and humiliation is surprising and stunning enough. But that he would make of that descent the very way and means back to his holy and heavenly throne, makes this reversal all the more stunning and surprising. If that’s not enough, then consider too how he does so not only for himself, but that he does so for us. He undergoes this descent and emptying so as to bring back with him to his glory the very race that rejected, humiliated and murdered him. As he told his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Where? On his heavenly throne.
Fifty-plus years ago, someone else ascended into the heavens, but it wasn’t anyone you’ll see pictured in our capital rotunda. It was Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut and first man in space. After his Soyuz space capsule returned to earth, he held a press conference to say that nowhere up there did he see any pearly gates of any heavenly city, no angels nor saints walking or floating among the clouds playing harps, and certainly no glowing white throne with a giant, bearded, white-haired man in a spotless, white, robe sitting on it. Like a good card-carrying member of the Communist Party, he had to get that dig in against God and religion.
If Gagarinn were here, I would tell him, “Comrade, in Biblical language, the word ‘up’ does not always mean away from us, up high and out there, into the stratosphere and beyond, against the force of gravity, far removed from us and our struggles below. The word ‘up’ can also mean two other things. One is that to go up is to be proven worthy and rewarded, exalted and honored with power, authority and a title, in effect, ‘enthroned.’ Like a king.
So now are fulfilled the words we find, such as Psalm 68: “When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious— that you, O LORD God, might dwell there.” These were words to celebrate God’s kingship. But the early church also saw the script for Jesus’ life in the words of enthronement for earthly kings, such as Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” Whenever you read the Psalms and encounter these words and prayers for the enthronement of God, or of his king over his people, they have all been fulfilled by Jesus on the day we celebrate today.
But that is the second-to-last ascension we read about in the Bible. The last one is not by Yuri Gagarin or Buzz Lightyear—I mean, Buzz Aldrin. Its our ascension. The Apostle Paul used the same language of ascension for us in I Thessalonians 4: “16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” In other words, Christ’s Ascension to his rightful throne, the last step in the divine seal of approval upon him and his kingship, is the guarantee of our exaltation and honor as well.
The other biblical meaning of “up” is tantamount to everywhere, invisible and yet equally available, in the same sense as when smoke goes up, and disappears, and yet remains powerful and present at our level. Even far away from where the dark plume of smoke rises and disappears into the air, we can smell smoke, and our eyes sting, That’s also what we mean when we say that Jesus ascended, not that he left the planet to walk among the stars and the clouds, while we’re left all alone now down here. We mean that his reign now extends directly to his subjects anywhere and everywhere, no matter who we are, where we are, or when.
Put these two ideas together and you end up with something stunning and revolutionary, more so than George Washington handing in his commission before anyone can declare him king. The revolutionary implication is that Christ is now available to any of us, anywhere, and everywhere, so that we too might be exalted to share his glory, honor and throne. It also means that his ascension to honor, titles and a throne is our ascension as well, even if through the struggles and sacrifices of this life. And finally, it means that the values we often deride as signs of weakness and lowliness: compassion, faith, hope and humility, are royal signs of heavenly status.
Which means that, from the world’s point of view, the way up will start by going down, down in service, humility, and a compassionate identification with others. Down through hard times and struggles, living and dying, in weakness as well as strength. In the span of our lives, from youth to aging, and in the frailty that leads to death, we are not just seeing people waste away and die. We are seeing people in the process of their own “apotheosis,” of being prepared and raised to share Christ’s throne, the same way he did: by words and works of love, under the grace and guidance of God.
That’s what I want most to say to you, Katrina, while you’re still damp around the edges and the waters of baptism still chill you (I hope you don’t mind me addressing you personally like this). You have begun a journey with Jesus by which he will take you up with him to share his throne in glory, honor and eternal life. What a privilege for us all to have our parts in that. But don’t be surprised if the road to glory takes you down as often as up. Be surprised if it doesn’t. Don’t be surprised if the road goes down into some dark places of doubt, confusion, questions, and painful lessons about the broken-ness of the world and of human nature, including your own. Nothing unique to you: we’re all discovering our own weak and wounded parts, and hopefully also experiencing how God heals and transforms those parts. Don’t be surprised if the road to glory goes down into service, where you might be called upon to bind the wounds and wash the feet of the unlovely and the un-loving, down to where you might take some grief and guff for the decision you made today. You already know what that’s about. But you’ll find that someone else has walked that path, whose foot prints show a nail scar. And you’ll find him walking the path with you. And if the Lord tarries and the biblical blessing comes true for you, “May you live to see your children’s children,” you’ll also find that aging and ailing exert a downward pull on the body, and sometimes the spirit. But with the eyes of faith you’ll be able to see that the road downward is really the road upward. With the eyes of faith you’ll also see that what the cynics and scoffers see as a pointless waste of time, a life span of fear and futility, beginning and ending with tears, is actually our “apotheosis” in progress, our preparation for our own ascension to share the glory of the Ascended One. Amen anyone?