Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. – Luke 24:50-51
The year I graduated from University a fellow student, Heather Whitestone, won Miss America. Many of us who had little or no interest in the competition before watched that year. It was exciting to watch someone who ate in the cafeteria with us competing in a national competition. And of course we were proud when she won. My roommate at the time had asked her out and been told that she was dating someone – I still tease him about being able to say that he was turned down by Miss America.
There is something in us that takes pride in sharing something in common with someone given an honor. I was proud of a fellow University student. We feel a sense of honor when they play the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Olympics. I’ve heard folks tell me with pride that Mt. Carmel and friends and family are in the movie Walk the Line. We share in the honor given to someone we have a bond.
The Sunday before Pentecost is Ascension Sunday, when we remember that Jesus, having finished his earthly ministry was “carried up to heaven” to be seated, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, “at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”. Consider what it means for Jesus to have ascended to heaven. Jesus is the Word become flesh, God incarnate. Yet after he had paid the penalty for our sin by dying on the cross, and after he was resurrected from the dead, he didn’t throw off the human body and become pure spirit. Nor did he become un-incarnate, dumping off His human nature now that the “dirty work” was finished. The flesh he had taken was not disposed of as though it had no use. It was taken into glory. Jesus remains incarnate, that is, he continues to be fully Human (mind, body, and spirit) as well as fully Divine.
How all this works in incomprehensible, but what we can understand is the God values His good creation, including the physical world of dirt and water, flesh and blood. We receive an amazing honor in having one who is fully human “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 8:1). Therefore, the way we view and treat ourselves and our neighbor should bear in mind that Lord did not despise the flesh or his humanity, but has glorified it and promises to glorify us as well.
The Advent season draws our thoughts to the miracle of the Incarnation, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) – or as the Message colorfully paraphrases it “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood”. Our salvation was not wrought by Jesus swooping down from Heaven in a single day to fix our troubles and then ride off into the sunset. He was “born of a woman”. He was made like us “in every way”. As a child he “grew and became strong”. As an adult he went to synagogue, got hungry, slept, cried and celebrated weddings. In every way he lived the day to day realities of a first century Jewish peasant. As Christians, we are called to proclaim the good news of what Jesus did and to serve as he served, but we are not simply to do the things Jesus did – feed the hungry and proclaim the gospel, welcome the stranger and pray for the sick – but to do things in the way that he did. The Incarnation is a model of ministry. This is particularly apparent to our family. We have packed boxes and moved to a new ZIP code. We have sent our change of address notifications and I’ve updated my computer’s weather notification. We’re moving into the neighborhood to minister as part of a new congregation and community. As a pastor becoming part of a particular community and serving a particular congregation is the way my vocation is exercised. What is true here for pastoral ministry is also true for the “ministry of reconciliation” given to all Christians. The ministry of all the baptized is done as part of a particular culture, place, and time. Ministry is not “Us” helping “Them”. Christians are not to be sequestered from the world; that is we are still “in” the world though not “of” it. We all follow Christ among our friends and neighbors, classmates and co-workers, and amid the funerals, ballgames and PTO meetings we point to Christ.
As one early disciple explained:
The Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. … inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners.
Maker of the sun, he is made under the sun. In the Father he remains, from his mother he goes forth. Creator of heaven and earth, he was born on earth under heaven. Unspeakably wise, he is wisely speechless. Filling the world, he lies in a manger. Ruler of the starts, he nurses at his mother’s breast. he is both great in the nature of God, and small in the form of a servant.
This is from Athanasius’ On the Incarnation 2.9. It makes me think how the incarnation brings honor to all of creation, especially embodied humanity.
You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.
(picture is a modification of origianl by: Matthias Kabel)