Listen to these four sentences: He’s moving up in the world. She’s coming down with a bad cold. Things are really looking up for them. I’ve been feeling kind of down lately. You notice something about those sentences? In each sentence down is bad, up is good. These aren’t willy-nilly choices. A bunch of people didn’t just gather in a room one day and decide that up should be good and down should be bad. Our own bodies actually lead us to think like this.
We associate “down” with sickness. You collapse in exhaustion. When you die, you go down into the ground. “Up,” then, signifies life. You stand up strong. Plants grow…up. All of this translates into the spiritual world too. Heaven is “up there” and hell is “down there,” right? We all get this. But as helpful as this may be, it really screws with our heads when it comes to something very important: the ascension, the “going up” of Jesus. It would make sense that he would go “up.” And yet, him going up leaves us with a bit of conundrum: we are still down here. The disciples struggled with this thought too, and we will get there in a moment.
First, take a look at those first five verses of the book of Acts with me. It starts out in this way. “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach…” Do you know who wrote the book of Acts? It was Luke. And, here he is referencing another book of his which we would assume was his gospel, the book of Luke. And that “former book” was all about Jesus, his life and his death. Now, in the book of Acts, Luke is building on that story and sharing it with a man named Theophilus.
We don’t know too much about Theophilus, but from what we do know he was believed to be a sophisticated, cultured person, who early on was a sceptic yet remained interested in the story of Jesus. And in the book of Luke, Luke is clear that he is writing these things down in both books “so that Theophilus may know the certainty of the things he had been taught.” (Luke 1:4). And you see that here in Acts. What does Luke do?
He lays out the evidence for a resurrected Jesus. He points to eyewitness accounts. Jesus kept appearing to the apostles “giving many convincing proofs that he was alive.” And you think about those disciples for a moment. When Jesus died, the disciples were bereaved and traumatized. A couple days later they were overjoyed to hear that he rose from the dead. And then they saw him! Yet, in the book of Matthew – right near the end of chapter 28 – we are told that those same disciples still had their doubts about Jesus. They still weren’t sure even as they saw him, felt him, and heard him. Luke makes that point here in Acts as we read that Jesus appeared to those disciples again and again over a forty-day period.
Which brings me to this point, a resurrected Jesus was just as unbelievable even to those who had walked with Jesus throughout his ministry. Jesus’ disciples were at times skeptical, at times doubtful, and at times reluctant to believe that Jesus was really in front of them. And that’s a good lesson for us. We can look out at the unbelieving world and understand their skepticism, their doubt. That makes sense! But it scares us when that same doubt creeps into our hearts, and it does. We doubt. That is evident by our sin, our lack of trust, and our focus on self. We don’t need to be surprised by that doubt, but we do need to know where to turn when we are in doubt. What was it for those disciples that led them to overcome that doubt, why did they believe Jesus was raised from the dead?
Because Jesus stood in front of them. They didn’t believe because they wanted to believe. They didn’t trust because they didn’t want to look like idiots who followed this Jesus guy for years. They believed, they trusted, because the truth was standing right in front of them. God gave them all the evidence they needed and soon, as we see in verse 5, they would be confirmed in their faith by their baptism with the Holy Spirit.
But, at this moment, for those disciples, things had changed. Their relationship with Jesus was different. For some reason he wasn’t as easily recognizable, until after he spoke. He walked through doors. They didn’t spend every night and day with their teacher as they once had. So, finally, after forty days of this they asked Jesus, verse 6, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” The eyes of Jesus’ disciples were still looking down. They still had some expectation of a kingly Jesus ruling an earthly kingdom. Pay attention to what happens next.
Jesus starts talking. He mentions again the promise of the Holy Spirit. Then he says this: “You will be my witnesses.” And we get to verse 9, “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Jesus went up. That’s the answer.
While Jesus’ disciples craned their necks to the skies, Jesus rose like a hot air balloon and slipped inside a cloud. He went up. To do what? That’s the question. Why did Jesus ascend? So, he could come down, to permeate all creation with his presence, to rule over all things in such a way that no place is outside him.
You’ve maybe caught this before. In John chapter 20, Mary Magdalene, at the tomb of Jesus, encountered her risen Lord. You remember that scene, “Mary,” Jesus said, and then after she recognized him, Jesus also said this, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to my Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary would have loved to have had Jesus always with her, but Jesus couldn’t stay, and, if he did, she couldn’t always have him, but, if he returned to his Father, if he ascended, then he could descend to her, to you, to everyone. The Holy Spirit would come and be with us all. Jesus was saying, “Mary let me let go of your hand, so that I can ascend and come into your heart and then you’ll never ever lose me.”
St. Augustine, once wrote this. “You, Jesus, ascended from before our eyes, and we turned back grieving only to find you in our hearts.” You see? Jesus went up, so he could come down to you. Those disciples were his first witnesses. They saw it all. The death. The resurrection, the ascension. And at first, they were skeptical. They kept looking up. But Jesus kept his promise. The Spirit came down. It filled them. Jesus was brought into their hearts, and they spread that good news, and, with the Spirit dwelling in them and working through their words, Jesus continues to be with and enter the lives of his people. He is down here.
When Jesus ascended, he entered his glory “in such a way that he knows everything, is able to do everything, is present for all his creatures, and has under his feet and in his hands all that is in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, VIII.11). He “entered his glory” to glorify us by bringing us into his body through the things down here, like through the earthly element of baptismal water.
And, precisely because he is seated at the right hand of the Father, he is seated down here at the right hand of your loved one dying, your friend hurting, your child sick, and he is there with you when you doubt. Because all things are under his feet, Christ is there with you when all the nastiness and ugliness of life tramples you under its own feet.
And, best of all, because in his body he ascended to the highest throne in heaven, he puts that body into you as you gather down here around his altar-throne. Jesus ascends downward to lift us upward by giving us his body and blood for the forgiveness of all our sins.
So it is, when we are skeptical, when we doubt, when your faith is weak, when you’re stumbling in your sins, yes, you can look up. You can lift your voice in prayer, but you can also look down here. At the witnesses, whom God has placed in your life to encourage you and love you. You can look down at the written Word through which God’s Spirit works. You can look at the simple water God used to wash you of your sin, or the bread and wine through which he gives you himself. You can cling to Jesus who ascended up, so that you would never stay down here.
You see, it doesn’t matter how far you are dragged down in this life, there is no place too deep that Jesus is not there to meet you face-to-face. There is no place where he will not hear you or come to find you. The ascension did not take Jesus away…it brought heaven near…his homecoming has made heaven a home for us who still are walking and living down here far from home.
And, one day, as the angels said, “This same Jesus,” he will come down in the flesh to bring us up, to that home for all eternity. You will witness this moment; you will see it. For John writes in the book of Revelation, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be. Amen!”