Christ descended and then ascended that we too may ascend with Him. Christ came that we may be lifted up. In John’s gospel, we read that Christ is praying for his disciples, but also for the church that it be lifted up and be protected from the evil one. By Christ’s incarnation, the Word is made flesh that we too may ascend with Christ as a Christ follower and as his church.
Today is Ascension Sunday the day we remember and contemplate Christ’s bodily ascension into heaven. Christ’s ascension is recounted in Acts chapter one. After Christ’s resurrection, he visited many, and told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. Only after Pentecost were the apostles told to be Christ’s witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, and to the ends of the earth. This is a picture of the church.
Recalling John chapter 17, we see Christ lifting his eyes toward heaven praying to the Father concerning the apostles. Christ is praying before his suffering and death (this account in John is at the Passover meal, the Last Supper before praying in the garden of Gethsemane). He is praying that the apostles and later the church would be protected from the evil one (v. 15) (for later the church is birthed from the apostles after Pentecost), but he is also praying for unity among the apostles and future church. Since St. John is a theologian, he is telling us that the unity between Christ and his Father—with the Spirit implied, is the same unity he imparts to the Christian and the church. In verse 20 Jesus says, “I ask not only on behalf of these (meaning the apostles), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word”…which is referring to the church.
Jesus concludes his prayer, “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
At this point, Christ is headed to the Cross, to suffering, to death. Christ is praying in effect, “that in Him the apostles might have peace while having distress in the world, and had exhorted them to be of good cheer, because He had overcome the world” (or was about to). But the apostles do not know what is coming. That Christ is going to die. They are confused as to why Christ has told them such things. Christ is telling them that God has been glorified in him. That Christ will only be with them a little longer. Peter asks where he is going. Jesus says you cannot follow me, but Peter insists he will lay down his life for him, but Jesus exhorts Peter that he will deny ever knowing Christ. For six pages in the gospel of John, Christ is telling them not to be afraid, that he is the Christ, but he must suffer and die. The apostles do not fully understand what is going on at the Last Supper.
How could Christ be glorified by dying on a cross? Jesus says in verse one, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” For most, crucifixion epitomized shame, not honor and glory. By Christ saying he would be glorified tells us something of his divinity and his equality with the Father, the Almighty God. This leads to a short exposition of the incarnation defining who Jesus Christ truly is. (Bear with me here).
The doctrine of the incarnation defines Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity assuming humanity—becoming flesh. The One true God in tri-unity “made himself known fully, specifically and personally, by taking our human nature into himself, by coming amongst us as a particular man, without in any way ceasing to be the eternal and infinite God." Christ truly being God and man, was incarnate to reconcile man to God, while at the same time uplifting humanity. Christ came as a servant and lived and died in order to accomplish the only sacrifice that would make up for man’s sin to regain favor with God.
In descending from heaven, Jesus became fully human without losing his divinity. As John Chrysostom said, he chose a life of a slave or servant. The ineffable God, “out of pure love
came amongst us…sharing our life, heights and depths, its joys and sorrows.” Jesus was susceptible to temptation (but did not sin), thirst, hunger, pain, suffering, and death. In facing the cross, he did not face it stoically—without emotion; Jesus was in agony, but willingly went to death because it was the Father’s will, “let your will be done, not mine,” perfect obedience to the Father.
God the Father and Christ are one. When John says, “All thine is mine” or “all mine are yours, and yours are mine” (John 17:10). He is emphasizing that Jesus carries out the will of the Father. Hans Urs von Balthasar (a catholic theologian) illuminates Jesus’ will wonderfully in saying, “He lives in the Holy Spirit, whom he receives, and in the vision of the Father, with whom he speaks in prayer, and whose will he does.” By Christ being incarnate, we in turn can also receive the Holy Spirit. By God taking on human flesh, He opens the doorway for our flesh to be an abode or temple of God’s Spirit.
By the Spirit, we are sanctified—made more like Christ. Christ’s divinity enters humanity by the Holy Spirit. These attributes belong to God alone; we can only participate in them if God first unites himself to the human race through the incarnation of the Word (which he did).
“At the beginning of all his [Jesus’] work there is found obedience: the readiness to let himself be dishonored by death on a cross according to God’s perfect will. Christ obeys His Father’s mission: ‘See I come to do your will’ (Hebrews 10:7). According to St. John, “the Spirit ‘guides’ the Son, even ‘drives’ him to do the Father’s will."
God in the person of the Son stooped down to serve. God becoming human was unthinkable in most religions and in Greek and Roman philosophy (and even today). Our flesh, mind, spirit, and soul are redeemed in Christ because He became man without losing divinity. Men are welcomed into the kingdom as sons (and daughters) of God by participating in the death of Christ, through baptism.
And because Jesus was fully God and fully man, He knew our afflictions personally; he was amongst the needy crowds. Jesus had compassion on those suffering and in need because He had a human mind and soul. He felt the pain of others’ suffering. He felt pain himself and took our transgressions upon himself.
By the Word becoming flesh, dying on the cross, and rising again, we too have the grace of flesh being healed, of rising again, of union with God through Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God. We have the opportunity of becoming sons of God by participation, by obedience. As Christ-followers, our flesh has the ability to continue the mission of Jesus Christ, to fulfill the Great Commission (healing the sick, casting out demons, etc.).
Christ, the eternal son of God in the flesh prays for his church. He prays that his Father’s will be done through the apostles and his church into this current age and ages to come. Since Jesus and the Father are one, “what is thine is mine,” this prayer (because of the incarnation, death and resurrection) has great power, but also enables us to ascend with Christ, to be with him in heaven. Christ’s suffering and death also enable the church to endure persecution and trial. All the while, since Christ felt everything we humans feel, suffered as we do: mentally, physically, emotionally, our hope lies in Him. He understands our suffering. Therefore, when we Christians suffer, even unto death, our God is with us intimately because he experienced it himself.
If God were completely transcendent, our suffering would be for naught. There would be no purpose in it. We would see it just as a part of life without hope attached to it. Or we would see it as a punishment from the divine detached being—as many pagans saw it. One would strive to escape from it, but the Christian endures because Christ endured suffering.
Which leads us to the suffering church, which of course implies the individual Christian. St. Augustine said pertaining to John 17, “For He gave this as the cause of His discourse, that in Him they [and we as Christians] might have peace. For its sake we believe and hope in Him, and according to His gracious giving are enkindled with His love: by this peace we are comforted in all our distresses, by it we are delivered from them all: for its sake we endure with fortitude every tribulation, that in it we may reign in happiness without any tribulation.”