A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Where's Jesus?

Like so many questions we may have about our Christian faith, the liturgical calendar can set us straight so we have a solid biblical understanding of the life, death, and resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

So, what happened to Jesus after he was resurrected from the dead and where is Jesus now?

By looking at the liturgical calendar, we find our answers.

Easter Sunday - Jesus is resurrected. The word, "resurrection" from a biblical understanding, does not mean that someone has cast off his/her material body in favor of a non-material body. In Jesus' day, "resurrection" was the understanding of what would happen at the end of the age when all of God's people would be literally raised from their graves and given new bodies that would not be subject to sin and death and they would live in God's new age where God's righteousness, peace, and justice would fill the earth. Nobody expected someone to be resurrected in the middle of history as Jesus was which makes the Easter story so amazing!

It's also important to distinguish between "resurrection" and "coming back to life again with the same body." In John's gospel, we hear about Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, but Lazarus wasn't given a new body that wasn't subject to sin and death like Jesus had received on Easter morning. At some point, death did catch up with Lazarus since he didn't come back to life with a resurrected body. This is an important distinction to be made in understanding what the word, "resurrection" truly means.

Easter Season (The Great Fifty Days) - The scriptures tell us that Jesus appeared to the disciples and to many people in his resurrected body (remember, not a non-material body, but a transformed physical body that was now no longer subject to sin and death) for a period of forty days. This helps us to correct a common misconception that after Jesus was resurrected, he went to heaven. No, first he appeared before the disciples in his resurrected body several times for a stretch of forty days. Again, this adds attestation to the validity of the New Testament claim that Jesus did in fact, rise from the dead. Eyewitnesses saw the resurrected Lord several times.

Ascension Day (The 40th Day After the Resurrection) - On the 40th day from when Jesus was resurrected on Easter Sunday, Jesus gathered his disciples and he "ascended." "Ascended," meaning that Jesus "ascended" to his throne as king over all creation. Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday (40 days from Easter Sunday.) Most people, in thinking about Jesus' ascension have a picture in their mind of Jesus going up into space somewhere rather than on the more theological meaning of Jesus ascending to his rightful throne as king of kings. Churches like Faith Community tend to celebrate Ascension Day on the Sunday following the 40th day so that the whole church can celebrate this significant day on the church calendar together. Some worship leaders argue (and rightly so in my opinion) that celebrating "Ascension Day/Sunday" makes "Christ the King" Sunday, which is a more modern addition to the church calendar unnecessary and redundant since Ascension Day is really when Jesus "ascended" and took his rightful place in heaven. Ascension Day reminds us that when Jesus was raised from the dead on Easter morning, he didn't go to heaven immediately, but instead spent the next 40 days with his followers in his resurrected body.

Pentecost (The 50th Day After the Resurrection) - Jesus', having ascended ten days earlier as the rightful king over all creation because of his life, death, and resurrection, fulfills the promise that he had made earlier to the disciples before he was ascended when he promised that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples. "Pentecost" means fifty and marks the concluding day of Eastertide, otherwise known as "The Great Fifty Days." The Holy Spirit is God's presence with us.

So, back to the question, "where is Jesus now?" Right now, Jesus is ascended as the king of kings over all creation. Jesus is in God's heavenly realm. And there will come a day when Jesus will reappear in our time and space (his 2nd coming) and when he reappears, God's people will receive resurrected bodies and God's righteousness, justice, and peace will fill the whole earth which means that heaven and earth will overlap completely and God's new creation will be fulfilled. And this is the long awaited biblical hope for heaven to one day fill this earth just like we say in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." In the meantime, the church, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, is called to announce to the world that Jesus is the true king of the world and to offer God's healing and tranforming love in the name of the risen Christ to the world which he seeks to redeem and reclaim. In other words, the good news of Easter will not allow us to be spectators!

Eastertide is a great example of how helpful the liturgical calendar can be for us to have a well rounded understanding of our faith. Check out this website for a look at the liturgical year.
Happy Easter! (And keep saying it during these great fifty days!)

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