Finishing the Story
When we think of the gospel, our minds tend to gravitate toward the surprising and dramatic reversal of the cross and resurrection. This is perhaps only natural, as together those two events represent the great turning point of the story, where the apparent defeat of Jesus by crucifixion is revealed to be the very means by which God wins His decisive victory over the powers of sin and death. And of course it is the bodily resurrection itself which reveals in stunning and indisputable fashion that Jesus has conquered sin and death. Shocking and singular, these events rightly command our attention and demand our celebration. They are among the most exciting parts of the most incredible story every told. But it is not the end of the story.
The gospel has one final chapter, after even the resurrection, which deserves our attention and celebration. In Philippians 2, Paul briefly summarizes the gospel story by quoting what is either a very early Christian hymn or creed:
Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, coming into existence in the likeness of humans. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly exalted him and granted him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is King, unto the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)
Here we find all the core elements of the gospel, just as we would proclaim it today, just as we examined it in our recent sermon series from the gospel according to John. The creed begins by affirming that Jesus pre-existed with the Father, and that He humbled Himself, entering our world as one of us (which we of course celebrate as the incarnation at Christmas). And then, as though that were not enough, Jesus humbles Himself still further, remaining faithful to His Father even unto death on the cross.
If we were mapping out the movement of the story, we might say that thus far it has been all downward in direction: from heaven to earth, and then from earth to the grave. But of course, that is not the end, and from now on all the movement is in the other direction. On Easter God raises Jesus from the dead (from the grave to the earth - as it were). But notice that is not the end either. Jesus is not merely returned to “earthly” life: on the basis of His perfect fealty to the Father, exemplified by His sacrificial death, God “highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above all names.”
Here we have the final movement, whereby God himself declares the risen Jesus to be the rightful Lord of all creation, and decrees that all creatures - in heaven, on earth and under the earth - owe Jesus fealty as their Lord. The gospel ends not simply with a living, resurrected Jesus, but with Jesus as the reigning King over all creation. As Hebrews 1:13 has it, God has in effect invited Jesus to sit at his right hand. In other words, when we picture the throne room of God, we should be picturing two thrones, the great throne of the creator God, and then at His right hand, Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham, the Lamb who was slain.
Historically, our faith tradition has not celebrated the ascension - the enthronement of Jesus, as described by our passage above (and Mt. 28:16-20, Acts 1:6-11, Hb. 1:13, 1 Cor. 15:25-28), at least not in the same way we have celebrated Good Friday and Easter. But perhaps we should. The ascension belongs with the rest of the gospel story, and to leave it out is to change the story. And beyond that it reminds us that our faith is not in an event, or in a doctrine (or set of doctrines), but in a person - the person of Jesus the Messiah. So make some time to celebrate (again): Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God the Father where He even now reigns as King:
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rv. 5:13, NRSV, emphasis mine)