46 Q. What do you mean by saying,
“He ascended to heaven”?
A. That Christ,
while his disciples watched,
was taken up from the earth into heaven^1
and remains there on our behalf^2
until he comes again
to judge the living and the dead.^3
^1 Acts 1:9; Matt. 26[:64]; Mark 16[:19]; Luke 24[:51]
^2 Heb. 4:14; 7:15[-25]; 9:11; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 4:10; Col. 3:1
^3 Acts 1:11; Matt. 24:30
47 Q. But isn’t Christ with us
until the end of the world
as he promised us?^1
A. Christ is true human and true God.
In his human nature Christ is not now on earth;^2
but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit
he is never absent from us.^3
^1 Matt. 28:20
^2 Matt. 26:11; John 16:28; 17:11; Acts 3:21
^3 John 14:17[-19]; 16:13; Matt. 28:20; Eph. 4:8, 12;
also cited: Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 50
48 Q. If his humanity is not present
wherever his divinity is,
then aren’t the two natures of Christ
separated from each other?
A. Certainly not.
is not limited
and is present everywhere,^1
it is evident that
Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of
the humanity that has been taken on,
but at the same time his divinity is in
and remains personally united to
^1 Acts 7:49; 17:28; Jer. 23:24
^2 Col. 2:9; John 3:13; 11:15; Matt. 28:6
49 Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven
A. First, he is our advocate
in the presence of his Father.^1
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven
as a sure pledge that Christ our head
will also take us, his members,
up to himself.^2
Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth
as a corresponding pledge.^3
By the Spirit’s power
we seek not earthly things
but the things above, where Christ is,
sitting at God’s right hand.^4
^1 1 John 2:1-2; Rom. 8:34
^2 John 14:2; 20:17; Eph. 2:6
^3 John 14:16;16:7; Acts 2; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5
^4 Col. 3:1; Phil. 3:14
LORD’S DAY 18 (Q/A 46-49)
My family and I just returned from an exhilarating moderatorial trip to visit our sisters and brothers of the Yukon Presbytery, 22 congregations faithfully serving the state nicknamed “The Last Frontier.” The largest state in terms of square miles, there are many parts that are not populated, left for many to behold the pristine surroundings, majestic snow-capped mountains, roaming caribou and brown bear. In Anchorage, we were at the Presbytery meeting where I witnessed and experienced something remarkable that I often don’t see in meetings: presbyters sharing the joys and struggles of their congregations, praying over each others congregations by name, praying for each other, laying hands on each other. In the time I was with the presbytery, there was a small portion for a nominating committee report, but so much of the time was spent in worship, in fervent prayer, in feasting over the traditional maktuk (whale meat, skin, blubber), and sharing one another’s lives. During one open mic time, an elder prayed, “Lord, thank you that we are not alone.”
We traveled to the northern slope, about a 2 hour flight from Anchorage to Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, as it sits on the Arctic Ocean. I had the privilege of worshipping with the Inupiat and Tongan community of the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church, founded on Easter Sunday in 1899 by famous Presbyterian missionary, Sheldon Jackson. Barrow is a whole different world than Anchorage and with the rest of the United States. Barrow is literally a desert: dry cold, compacted snow and ice, no vegetation. We were there for 32 degree Fahrenheit temperatures but temperatures during the winter dips to a deadly -45 degrees, with wind chills bringing that to nearly -70 degrees. Fruits and vegetables are flown in, making garlic at the local market cost $6.19/lb. Most people have, at most, a high school education, if that. Many people earn money through the oil and gas industry. Imagine the opening snowstorm scene of Star Wars, Episode 5: Empire Strikes Back…that’s Barrow. Natives subsist on whale, seal, caribou, bison, duck, and geese. Alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse are commonplace. During the months of November and December, people in Barrow live 24/7 without daylight. From mid-May to mid-July, they live 24/7 with only daylight. It’s a whole world away from Middlesex, NJ or from so many parts of the lower 48 states.
In the midst of these contexts, faithful Christians serve. The Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church is the oldest and biggest community in Barrow. Of the 4500 residents of this village, most have been one time or another been baptized at the Church, and almost all can expect to be buried at a funeral officiated by whomever is serving as the pastor at any given time. I am deeply grateful to the Utqiagvik community, who are faithfully and humbly served by Pastor Duke Morrow (who is also moderator of the Yukon Presbytery) and his wife, Li (short for Lisa). They’ve been there for 2 years. Duke is from Detroit. When he passed out in the sanctuary one time, he had to be airlifted to Anchorage. While there is a local hospital, any major medical procedures need to be done at Anchorage. He and Li continue to serve faithfully; it is a true calling.
Throughout this particular trip, I couldn’t help but think of our visit two months prior to the Synod of Boriquen in Puerto Rico. That context, too, is a different world from what many in the PC(USA) are accustomed. These two contexts, on diagonal opposites geographically, are different and distinctive, yet united. We are united, we are not alone.
I thought of the four sections of this week’s Heidelberg Catechism.
Q/A 46 through 49 discusses the meaning and purpose of our Lord’s ascension. In my travels, I’ve spoken extensively about the importance of the ascension, as connected to the resurrection, as connected to the crucifixion, as connected to Christ’s ministry, as connected to Christ’s incarnation. In the ascension, we confess Christ’s full presence by virtue of the giving of the Holy Spirit (who is also referred to in several of the apostle Paul’s letters as the Spirit of Christ), and we confess at the same time, without contradiction, Christ’s full absence. Jesus Christ is fully present and fully absent. Christ did, indeed, ascend bodily into heaven as testified by holy Scripture. Through him, our heavenly Father gifted to us the Holy Spirit. By the giving of the Holy Spirit, we live with the trifecta gifts: faith, hope, and love. It is with and through these gifts of God for the people of God that we live, and move and have our being in the life and heart of the triune God…because of the Holy Spirit. What this means is that we live, at the same time, with a degree of certainty, and a degree of mystery. Binding these two together is the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the Lord Jesus Christ, to our heavenly Father, to the communion of saints, both the living and the dead, in all times and in all places.
This is a remarkable reality and confession. This is a benefit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have in heaven our eternal high priest, the Lord Christ, who forever prays for us, intercedes for us, saves us. How do we know and trust this? Because of the convicting power and presence of the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus taught his disciples, teaches and comforts us in the ways of Jesus Christ.
Whenever we human beings try to tilt the balance towards so much certainty – we become prideful and frustrated towards others whom we judge not to be as enlightened or wise as we are. When we tilt the balance towards so much mystery – we become cynical, where an unhealthy sense of doubt can creep into our faith, and, at its worst, we can become like what Jesus described, a reed blown here and there by every wind of doctrine, not anchored to the certain redemption of Christ’s salvation and God’s revelation in Christ. So many conflicts erupt when we want more certainty and thereby become overly dogmatic, or when we want more mystery and thereby want more freedom from strict rules or laws.
What the Holy Spirit does because Christ is ascended is anchor us to the heart and life of God, anchor us to the Good News of Jesus Christ, uniting us to the wider family of God, as a sure guarantee that we are never alone. The Holy Spirit empowers us, enabling us to live lives that testify of Jesus Christ, and the goodness and grace in Him. So, whether we are in a winter desert, in a sandy desert, on a tropical island, in the corn fields of Nebraska, the beaches of Malibu, or whatever might be the case, we are never alone. Our lifeline is the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the triune God and to all of God’s people, pledging to us that God is for us, God is with us, God is in us; in other words, that God is God, and we belong to God.