The Ascension Teaching

[John 16:7]---' It is expedient for you that I go away.'

When our Lord spoke of His Ascension it was not as a pathetic farewell to the world, nor was it as a triumphant return to heaven as the disciples came to think of it later in the light of its power and its consequences; it was as the natural end of the work which began at the Incarnation. ' I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world; again I leave the world and go to the Father.' The earthly ministry had done its work and reached its proper term. It was now expedient that He should go away. Another chapter in God's dealings with men was about to begin.

Why was it expedient? Why could He not have remained with us, seen occasionally, as He was by His disciples during the forty days? Then we might have hoped to meet Him in the lonely walk, or in the silence of our chamber while we knelt in prayer, or at His own Holy Table. What would it be to us to have ocular demonstration that He is still alive, to hear from His own lips our doubts resolved, our duties made clear, and when we have fallen to hear His own assurance that we are forgiven? So we wonder and dream. And yet His words are clear: ' It is expedient for you that I go away.'

Not less mysterious is the reason which He gives. ' If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you.' Why cannot the Holy Ghost come unless Christ goes? And---is it so obvious that the unseen Comforter is better than the visible presence? So one mystery is answered by another. God gives us a staff to help us walk, and then takes it away as soon as we have begun to lean upon it. We say on Mount Tabor: ' Lord, it is good for us to be here,' and straightway the vision fades into thin air, and we are brought to Gethsemane instead. Doubtless it is all for our good. He takes away our crutches and gives us wings. But the crutches had become familiar, and we do not easily learn to fly.

If the conditions of the forty days had been continued, we should have learned to associate Christ with particular times and places. If we had been able to appeal to Him and fly to Him in our difficulties it would not really have been good for us. A masterful personality always at hand does not educate, but dominates; it subdues and crushes spontaneous life and growth. It is only, it has been said, so far as we cannot help ourselves that help is a real kindness. All beyond that only weakens us and checks our growth. And this our own experience teaches us; the pupil finds strength comes to him when his master has left him to face the problem by himself; the son feels a new development of strength now that he is at school away from home; the clerk reveals unexpected talent because the manager, who has left everything in his hands, has gone away on a holiday. So the disciples become quite different men after the Lord has ascended into heaven where He could no longer be seen.

The desire for a visible Christ is also the sign of imperfect faith. When on earth our Lord lived as a man among men. He set before His friends an example of a life lived in perfect dependence on a spiritual environment, drawing its strength and sustenance from the Unseen. They watched Him, awed and thrilled, and content to be by His side. But what He wanted was that they should enter that Kingdom for themselves and to be at home there. So long as He was there, a visible witness of the reality of the heavenly kingdom, their faith could not have its full exercise. To Thomas, convinced by visible evidence, He spoke of the greater blessedness of those who ' have not seen and yet have believed.' And in Mary Magdalene we see the same imperfect faith when, forgetting her Lord's promises, she went very early to seek the dead among the dead. And so, when she found Him not, her last flame of hope was extinguished, and because her face was turned towards the empty grave and her mind set on what it seemed to signify, she did not recognize the beloved voice when it spoke to her. She ' supposed him to be the gardener.' So we often turn from the light of the living presence to the mists of the buried past. We cannot recognize Him in any unexpected quarter until He speaks to the core of our heart, and calls us by our name as no one else can call us.

Yet if Christ had remained; if He were even now with us in our daily lives as He was in the daily lives of His Apostles; if there were, therefore, always within reach, for the asking, an infallible answer within our reach, for the asking, an infallible answer to every doubt and every difficulty, should we really profit by it? Would not His very proximity to us be a barrier between us, because the temptation would be rather to rest content with seeing Him than to rouse ourselves to know and understand Him---and ' this is eternal life, that they should know thee . . . and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent'? He would indeed be a faultless model: we should find in Him, in perfection, all that should be the objects of our endeavor: but He would for ever be someone else, someone outside of us, a separate individuality of whom, with Him there before us, how could we ever say as St. Paul would have us say, ' I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me'? For to live the Christ-life means that there is to be not a mere imitation but an identical reproduction in terms of our own individuality of His life and spirit in our own.

So the teaching of the Ascension is that we must not cling to the knowledge of Christ after the flesh. Christ has passed into the unseen world which is very near to us, around us, and among us. His presence is of a different kind from what it was; but it is not less real and not less near. We come close to Him whenever we are lifted up in heart and mind to the region where He dwells, the sphere where all that is good and beautiful and true has its home. This is the heavenly region separated from earth not by tracts of space, but by a difference of nature. There is no up and down, there is no near and far in the spiritual world. If we have the mind of Christ, He is with us all, with each of us always.

' If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things that are above.' Whenever we are drawn upward by anything noble or beautiful or true we hear His voice, though maybe we do not recognize it, supposing him to be the gardener,' connecting the words with other things and other persons.

In what other way could we know our Lord? Had He remained with us in bodily presence how could we have thought of Him as dwelling in us, and we in Him? How could we have thought of Him as our Mediator at the right hand of God? He has denied us the touch of that hand of healing and of blessing, that we might raise our minds to those hands that bear up the world, that we might know that they are spread above us with their load of mercy on our hearts, to soften, to heal, and to strengthen.

Christ our Lord and God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. Ever since that first Ascension Day there is only one way of getting near to Him, and that is to be like Him. For this is the law of the spiritual world. Kindred spirits are always near each other, no matter how they are separated by time and space. Spirits that have nothing in common are separated asunder, although they may live under the same roof. It is vain to seek Christ in prayer if our words mount up and our hearts remain below. It is vain to seek Him in Holy Scripture if we read with dead and dull hearts; vain even to seek Him in the Holy Communion if our affections are not set on things above. Therefore may He who alone can give us the seeing eye and the hearing ear shine in our hearts and give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. So we shall understand that it was expedient for us that He should go away, that He should go away to prepare our spirits to be where He is---with the Father of spirits, where spirits have their true eternal home.

In Christ, timothy maranatha

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