THIS YEAR, Ascension Day in the church year falls on June 2. It is celebrated in some churches, but tends to be largely forgotten or neglected in most others. How important is Ascension Day? A local preacher wrote to me recently with a theological question (Does Jesus still have a human body today?) and a liturgical question (Why do Methodists seem to ignore the Ascension?). The rest of this article is based on what I wrote to him.
The Bible does say that Jesus had a resurrected body after His resurrection. It was in this same body that He ascended to heaven. Little more is said about the nature of this resurrected body, except Paul’s teaching on the “spiritual body” in 1 Cor. 15. is body cannot be the same as the bodies that we are born with, though there is a continuity and similarity between the two; one cannot think of how the earthly body can ascend beyond the skies without being harmed. So, while we believe in the bodily ascension of Jesus, there is still a good degree of mystery about this.
We must be careful not to say more than what the Bible says. On the one hand, we must say with C. S. Lewis that the resurrection and ascension were bodily events, showing that they were not a kind of reversal of the incarnation. On the other hand, we must be careful not to conceive of the glorified body in exactly the same terms as our earthly bodies. We can say that Jesus is still fully God and fully man – today as he was 20 centuries ago. Also, that he ascended bodily and remains in that state today.
The ancient church fathers maintained that Jesus brought humanity to heaven through the ascension. But regarding the body of Jesus, there are diﬀerent opinions. Both Luther and Calvin believed that the bodily resurrection and ascension released Christ’s body from the bounds and restrictions of time (as it was during His earthly life). Luther further believed that the resurrection and ascension also freed the body of Jesus from the bounds of space. In other words, in the resurrected and ascended state, Jesus is free to be both localised and be everywhere. Calvin disagreed, and hence their diﬀerent opinions about where Christ was with regards to the Lord’s Supper. Again, there are diﬀerent views when we begin speculating on how exactly Jesus exists in His body.
Augustine’s wise words are most helpful: “But by a spiritual body is meant one which has been made subject to spirit in such wise that it is adapted to a heavenly habitation, all frailty and every earthly blemish having been changed and converted into heavenly purity and stability. But the question as to where and in what manner the Lord’s body is in heaven, is one which it would be altogether over-curious and superfluous to prosecute. Only we must believe that it is in heaven. For it pertains not to our frailty to investigate the secret things of heaven, but it does pertain to our faith to hold elevated and honourable sentiments on the subject of the dignity of the Lord’s body.”
The bodily ascension is most strongly emphasised by certain Christian denominations and traditions, such as the Calvinists. us Karl Barth wrote that Christ’s humanity is “to all eternity … a clothing which He does not put oﬀ. It is His temple which He does not leave. It is the form which He does not lose”.
WHAT ABOUT METHODISTS?
Article III of our Articles of Religion states that “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things pertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.” e phrases “took again his body” and “wherewith” point to the bodily ascension of Jesus.
Why then the apparent lack of emphasis on the ascension? We should certainly emphasise this more. Methodists are interested in the key emphases of the ascension – and they have to do with the present rule of Christ, Christ as the forerunner and head of His body on earth, and His bodily return to judge.
John Wesley, as far as I know, never preached a sermon specifically on the ascension, though he included Ascension in the liturgical calendar for Methodists. Charles Wesley, however, wrote seven hymns on the ascension in 1746.
Reading those hymns will give an idea of the Methodist take on the ascension. Of special interest to us may be the 7th hymn and the last two stanzas:
By faith already there
In thee our head we are,
With our great forerunner we
Now in heavenly places sit,
Banquet with the deity,
See the world beneath our feet.
Thou art our flesh and bone,
Thou art to heaven gone!
Gone that we might all pursue,
Closely in thy footsteps tread,
Gone that we might follow too,
Reign triumphant with our head.
The word “forerunner” appears a few times in Charles’ ascension hymns. Also the emphasis is our present identification with Jesus (cf. Eph 2:6) and the anticipation of our future union with Him as our Head. Note that the emphasis is on our sanctification and perfection, not on speculation on how exactly Jesus is both human and divine in His exalted state.
In summary, the bodily ascension of Jesus and His continuing incarnation as fully human and fully divine is in line with our doctrines, though we must admit that we do not know everything about this doctrine. Even Luther and Calvin diﬀered in their opinions on whether Christ’s ascended body is limited by space.
The Methodist emphasis has been not as much on speculative theology as on practical (experiential or John Wesley would say “experimental”) theology. at is to say, the emphasis is on the practical implications for us. With regard to the ascension – the implications (and these are important) should be on trusting the sovereignty of Christ, His current ministry of being an advocate for us, our call to be identified with Him, and our hope of final union with Him (the Body with the Head). He indeed is the Forerunner, and in that is our hope for heaven and union with God.