Riding Into the Sunset
An isolated town is in trouble. Maybe it’s a gang of outlaws. Maybe it’s a greedy rancher, or a dictatorial mayor. In any case, bad men are having their way with the townsfolk. More importantly, there’s a beautiful woman in town and they’re after her too. She’s resisting tyranny—of course she is—while working to help the oppressed.
Then a cowboy rides into town. He’s tough. He’s quiet. He’s got a heart of gold. He’s drawn into the conflict. He shoots a bunch of bad people and works his way up to the chief bad guy himself. A showdown ensues—of course it does. The town is saved. The beautiful woman asks the cowboy to stay, but he can’t. He has to ride on, back into the wilderness. There are other good deeds waiting to be done.
I have always loved Westerns. I will watch any movie that features a cowboy with a six- shooter. I was born and raised in West Texas, and that is partially to blame for this affection. As a boy I would watch an episode of The Lone Ranger, then I’d put on my sheriff’s badge, grab my cap guns, and walk out onto the range, ready for adventure.
I’m not alone either. Americans love Westerns. We are fascinated by the myth of the cowboy-hero.
But of all the cowboy heroes, my favorite was Captain James Tiberius Kirk. Wait. What? Don’t act so surprised. Surely you knew that Star Trek was a Western, right? The only difference is that Kirk beamed in with a transporter rather than rode in on a horse.
Let us investigate: Captain Kirk, accompanied by sidekicks, rides down to the lonely planet on his transporter beam. He fights the bad guys, rescues the planet, and leaves the beautiful woman behind. He beams back to his spaceship leaving grateful aliens to stare up at the sky and wonder what life would be like if only Kirk wasn’t such a busy hero.
I had another sci-fi cowboy hero when I was a kid. This one I heard about at church. His name was Jesus. The Ascension of Jesus Christ sounds a lot like the Beaming of Captain Kirk. You remember the story. Forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus meets his followers near Bethany (Luke 24:50-53). He tells them to return to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Sprit. Then he’s gone, up into the sky. Luke describes it this way “he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-53, NIV).
Jesus the Cowboy Hero
Some Christians see the Ascension as the last page of a dime-store novel called Jesus the Cowboy Hero: Western Adventure. Earth was in trouble. The land was dominated by sin, the devil, and other ”bad men.” God’s people were trying to hold out and stay strong. Then one day Jesus rode into their midst. He conquered the bad guys. The people of God, the beautiful “Bride of Christ,” are grateful. They want him to stay but he can’t, he has to move on. So they are left staring up into the sky wondering if they will ever see him again.
Of course, most Christians don’t literally think that Jesus is a cowboy-hero. But unfortunately, some of our popular theology is so corrupt that we’ve essentially made him into one. We’ve created a cowboy god, a hero who cared enough to come down and save us from sin, but not enough to stick around. He left us tickets for the 3:10 to heaven, but staying in town to help rebuild after the showdown wasn’t of much interest to him, and off he rode, a beam of light into the sunset.
But that cheap dime-store novel is a lie. The God of the Bible stands in stark contrast to that irrelevant god. Unlike the cowboy who rides off when showdown is over, the Ascended Christ is now more invested in his Creation than ever.
It was an amazing thing for the non-corporeal God, a being who is not made of anything, to create everything. It was an act of incomprehensible humility for God to become a part of his creation by being made man. It was the greatest act of love imaginable for the God- man to die an insurgent’s death, to descend to the dead, and then to rise again to eternal life. It was absolutely inconceivable that this God-man would then take his whole self back into the throne room of his Father. One of the great mysteries of the universe is that Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man, now reigns forever in his corporeal body. When Jesus ascended he didn’t slither out of his skin, leaving the human part behind. God became a man and now that man is God. For God so loved his Creation (John 3:16), that he has now made himself a part of his Creation forever.
When Jesus was resurrected he appeared to his disciples in a perfect, eternal body, eating and drinking, but also walking through walls. Scripture says that when he ascended he sat down at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20). Because Jesus is still flesh he must be in some sort of physical location. But at the same time, he is God and sits at the right hand of the Father. Where is the “right hand”? Where is God? Everywhere. Christ is both present in a single place and also present everywhere. How? I have no idea. What I do know is that Christ is everywhere available, everywhere loving, everywhere knowable.
But “sitting at the right hand of the Father” is not simply about location; it’s about power. Jesus’ ascension is his enthronement. Paul writes: “(God) raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way is King of his Creation.” (Ephesians 1:20-23 NIV) Christ is the King who fills, with his own self, all that he has made. As Kuyper said. “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”
The Ascension Changes Everything
The Ascension fundamentally changed the relationships between God, humanity, and the created order. Kirk comes and goes in fifty minutes. The planet he saves may be altered by his presence, but the Captain is always the same. Not so with Christ. The great Church Father St. John Chrysostom pointed out that the same Father who once said to flesh and blood “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” now looks at the flesh and blood of his Son and says “sit at my right hand.” Jesus’ story is the opening and closing chapter of the tale of us all. We were dust, now we’re flesh. We will fall to dust but be raised to a greater flesh than we can now imagine.
Chrysostom goes on to say that “we who were unworthy of earthly dominion have been raised to the Kingdom on high, have ascended higher than heaven, have come to occupy the King's throne, and the same nature from which the angels guarded Paradise, stopped not until it ascended to the throne of the Lord.” God has become Man so that humanity can now be welcomed into the divine life. Creation is already redeemed and awaits its coming restoration.
The Ascension is divine proof that the world matters. This world. The world of cowboys and townsfolk, bad men and heroes. If it did not, why would Christ fill it? Why would he reign over it? Why would he love it? Why would the Father accept the Created onto his own throne?
Because the Ascension changed the world it must also change the way we understand the world. The Ascension is like a new and better eyeglass prescription. When we look through it, we see what we have always seen; but we see it more clearly. This is especially true of our relationship to Creation.
Many years ago, I moved from Pittsburgh to San Antonio. I had to live apart from my wife for a couple of months. During this time I lived in an apartment with a month- to- month lease while I looked for a more permanent home. It was an old and dirty unit with broken appliances and dated wallpaper. I had several framed pieces of art with me, but I never hung any of them on the walls. I tried to ignore the walls and the faulty appliances. I never fixed the broken toilet in the second bathroom. Why not? Because it was a transitional place. I didn’t care about it.
Many Christians, lacking an understanding of the Ascension (as well as the Creation, Incarnation, and Second Coming) treat this world like I treated that apartment. While it’s true that we are sojourners (Hebrews 11:16), the Ascension must reframe our thinking. We are called to live here like my wife and I lived at our more permanent place in Texas. We bought furniture. We painted a room. We kept the place good repair. We hung up our pictures.
The Created World Matters
The Ascension shows us that the created world matters because it’s filled with Christ. As Christ’s brothers and sisters, we are called upon to care for creation. The curse is rolling back. Adam’s children may once again care for God’s garden. When some company wants to strip the land with no regard for our grandchildren, it should be the Church that rises up in opposition. When it comes to making decisions about how we consume the earth’s resources, it should be Christians who are most willing to sacrifice our convenience. Christians should be known for the creative ways in which we protect and restore the world we inhabit here and now.
We who bear the image of Christ should be leading the way in caring for our own physical bodies while also showing concern for the health of all people. Medicine, exercise, biology, nutrition, and a whole host of other disciplines are meant to bring glory to Christ. Eating disorders, drunkenness, and sexual immorality are symptoms of a population that has not been formed in the beauty of the Ascended Christ.
The Creation matters, and so does co-creation. By “co-creation” I mean our participation with God in bringing order, truth, and beauty out of chaos. All of Creation is now under the gracious dominion of Christ. When we co-create with him, our work becomes part of his glorious kingdom. Everything from our painting and songwriting to our baking and childrearing finds eternal significance at the Father’s right hand. The Ascension proclaims the validity of our work, our creativity, and the joys of this world.
The Ascension challenges us to rethink our cowboy mythology, our Captain Kirk worldview. Our stories, especially our fiction, should point to the Truth. The Hero of the universe is fully invested in building up his people, in loving his children, and in ruling all aspects of our lives. He hasn’t ridden off into the sunset. He hasn’t beamed back into the heavens. He’s moved in, and he’s done it in the biggest way we can imagine. When we tell our tales, are we representing this kind of heroism? When we consider the narratives of our own lives, what is it that we see as heroic? Is it the full engagement with, and care for, our communities, our families, and even our possessions? It should be.
All of us are storytellers, whether we have a large audience, or a small circle of family and friends, or even if we are simply whispering to ourselves. Some of us still tell our tales by the campfire, dusty from a day out on the range. We’re cowboys, but maybe we can be cowboys who stick around for a while. By the grace of God, maybe we can tell true stories. Maybe we reject isolation and self-sufficiency. Maybe we can know ourselves as fully accepted children of God, people whose work has eternal significance, and whose true value is a gift of pure mercy.