Sermon: “Jesus’ Feet”
Text: “Acts 1:1-11″
A few weeks ago I was having a discussion with a pastor friend of mine about which article or phrase of the Apostles’ Creed is the most difficult for people to understand. My immediate answer was, “ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father”. We may become confused about why Jesus descended into hell, or puzzle ourselves with why we believe in the holy catholic church when we’re all good protestants, but I believe without question that Jesus’ ascension is the most difficult thing in the Apostles’ Creed for us to understand. It’s something that we simply cannot relate to. Consider some of the other things that we know about the life of Jesus:
He was born to a human mother.
He ate and drank and slept at night.
He loved people and got angry with people and forgave people.
He rose from the dead.
I dare say that all of those are things to which we can relate. Even the resurrection is something about which we know something directly. We have hopefully all had some Easter experiences of our own—joy found in the midst of sorrow, life in the midst of death. But ascending into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God? That’s something that we have no hope of relating to. Here we are faced with a mystery. Even the Apostle Paul, who wrote half of the New Testament, refers to Jesus’ ascension as a great mystery.
It is called a mystery because no human mind can fully understand it. And too often when we focus on trying to explain the mysteries of our faith in concrete terms, we tend to lose sight of the real message at hand. Some things are better left misunderstood. But of course, we’ll try to make sense of even those things anyway!
For centuries, scholars, church leaders, and artists alike have tried in their own ways to make sense of Jesus’ ascension.
This is Raphael’s famous painting, entitled, “Transfiguration”, which is probably the most famous depiction of Jesus’ ascension. As you can see, there are the disciples gathered around at the bottom. They seem to be in all sorts of disorder and confusion. And there’s Jesus, levitating heavenward, buffered by a couple of angels floating along with him. It’s interesting to me that Jesus appears to be walking, even though he’s not on the ground, and his feet are actually in the center of the painting. Everything in the painting draws your eyes to his feet. I don’t think that’s accidental.
Here’s another print of some ascension art from the middle ages. I don’t know if you can see it that well, but those two dark blobs hanging down from the top of the print are actually Jesus’ feet. You can’t see the rest of him, only his two feet hanging down from the clouds. The disciples are gathered at the bottom, all looking upward at those two little feet.
And finally, this one is my favorite. This is Salvador Dali’s painting of the ascension, and what’s striking about it is that he decided to paint it from the disciples’ point of view as they are watching Jesus rise. Of course, that means that they’re looking upward at Jesus’ feet! In this painting the only thing you really see is the bottoms of Jesus’ feet. Pastor and theologian William Barclay once wrote, “No one has ever succeeded in painting a picture of the Ascension which was anything other than grotesque and ridiculous.” (The Plain Man Looks at the Apostle’s Creed, p. 162) After seeing these works of ascension art, you may agree with him. The ascension is hard to visualize, and even harder to understand.
It was perhaps easier to understand in the first century. The predominant worldview of the Hebrew people placed God somewhere “up there” above the dome of the heavens, which was perched on top of a flat earth. God was imagined to walk around on top of this vast dome of the sky, unseen by creatures on earth below. There was also a predominant Greek mythology during the time of Jesus, which maintained a pantheon of gods who oversaw the events on earth from Mount Olympus. It was the god Zeus who sat on his throne on the mountain and ruled the gods and earth. When worldviews like these pervade culture, it’s easy to understand how Jesus ascended into heaven, and how he then sat in the heavens, on a throne, on the right hand of the Father. But we’ve since moved on from those worldviews and those mythologies, and we’re left asking somewhat silly questions about the Ascension:
When Christ went up through the clouds, how long did he keep going?
When did he stop?
In our day and age, the idea of Christ flying up into the sky and vanishing through the great blue yonder strikes us as whimsical. Does Jesus peek over the edge of the cloud as he is whisked away like Aladdin on a magic carpet? Is he beamed up as if by Scotty? Does he clench his right fist and take off like Superman? Like the disciples perspective, would we have been left on the mountain top looking up at his bare feet as they became smaller and smaller and smaller? And what about that “seated at the right hand of God” business? Does God really have a seat up there? Does God really have a right hand to sit at? What does this all mean? These are the questions that we’re left asking when we try to take something utterly mysterious, something that we cannot relate to in human experience, and try to make it concrete, and sensible, and relatable. Maybe it’s just not supposed to make a lot of sense… at least in a concrete, worldly way.
It does, however, say something about Jesus. And if we stop trying to make the Ascension make sense in a physical way, we may just be able to hear the good news, the reason we affirm it and believe in it when we say the Apostles’ Creed. When scripture speaks of Jesus’ Ascension, the meaning is pretty clear. It was the very last moment of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Those feet would never again touch the ground. It was the end of Jesus’ bodily presence with his disciples, and the end of the resurrection appearance as well. And yet it was also a beginning. It was the beginning of Jesus’ heavenly reign over all things. When scripture says that Jesus was “seated at the right hand of God”, it means that Jesus occupies the place of supreme honor. It was typical for a King or ruler to keep one seat to his right as a place for those he chose to honor. So, though Jesus died the horrible and shameful death of a criminal hanging on a cross, we know that his life, death, and resurrection was vindicated, blessed, and exalted by God. In the book of Acts, shortly after the passage that we read this morning, Peter gives a sermon in which he says:
“This Jesus God raised up, and all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out all that you see and hear today. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
In other words, this Jesus who was crucified, dead, and buried, is the very same Jesus who now sits as ruler over all things. There is no one of us, no part of us, no area or region of the entire world, or speck of the distant universe that is outside the sovereign rule of Jesus.
That’s one of the things I really like about Salvador Dali’s painting, with its depiction of the Ascension from the disciples’ perspective. Did you notice that it places all of us, all of the disciples, and indeed the whole of creation under Christ’s feet? Did you notice how many depictions of the ascension in art remind us not of Jesus’ face, or his arms, or his hands, but his feet?
Those are the feet that carried him from town to town, healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, forgiving the sinner, preaching the good news to all people. When the Bible describes scenes in which Jesus is teaching his disciples, they are said to sit “at his feet”.
Those are the feet that walked on the water and calmed the storm.
Those are the feet that a sinful woman washed with her tears and dried with her hair out of love for Jesus.
Those are the feet that were nailed to the cross, the feet that the resurrected Jesus showed to Thomas, who then proclaimed, “My Lord and My God!”
When we speak of the Ascension, we proclaim not only with Thomas that Jesus is our Lord and our God, ruler of all things on heaven and on earth, but also that Jesus’ earthly ministry eventually had to come to an end. Those feet would eventually take their last step, leaving the disciples, and leaving us, to carry on his ministry, his work, and his love for others. When we speak of the Ascension, we look backward, to Jesus’ earthly ministry, but also forward, to our ministry today. The Ascension serves as the segue between the two.
Just outside Jerusalem sits The Chapel of the Ascension, which is rumored to sit on the location of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, that point at which the ministry of Jesus took shape in the ministry of his followers. Inside the Chapel you’d expect to see a number of artistic portrayals of the event, but instead there lies on the chapel floor a small square of dirt surrounded by concrete. The traditional narrative of the Chapel of the Ascension tells that this small square of dirt preserves the very last footprint of Jesus, the very last imprint Jesus had on earth before his earthly ministry ended. Now there are tales of this nature all over the Holy Land, and we would be right to regard the Chapel’s history with some skepticism. However, even if that really isn’t the site of Jesus’ ascension, isn’t it interesting that once again Jesus’ last moments on earth draw us to his feet? I’d like to think that visitors to the Chapel of the Ascension get one last reminder of all the places where Jesus’ feet carried him, and all the people he touched and welcomed and healed and forgave and loved. I’d like to think they get one last reminder that every place Jesus placed his feet, we are to place ours, to the glory of him who reigns now and forever over all things.
I’m reminded of a prayer written by St. Teresa of Avila that reads:
You have no body on earth but ours,
No hands but ours,
No feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which your compassion must look out on the world.
Ours are the feet by which you may still go about doing good.
Ours are the hands with which you bless people now.
Bless our minds and our bodies,
That we may be a blessing to others.
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This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz and delivered as part of a sermon series on the Apostle’s Creed. The images above were shown during the sermon.