There is a song by the group called ‘NewSong’ which includes these lyrics:
He said goodbye to the angels of heaven
And he came to earth as a common man…
There were those who believed and followed him
And there were those who wanted him dead.
They thought the grave would silence him forever.
But they found out instead…
You can’t keep a good man down.
When they nailed him to the cross by his hands and feet
And they put him in the ground,
Three days later everybody found out that you can’t,
No you can’t… keep a good man down.
No, no you can’t keep a good man down.
Everything had been thrown at Jesus. Everything had worked to silence him. They beat him down. They nailed him down. They murdered him. But… they could not keep him down. He rose up from the grave and brought life to the very place where there had been only death before.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles includes the story of the final post-resurrection appearance of the man whom they simply couldn’t keep down. It is the final appearance and the point of departure for the risen Christ.
It is the narrative of Christ’s ascension into heaven. And, as such, it is the story of the wild and wonderful, cosmic and glorious event, the icing on the cake, if you like, of the resurrection life and power of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now please don’t misunderstand me here. I know, and you know, that we live in a modern, scientific world where we understand that God is not sitting on the next cloud but one. The story of the ascension is not an extract from an astronomy textbook. Rather, it is a description of a resurrection event and of the meaning of the resurrection.
Christ overcame death and everything that tries to keep us tied down to the ground; all that attempts to grind us into the dirt of loss, sadness, and despair. He ascended. He overcame all the weight, all the heaviness, all of the gravity of this life. ‘You can’t, no you can’t keep a good man down.’
The disciples seem a bit bewildered by it all. There they stand, gazing up, mouths wide open in amazement and awe. But the angels bring God’s message, which is, put simply, ‘Get on with it!’
The disciples are not to get lost in contemplating the mystery of the event, tempting though that is; they are to live it. They are to discover the gift of new life, new hope, and new beginnings. Indeed, they are to discover the power of the resurrection, which will move them in their own lives from the things that hold them down, the things which grind them down, to a new and renewed life, a great and hopeful life in God.
God has gone up, and so can we. God has ascended into the place where life will always triumph over death, and so can we. God has overcome the things that try to keep life tied down, and so can we.
There are all sorts of things that try to hold us down in our lives, in the church, and in the world. There is violence and war in this world, in our own city, towns and villages, and in the human heart. There are oppressive systems keeping people tied down in grinding poverty and hopelessness. There is sickness, sin, and sadness in our own lives. There is dissension and dissonance, even in the Church. These things all conspire to keep us down, just as they tried to keep Jesus down.
The message of Christ’s resurrection and the meaning of Christ’s ascension is that God will not be tied down by any of these realities. No, God’s life and God’s love are stronger.
We are not tied down any more, but we are called to witness to God’s love and God’s life in our own lives and to grow it in the world. God has gone up, and so do we, but that means we need to live lives reflecting that renewed hope: lives of prayer and service.
Yes, the ground is very real. Gravity is heavy stuff. The grave exists. There is a lot to keep human beings tied down. But the question is, ‘Are we going to settle for being tied down to the ground? Are we going to settle for the grave?’ Or… are we willing to let go and to ascend higher? Are we willing to go where Jesus has gone, to be released and lifted up to the heavens with God?