There was a time when some met Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, as we meet each other. Notably, his mother and father, and sisters and brothers, met him. And then his disciples met him, who when they talked with Jesus more often than not seemed to be puzzled by what he had to say about himself. Then there was the crucifixion, watched by quite a few; and his rising again, when he was seen by his disciples again, who talked to him, and more importantly, were talked to by Jesus.
After his crucifixion, the angels who attended the place where Jesus was buried, said to those perplexed men and women who brought spices to anoint him. ‘He is not here’. They went on: ‘He is risen.’ (Lk.26. 6) But since then the words ‘He is not here’, prevailed. True, and thankfully, he was resurrected, and remained so. And for a while he remained with his disciples, still instructing them. But then he ascended, and such words about not being here came to have a more permanent significance. Since his ascension, when a cloud received him, those man years ago, it has been that true that he is not here,
Where is he? We have several answers. He has gone to his God and our God. He is in heaven. He is at the right hand of God Almighty. What does this mean? Someone once suggested that, like an author who is creating a play, as far as the creation of our space and time is concerned, Christ (one of the figures in the play) was ‘written out’ at that point. Others have suggested that ‘heaven’ where Jesus is, is like another wave length in a radio. As we switch from one station to another, we leave one world and ‘arrive’ at the other.
These are only analogies, with many deficiencies. But they do make the point that ‘the heavenly’ is not make-believe, but is a reality that is different from ‘the earthly’. Each has its own temporal sequencies (and frequencies!), which at certain points merge, as in Christ’s ascension, and in the appearance of the risen Christ to Paul on the road to Damascus, (Acts 9). Perhaps there is such a merging in the story of the account of Elijah who ‘went up by a whirlwind into heaven’ (2 Kings 2.11) and another merging later when Elisha prayed for the young man’s eyes to be open. ‘And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha.’ (2 Kings 6.17) And of course, there is Paul on the road to Damascus, converted and commissioned as the Apostle to the Gentiles. But again, rather unclear.
But with such exceptions in mind, if thy are exceptions, the era since those two events, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus, is one in which the risen Christ is absent from our reality, the age of ‘He is not here’.
All this is to show that the events of the Son made flesh were events in real time, when his birth was at a time, his remaining in the temple when he was twelve was a later time, and death and resurrection and ascension were at subsequent times, each later on after the next. The modern language about ‘meeting with Jesus’, understood literally, disregards what we may call redemptive history. We live in the ‘last days’ awaiting the return of Jesus. That return is also to be a bodily appearance, as we have already noted. As Jesus does not come again each Christmas, so he does not come again each Sunday. When he appears, believers will be like him, because they will see him as he is. (1Jn.2.2)
Jesus has disappeared. We must be thankful, then, that before that He taught his disciples of the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him’. (See John 14. 16-17) But we do not meet the Spirit as his disciples met with Jesus; by God’s grace we are indwelled by him, if we are believers. And there are more clues about the Spirit’s operations here: ‘But the Helper the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’(14. 26) So we get from these words a different set of ideas than those of ‘meeting Jesus’. We are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, the Helper or Comforter, the teacher sent in Christ’s name to bring to the memory of the apostles the words of Christ, and reliable accounts of what he did, reports that are to be with the church - the body of Christ in a different sense - for ever.
We are constrained by the calendar to celebrate of the coming into flesh of the eternal Son of God on one day each year. It was celebrated last year, and will be celebrated in the next. So an annual reminder, with its pantomime-like celebration of the Nativity, tends to weaken in our minds the uniqueness and reality, and seriousness, of what we celebrate. (This is not a complaint of the usual kind, about the commercialization of Christmas). This was a once-for-all event, on which our forgiveness and reconciliation hinge. At his ascension the angels also told the astonished disciples that the no-longer visible Jesus , who was taken into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1.10) We live by faith, not by sight. Until then, the clock continues to tick. But there is assurance of his coming again. In the mean time, Paul says, don’t doze off. However long there remains for the church militant to wait, ‘….salvation is nearer than when we first believed.’ (Rom.13.11) ‘He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon’. To which the church replies ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev. 22.20)