Et haec locutus, videntibus iisdem, in altum sublatus est, &c.
Et ecce! duo viri astiterunt illis in vestibus albis.
And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight.
And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven, as He went up, behold two men stood by them in white apparel.
Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking up into heaven? This same Jesus, Who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven.
This is the first Sunday, and this was the first sermon after Christ's ascension; which being so great a feast in the Christians' calendar, and so high, so necessary an article in their creed, we were not willing to pass it by, but have taken this day, the nearest to it that is, and this text, the clearest for it that is, to set it forth.
It consists of three verses; and in these three verses there be three parties, that will divide the text into three parts.
Christ is the first; and the two other are, secondly, His Apostles, and thirdly, Hs Angels; both whom He took here to b His witnesses that He was taken up into heaven.
We will see what was said, and what was done about it by them all.
[263/264] 1. Here was somewhat, first, that Christ had said, et cum hæc locutus, the last words He spake here upon the earth be-fore He ascended into heaven; and then here is the ascension itself; the verity of it, that so it was; and the majesty of it, that never was the like. These three for him.
2. Next, here is, videntibus Apostolis, that they stood by and looked on till they could look no longer, I should say till they could see no longer; for when they saw Him not, when a cloud had received Him, and hid him out of their sight, yet they looked after him still.
3. Then follows the Angels' part; their appearing, and their speech. Their appearing, in the second verse, 'Behold two men stood by them in white apparel.' Their speech, or their sermon, in the last, 'Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking up into heaven,' &c.
Of which sermon there he three heads. First, viri Galilæi, that they call the Apostles by that name and no other, 'Ye men of Galilee.' Second, quid statis aspicientes? that they recall them for the present from looking after Christ with their corporal eyes any longer; 'Why stand ye looking up into heaven?' and thirdly, Hic, Qui assumptus est, sic veniet; that they instruct them what to look for hereafter; gone though He be, yet the time will come that the world shall hear of Him again.
And of these that we may, &c. Pater Noster, &c.
I. Et cum hæc locutus. 'When He had spoken these things.' And 'these things' refer to the last words that Christ spake to them upon time earth, the more to be taken notice of for that. He tells his Apostles here, in the verse before, that the power of the holy Ghost should come upon them, as it did at Pentecost, thee next feast to come. And that they should be His witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth. And so they were, all in that order that He here had set it. There was not a word of these his last words lost.
For first, they went to Jerusalem; next, as we see in this book, to Samaria, then to other parts of the world. But first, [254/265] they went to Jerusalem, and bare witness of him there. There they settled the mother Church; omnium ecclesiarum matrem, as one of time first general councils called it, and as Christ here had specially commanded it more than once. I wonder where some other men since, fifteen hundred years after this, got any power to reverse that command, and to damn all the world, for so they do, who will not now make it a new article of their faith that they are the mother Church, and the mistress of all other Churches upon the earth; and this, whether Christ or His Apostles will, or no; for they began at Jerusalem, made that the mother Church.
And the faith that they here preached they carried next to Samaria, and from thence to the ends of the world; from whence we have it now, the same faith and religion that Christ, by his last words, here sent them to preach; we are bound to no other. And that was as St. Luke sets it down here before, and St. Matthew before him, the last words that Christ spake there too, teaching all people to observe and to do whatsoever He had commanded them. They that would teach us any other matter of religion than the Apostles did, must first shew us a better evidence for it than the Apostles here had.
All time evidence they bring is from the third verse here above; where because it is said that Christ after His resur-rection had been forty days together with his disciples, speaking to them of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God,--which they say were never after written in the New Testament,--they must needs have them to be the very same things that they themselves have written or taught by tradition, which we say they never yet made good, nor never will.
[265/266] For, first, Christ himself is against it, Who had told them before expressly, in the seventeenth chapter of St. John, that all the things He had heard of God, His Father, He had made known to them already; so that such things as be said here to pertain to the kingdom of God, they did but pertain to those things whereof He had spoken before; they were no new and different things from the former; for then the former had not been all.
And the Apostles are against it. 'What we have heard and seen, that do we declare and write unto you,' speak for matter of faith and religion, necessary to be imposed upon all men. And what they declared and wrote not to others, a sure rule it is, that they neither saw it, nor heard it from Christ; neither they from Christ, nor others from them, who, as St. Paul speaks in this book, had not failed in anything to set forth the whole counsel of God concerning those things that pertained to His kingdom.
And therefore St. Austin had great reason to declare him-self; as he does, against those men that took their advantage and made as ill use of these words in his time, as some men do now in ours, calling all others heretics who will not make the same use of them that they do themselves. And these men be altogether condemns in his ninety-sixth Tract upon St. John. It is remarkable, and concerns a matter of fact. Omnium vero insipientissimi hæretici, of all other he calls them the worst, qui se Christianos, vocari volunt, that call themselves Christians, et lumen figmenta sua hac occasione Evangelicæ sententiæ colorare conantur, and yet take their occasion from these words to vent and colour over their own fictions. Quid enim aliud sunt nisi figmenta, cum Scriptura Christi ea tacuerit? for what are they else but the fancies of men, when we read them not in the Scriptures of Christ? Aut quis nostrum dicat hæc vet ille sunt, aut si dicere audeat unde probet? Who can say that Christ ever spake those things which these men speak, or if they be so hold as to say it themselves, how will they prove it? and concludes [266/267] them to be no other than rash and vain persons, qui sine testminonio divino, quando dixerinti quæ ipsi voluerint, dicunt ea esse quæ Christus dicere volebat; who first say what they will themselves, and then without any testimony of divine Scripture to shew for it, say that they had it from Christ, or that He ever said any such things before them.
This is St. Austin's discourse against then that took advantage of these words in St. Luke. It is but a matter of fact that I cite them for, to let you see from whence some other men of late, that take advantage of the same words against us too, had their first pattern; for from Christ's words here they have it not; neither His first words, nor His last.
And so much for hæc locutus.
II. Et cum hæc locutus, sublatus est in altum. After the last words that He spake before He ascended, follows the ascension itself.
'And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.'
For the truth whereof, as we have many prophecies in the Old Testament, prophecies and types both,--which the Church set forth in her service upon Ascension day, three days since we had them, I will not trouble you with them now,--so have we the performance of them all here in the New.
The prophets, they saw it in vision and told of it before it came. The Apostles, they saw it with their eyes, testes oculati, and bare witness to it when it was past. So comes it down to us. And in the mouth of these two witnesses is every truth that we believe established among us. I say, these two, the New Testament and the Old; for Christ neither did nor taught any thing in the one, but what was foretaught and told of Him in the other; nor can there be a surer ho1d or a greater stay to our faith than these two thus joined together as they are; thee that those things which we believe of Christ by the testimony of His Apostles, should be so plainly set forth by the testimony of his prophets so many [276/268] ages before they came to pass. For this can be nothing else but the power of God; Who challengeth all the world to shew the like two such witnesses as these two be.
I should not so much urge the truth of this story, and the grounds whereupon we believe it,--for it is a disparagement to our Christian faith to think that any Christian does not believe it,--but that we are fallen now into such times, wherein if we hold not the faster to these two grounds of belief, we shall be in danger to lose all and believe nothing; the impostures of the world having been so many, among them that have been taught to believe them upon any other ground, that the truths themselves, such as this is, which they did believe before, can scarce find now any firm credit with them at all. And all for want of this foundation of the prophets and Apostles, than which there is no firm ground at all to believe any thing.
That foundation laid, we may come the better to look upon all the passages that are here and elsewhere set forth in this story, this truth, this miracle of Christ's ascension. 1 will pass over them briefly.
1. And first, it was no withdrawing of himself out of the way, no vanishing out of their sight to some other place here below, as He had sometimes done before; but a local, visible, and real elevation of his body into heaven.
Sublatus est in altum. So much we have in the first verse of the text; that He was taken up on high, the pitch of His motion. And because in altum might be somewhat a doubted term,--if it had been but as the sons of the prophets thought Elias had been taken up into some higher top among the mountains, it had been in altum, that,--therefore how high was it? So high, as it is added here, till a cloud came and took him out of their sight. And what became of him then? That the Angels supply, for though the Apostles could see no further, yet the Angels did. And they say that He was taken up into heaven; twice here repeated, that there might be no doubt made of it. But after all these, St. Paul takes the true altitude for us, when he says that He ascended far above all the heavens, that is, to the highest of them all, there sitting at the right hand of God. And now He is at His full height.
[268/269] That place in St. Paul is in his fourth chapter to the Ephesians. And we mentioned it the rather, because it keeps a just correspondence between Christ's ascending and He descending; his going up here to heaven, and his coming down hither to the earth; his highest and his lowest. That lowest was ad ima terra, to the lowest parts of the earth, to the lowest place, the lowest condition there of any others, none beneath Him. This highest was ad summa coeli, to the highest top of heaven, to the highest throne, the highest state there of any others, none above him. And this latter made amends for the former; his humility was the merit of his glory, and his glory was the reward of his humility.
For this cause He ascended out of the grave, at Easter, from the gates of death, wherein He was shut; from the jaws of death, whereunto He was taken; from the lowermost and innermost rooms of death from the den and belly of the whale, into which He was swallowed; out of all these He ascended then, when He rose from the dead. But all these brought Him no higher than to the ascension of Jonas from the bottom of the dungeon to the uppermost face of the earth. Now He comes to the ascension of Elias; from earth to heaven, froth the lowest parts of the earth to the highest place in heaven, from His De profundis then, to his In excelsis now, from being laid under a stone, to sit at the right hand of God; and higher we cannot go.
This as it was much for his own ascent into his glory, to ascend thither as the Son of Man,--for as the Son of God in that nature, He ascended not, That was always in glory before, -so makes it much for our hopes of ascending thither after him. For his being above before, before He was below, that makes nothing to us, rather makes all against us; but His going below first, descending to the lowest condition of men, and then in that condition going up, ascending to the highest state of heaven, and carrying our nature thither with Him,--this that we hold by, and by nothing else. For if the Son of Man be gone up, we have all hope that the sons of men may get up thither after Him.
And so they may, saith the Apostle, if they take the same way to come thither, that He did; Who in this, as in all [269/270] things else, is our pattern. Our books tell us that the Scrip-ture will hear two senses, the literal and the morals; make use of it here. That to get high is first to become low; to learn that Christian virtue of him, which is not to be learnt, which is not to be seen, in all the philosopher's ethics, the virtue of humility, a virtue that the world looks not after, puts it out of all place; but in heaven it sits at the highest.
Ascendit Lucifer et factus est diabolus, there was one in that kingdom that would needs be getting up into the king's throne; and God threw him down to the bottom of hell, made him a devil, and all his like high-minded rebels with him.
Descendit Christus, et factus est Caput Angelorum. He that sat in a throne there himself, was content to leave it; content to do a great deal more, to take upon him the form of a servant, the form of a malefactor, the form of humility; and in that form is brought to the throne again; in that form exalted far above all principalities and powers. Quem reprobarunt, factus est Caput anguli. Which is St. Chrysos-tom's meditation upon Christ's ascension.
And now it is a good sight to behold Christ thus ascend-ing to the heavens; a better sight to see Him as an eagle in the clouds than as a worm in the dust, for so they used him. But thus God exalted him. And so much for sublatus est in altum.
2. Secondly, videntibus Apostolis, that the Apostles looked on and saw it, that they might testify the truth of it and make are article of time Creed of it, as they did that went before.
3. And thirdly, that a cloud came and took Him out of their sight. That sets us but forward to look after somewhat else, unless we will make this use of the cloud before we part with it; that it parts Christ's bodily presence clean from us; that, as St. Paul said, if Christ was once known after the flesh, yet now from henceforth we shall know Him so no more. The cloud has removed Him from us. Aunt if either St. Paul says true here, or St. Luke true here, the truth is, [270/271] they are but in a cloud still that fancy his fleshly presence to be still among them; it is but a cloud in their own heads, that, for Christ is where He should be; this cloud has taken his bodily and fleshly manner of being here, from among us all. It is his spiritual presence that we must hold to now, and that is as real a presence as any His body or his flesh ever was, or ever can be.
And there is an advantage got by it besides. For by his corporal presence He could have been resident but in one place at a time, never was otherwise; as if he had been with St. James at Jerusalem, He had not been at the same time with St. John at Ephesus, or with St. Peter at Babylon, or with St. Thomas at the Indies--but by His spiritual pre-sence, which was to succeed the corporal, wheresoever they were, He could be, and was, present with them all, and all at a time, with all and every one by himself. For by his Spirit he can be every where, truly and really every where, where it pleaseth Him; and so with us.
The corporal therefore was removed that the spiritual might take place, the visible taken away that the invisible might follow; and neither they, nor we, in sight and sense as before, but in spirit and truth henceforth to cleave unto Him. For which purpose we have still a Pentecost to come after an ascension, and to put us all in mind of it.
This will make us say, when we can see him no longer for. the cloud, as we said here the other day in the Psalm of ascension, 'Good Lord, set up Thyself above the heavens, and Thy glory above all the earth.' Let Him be where He is, we shall lose nothing by it.
III. And now we come from the Apostles to the Angels, to see what they do here; what they do, and what they say.
When the Apostle tells us that Christ was received up into glory, he tells us there in the same period that He was seen of Angels.
Here they are said to be two men in white apparel. Let not that trouble us; St. Paul took them to be Angels, and from Him all Christians have taken them to be so ever since; there was never any of them understood this place to be [271/272] meant of any other. So here we have men and Angels brought together to wait upon Christ's ascension.
When God first brought his Son into the world, the same Apostle says, it was then said, Let the Angels of God come down and worship him; and so they did. And when God here carries his Son out of the world, they come down to worship Him again; for as He is the Son of man, He is Lord both of men and Angels.
But Christ is gone up and the Angels stay still below, they have somewhat to teach the disciples before they go up after Him, and by them to learn us before they leave them.
1. First, they stood by them; and it was no little honour to the Apostles, this, and to the religion which they preached to us, that they had these blessed spirits, the Angels, to assist them, as they had many and divers times after besides. When that religion was once preached to the world, the Angels appeared no more, their work and their errand was done; and now we are to hold us to those records that we have of them. They who at any time have set up another religion in the world than the Apostles did, let them shew that ever they got a true Angel to them.
2. They stood by them in white apparel; which was a symbol not only of their own purity, and integrity of their nature, but of their joy and triumph likewise, that was made both by them and by all their fellow-Angels in heaven for the coming up of Christ, the Son of God and man, thither.
3. They are here said to be but two. It must be meant of those two that stayed behind with the Apostles, that. For otherwise the Scripture is clear, that Christ had twenty thousand of them; that is, Angels without number, to attend upon him. The chariots of God are twenty thousand, and thousands of Angels in them all, when He ascended up on high. That Scripture in the Psalm prophesied of this in St. Luke.
4. They are said to appear here in the form of men. I wish that this might not trouble you. A good Angel never yet appeared in any other form; and in some external form or other they must appear to the Apostles, or else the Apostles, that were men themselves, could never have seen them. Men see no spirits, as they are spirits; there is no [272/273] proportion between them, they converse not ill that manner with them.
But yet if they be Angels, why are they not called Angels? why are they said to be men? here St. Austin's rule will serve for this, and for many a case besides. He gives it in the Sacraments, In divinis Scripturis sacramenta earum rerum nomina sortiuntur, quarum sunt similitudines, The Sacraments in the holy Scriptures have the names of those things given them, of which things they are but simili-tudes;--he adds, and so do we,--but such similitudes as carry their truth always with them. And thus was it here. These men were but the similitudes of men, but those simili-tudes had the true persons of Angels with them.
V. Then fifthly, now we see what they are, let us hear what they say,
'Who also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven?'
1 First, they call them Viri Galilæi, and this to put them in mind both from whence they came, and whither they were to go.
To Galilee not long since had Christ gone before them. There, after his resurrection He gave them His precepts, those precepts above all other things not to be forgotten.
From thence came Peter and Andrew, James and John, and all; they were all Galileans, and had seen Christ's first there. Here they saw His last.
It was called Galilee of the Gentiles, for it was set in the confines of them, though it was itself in Judea. And now Christ was gone up, they were to go down and preach Christ to them both; to Jews, and Gentiles, and all.
Where it is not amiss to take notice of the word, that Galilee signifies 'a revolution.' And these Galileans had not their name for nothing, they made that word good; they made such a revolution in the world as was never made before. For at their preaching of Christ, they made darkness light, and turned the world round. About came the [273/274] councillor, the scribe, the philosopher, the orator, the cen-turion, the senator, and the emperor and all; so that from these Galileans, the persons and the place from whence some others said no good thing could come, there was once brought one of the best things that ever the world had. And so would the world find it, both for peace and justice, for a virtuous life, and for an uncorrupt religion, every way, if men would not revolve and turn themselves back again from that point whereunto these Galileans first converted them; or if they would but yet redire ad principia, return to Christ's own rules, for that is to be a right Galilean.
Peradventure Julian and his followers will deride both the Galileans and all besides that refer to them; but their comfort is, that Christ their master, and His Angels here, will acknowledge them. They went for the heretics of Julian's time; vicisti, Galiæe, was his last word, and his utmost scorn; but it cost him dear, that; he had as good have let the Galilean and his true followers alone. This for viri Galilæi.
2. Then secondly, Quid statis aspicientes? The Angels ask the Apostles here, why they stood looking still into heaven? Which being nothing else but a fair reducing of them from that sight, the end whereof they would otherwise gladly have seen, I will the more readily pass it over; the rather because I do not take it, as I see some men are some-what too apt to do, to be any great reprehension of them; for who can much blame them if they be loath to let their eyes go from him, if they desire to see an end of that sight, the like whereof was never seen before nor since?
Yet since the clouds would let them see him no longer, it was time to take them off from having recourse to this corporal presence any more; and to bid them look now after his Spirit, which is to send them away about the errand that He had given them before.
This is sure, that Christ is gone and taken up into heaven, both from their sight and ours, from whence He will not return in any bodily manner again, till, as St. Peter says, hereafter, the time of restitution comes; till He comes at last to take an account of the world, both how his Spirit has [274/275] been used by them, and how they have entertained that errand which his Apostles here brought to them. And then both they, and we, and all the world, shall see him; see him coming down in the clouds again, as here He went up; which if we lead time to go through them, the Angels' last words, and the last part of all, 'This same Jesus, Whom you have seen taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven.'
But all this concerns another article of religion, which, to set it forth right as it should be, will require another sermon. This was designed and intended only for the ascension.
Let the end of all be, that as Christ is gone up to heaven before us, so we may prepare to go up thither after him; for His going up thither was not altogether for Himself; thither is He gone as our forerunner, saith the Apostle; to lay open the way before us, saith the prophet; to prepare a place for us, saith He himself. It is but in heart and mind that we can get thither yet; sed qui posuit ascensiones in corde, He that can set his heart upon His ascension here, shall not fail to be with him in person hereafter. To which blessed estate, the end of our desires here and of our fruition there, He vouchsafe to bring us all; to him, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one eternal Deity, be all honour and glory now and for evermore. Amen.