Ascension of Our Lord
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, your blessed Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things. Mercifully give us faith to trust that, as he promised, he abides with us on earth to the end of time, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
It is an astounding claim when you think about it: that Jesus, a man put to death in the fashion of a recalcitrant slave in the backwaters of the Roman Empire two millennia ago “fills all things.” Yet that is what we mean when we confess that Jesus, having been raised from death, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father. This ascension is not Jesus’ departure-far from it. In ascending to God’s right hand, Jesus is now more powerfully and intimately present than ever before. As we frequently sing:
“Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine.
But saving, healing here and now, and touching every place and time.”
Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 389.The lyrics have been slightly changed from when the hymn was originally introduced into Lutheran circles. The last line used to read: “He comes to claim the here and now and conquer every place and time.” I suspect that the change came about because the church has become a little squeamish about the use of militaristic metaphors in recent years. Being a pacifist myself, I can appreciate that sensitivity and the desire to purge such imagery from our worship language. Still, the Scriptures make frequent use of warfare, battles and weaponry to describe the church’s struggle to be faithful in the midst of a sinful world. That was not a problem in the first century. Metaphoric rather than literal usage was obvious to the New Testament church which lived its entire life testifying to the peace of Christ facing only the business end of the sword. Use of military imagery did not become problematic until the church became the official religion of the Roman Empire and was for the first time in a position to wield the sword. Given the history of ecclesiastical violence stretching from the church sanctioned campaigns against heretics in the fourth century through the crusades, the inquisition, the thirty years war and beyond, it is not surprising that most of us feel distinctly uncomfortable singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers!”
Nevertheless, in spite of the potential for misunderstanding they create, I think we need to retain these potent military metaphors. They remind us that discipleship is a call to live faithfully in a world that is hostile to the Christ now filling it. Trusting Jesus for salvation runs contrary to everything my doctor and financial advisor tell me about what I need for security. They both tell me that preserving my health and my wealth is what ought to be foremost in my thoughts and plans. Jesus tells me that people who cling tenaciously to life lose it and those who lose their lives in service to him gain them. Political leaders of all stripes keep telling me that with the right legislation, the right policies and the right people in office, we can fix America and return her to greatness. St. Paul tells me that this world (America included) is passing away and there isn’t a blessed thing anyone can do about it, but for all who are in Christ there is a new creation. Jesus comes to inaugurate that new creation, but don’t expect the old one to go down without a fight. We are at war, but it is critical to remember that the line of battle between good and evil does not run neatly along national borders, racial lines or class distinctions. The line of demarcation between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart, every molecular particle of the universe where the resurrected and ascended Christ claims Lordship. Our marching orders come from the Lamb who was slain. The only weapons we employ are the sword of the spirit, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation.
The Sermon on the Mount might not appear to be a very potent battle plan in this world of political attack ads, multi-billion dollar PACs and weapons of mass destruction. So too, a Lamb who was slain seems an unlikely champion against a ten headed beast having the kill power of leopards, bears and dragons. But as we have seen over the last couple of weeks in the Book of Revelation, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension assure us that God is putting his full weight behind the Lamb. That is where the smart money is.
A couple of things stand out here. First, the word “to stay with” used in vs. 4 of the NRSV can also mean “to eat with.” Meals are an important feature of Jesus ministry throughout the gospels, particularly in Luke where it seems Jesus is always at, going to or coming from a meal. Luke’s gospel makes a point of introducing the resurrected Christ in the context of meals. It was in the breaking of bread that Cleopas and his companion recognized the risen Christ. See Luke 24:28-31. When Jesus appears to the Twelve, he asks them for food and he eats in their presence. Luke 24:36-43. As we have seen throughout the book of Acts, meals continue to remain a central feature of the early disciples’ life together. See, e.g., Acts 2:41-47. Meals were about far more than food consumption in first century Hebrew culture. Who you were was defined in large part by the people with whom you shared your table. Jesus was forever getting himself into trouble by eating with the wrong sorts of people. As we have seen, Peter got himself into hot water with some of the church leaders in Jerusalem for going in to eat with Cornelius and his family, all of whom were Gentiles. Acts 11:1-18. The in breaking of God’s kingdom is nowhere more evident than at the open table of the Lord where hospitality is afforded to all.
My second observation has to do with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, the disciples are not ready to be witnesses to Jesus. Their question about whether Jesus will now restore the kingdom to Israel betrays their lack of comprehension. The kingdom is not for Israel only but for Samaria and even the ends of the earth. Vs. 8. But this will not become clear to the disciples just yet. At Pentecost, the Spirit will fill them and they will preach to Jews from all over the empire that will form the core of the church. That is only the beginning. Philip will bring the gospel to the Samaritans and Peter will, much against his scruples to the contrary, preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
Third, the Holy Spirit will enable the disciples to continue the ministry of Jesus-his preaching, his healing and his suffering and death. Thus, as noted previously, the Holy Spirit is nothing else than the more intimate presence of Jesus in and through the disciples. The miracle stories at the beginning of Acts that we read about earlier this season are intended to illustrate that the healing power of Jesus is still very much present in the church.
Finally, I am not sure what to make of verse 11 where the angels tell the disciples that “this Jesus who was taken from you into heaven will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11 Is Luke referring to some second coming of Jesus at the end of time, or to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit soon to occur on Pentecost? Though I have always assumed the former, it is tempting to interpret this verse as pointing forward to Pentecost. Just as Jesus was taken into heaven, we read in the second chapter of Acts that as the disciples were gathered together on the day of Pentecost, “a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…” Acts 2:1-2. Although the identification of Jesus with the Spirit in Luke-Acts is perhaps not as strong as in the Gospel of John, the Pentecost transformation of the disciples from clueless to articulate preachers of God’s kingdom more than suggests that Jesus is now “in” them. John 14:15-20.
Though it has some affinities with an enthronement hymn that might have been used for a newly anointed king of Judah, this psalm celebrates the reign of Israel’s God. Clapping of hands, shouts of acclimation and trumpet fanfare were all means by which new kings were acclaimed. I Kings 1:39; II Kings 9:13; II Kings 11:12. Here the nations, as God’s rightful subjects, are called upon to make such acclimation. The subjugation of the Canaanite kingdoms under Israel in fulfillment of God’s promises to the patriarchs is proof of God’s sovereignty.
The Ark of the Covenant was often referred to as God’s throne. Therefore, it is possible that this psalm represents a dramatic liturgical re-enactment of David’s bringing the Ark into Jerusalem. See II Samuel 6. This event coincides with David’s pacification of Palestine though a series of military campaigns; hence, the reference to God’s sovereignty having been established through God’s subduing “peoples under us, and nations under our feet.” Vs. 3.
The psalm also has an implied eschatological element, that is, an allusion to the “end times.” Even at the peak of its commercial and military power, Israel was never anything close to an empire in the same league as Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. Consequently, Israel’s God did not achieve the same name recognition and influence as did the cults of these great nations. Unless Israel was suffering delusions of grandeur, one has to assume that the acclimation of God as “King of all the earth” has an anticipatory future dimension. Though it is not evident now, Israel’s God is over all the nations and the day will come when the nations recognize God’s reign and submit to it. Perhaps we are seeing here the seeds of a vision that will come to full bloom in the writings of the prophets, particularly Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55).
This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the pulpit without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.
There is a neat tie in with the psalm between “For the LORD Most High is to be feared: a great king over all the earth, who subdues the peoples under us, and the nations under our feet at Psalm 47:2-3 and “he has put all things under his [Christ’s] feet” in Ephesians 1:22. What is intriguing here is the tense of the verbs. Whereas the psalm uses a present tense indicating that the process of subduing the peoples is an ongoing task, the author of Ephesians uses a past tense indicating that subjection of all things to Christ is complete. Christ is over all “not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.” Vs. 21. To be sure, the world does not yet acknowledge Jesus as supreme over every rule, authority, power and dominion. Yet this mystery has been revealed to the church over which Jesus is head.
I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.
I believe I preached on this text three years ago when it last came up. Chances are I will again.
Luke must have believed the ascension to be an important piece of the Jesus narrative. Why else would he have told the story twice? This event is both the grand finale of Luke’s gospel and the springboard into the story of the early church in Acts. The two accounts are somewhat different, however. The gospel lesson has Jesus lifting up his hands and blessing his disciples-something Zachariah could not do at the beginning of the story because he was unable to speak. Jesus has now opened the channel of God’s blessing upon Israel and soon the tongues of the disciples will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to prophesy once again. I might be reading too much into the story of Zechariah and what I see as its relationship to the ascension account. But I think it is significant that Luke’s gospel begins and ends with blessing. It is also interesting that the gospel ends with the disciples being continually in the temple blessing God whereas it began with the people gathered at the temple to receive God’s blessing. Luke begins with Zechariah being rendered unable to speak God’s blessing. Acts begins with the disciples empowered to speak the gospel in every language under heaven. I am not altogether sure what to make of these suggestive correspondences, but I have a strong suspicion that Luke is up to something important here.
The disciples’ reaction to the ascension is markedly different in the gospel from what is described in the book of Acts. In the gospel, the disciples return from Bethany, the site of the ascension “with great joy.” In Acts, however, the disciples seem clueless and mystified. They are left dumbstruck, staring into the sky. An angel visitation is needed to clarify for them what just happened.
Another feature of Acts that does not appear in the gospel is the disciples’ question concerning the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. The question indicates a gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry and precisely the sort of ethnocentric focus on a restored dynasty of David that Luke-Acts seems to be struggling against. But perhaps that is precisely why Luke opens his story of the church with Jesus dispelling such a notion. “Times and seasons” and the rise and fall of earthly nations should not be the concern of the disciples. Their concern should be for witnessing to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims.
In the gospel Jesus reminds his disciples how he has told them repeatedly that “everything written in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then the text goes on to say that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” I do wonder what this means. I would love to know how to “open minds.” A skill like that would make my job ever so much easier. But perhaps I am focusing too much on the present moment. After all, Jesus has been toiling for years to open the minds of his disciples. That the cork finally pops off at this moment does not change the fact that Jesus has been applying pressure to those chronically closed minds for his entire ministry. This opening, then, might not actually have been as instantaneous as first appears. Certainly the parallel account in Acts suggests that there is a good deal of opening yet to be done.
Everything written about Jesus in the” Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms” must be fulfilled. Jewish biblical scholars divided the Hebrew scriptures into three categories. The first and most significant was the Law of Moses consisting of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The second was the prophets broadly consisting of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “writings,” the largest of which was the Psalms but also included Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Esther. This is perhaps another clue to what it means for one’s mind to be opened. It makes a difference how you read the scriptures. The church’s hermeneutical principle, our way of making sense of the scriptures is Jesus. Jesus opens up the scriptures to our understanding just as the scriptures testify to Jesus.