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.
Yes, I know that the Ascension of our Lord falls on Thursday, May 29th. Nevertheless, to the consternation of my more liturgically astute colleagues, Trinity celebrates it on the last Sunday of Easter. At least that has been the case for the last six years of my pastorate here. I have always believed that Ascension, like Epiphany, is an essential episode in the story of our Lord. But my chances of pulling together enough worshipers to observe it on a Thursday are slim to none and you know who just left. Better to recognize the Ascension of our Lord on the wrong day than not at all. At least that is how I see it.
I must confess, though, that transitioning from John’s gospel to St. Luke is a little like leaping from a speeding train onto a merry-go-round. John has convinced me that the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the presence of the Resurrected Christ among his disciples. In Luke, of course, Jesus directs the disciples to “stay here in the city [Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49. That clothing with power from on high occurs in Acts 2:1-4 after a period of ten days during which the disciples engage in persistent prayer and select an apostolic successor to Judas. Acts 1:12-26. Luke’s sequence of events forms the basis of our liturgical year. Unfortunately for me, both Luke’s chronology and his theology have been undermined over the last four weeks by our readings from John. John could never have imagined a hiatus of fifty days between Jesus’ resurrection and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is as inseparable from Jesus as is the Father. So also Jesus is as inseparable from his disciples as from the Father. In John’s thinking, it is conceptually impossible for Jesus to depart from his disciples. Neither could Jesus be present to them as the resurrected Lord apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Try as you may, there is simply no harmonizing these two apostolic witnesses, chronologically or theologically. Maybe jumping off the liturgical Easter train was not such a good idea after all!
Still, despite the cognitive dissonance I have created for myself by abandoning the lectionary, I believe Luke’s witness must also be heard at this time. It is not quite enough to say that Jesus’ presence continues with his disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke would have us know that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father extends his presence to every corner of the universe. To say that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father is not to say that he is somewhere “beyond the blue” in glory land. It means rather that whatever God does, he does in and through Jesus. That is to say, we can no longer speak of God apart from God’s Son or speak of God’s acts apart from reference to Jesus. Every effort to understand God prior to, after or without Jesus ends in idolatry. That is why, when a disciple of Jesus picks up the Bible, s/he reads every word through the lens of Jesus. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand-even if it is built on a foundation of biblical passages.
This is why we can say categorically that God does not punish sexual sins with AIDS or destroy cities with hurricanes to punish abortion or cause the death of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to punish homosexuality. The cross is God’s act of unilateral disarmament; God’s decisive “no” to retaliatory justice. If God’s right hand is Jesus, it must follow that God does not resort to violence; God does not retaliate; and God does not employ coercive force to get his way. That may be the way Caesar runs his empire, but it is not the way God reigns over the universe.
Herein lies the grounding for Christological pacifism. Jesus is God’s way of bringing about God’s reign. Jesus rejected all means of kingdom building through use of violence when he turned down the devil’s offer to give him the power and glory of all the world’s kingdoms. Jesus steadfastly refused to employ violence even in his own defense and would not allow his disciples to defend him with violence. The kingdom of God is worth dying for. But it ceases to be God’s kingdom when you believe you must kill for it. If using violent force to defend the life of God’s only beloved Son is not justified, when can the use of violence ever be justified?
Nonetheless, the myth of necessary violence has been so thoroughly ingrained in our psyches that we have a hard time imagining a world without it. Violence has permeated the entertainment media from cartoons to police dramas. The plot always seems to suggest that violent means are necessary to subdue violent people. We have been indoctrinated for generations into believing that peace can only be maintained through maintaining the ability and determination to kill. When Wayne LaPierre of NRA fame said that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he was only articulating a deeply held American cultural creed. Your survival, your security and your freedom depend on your willingness and ability to kill anyone who threatens you.
Sadly, the church has bought into that logic. Apart from our Anabaptist sisters and brothers, the church has for the most part lived a schizophrenic existence. We have confessed the prince of peace while blessing the wars of our host nations and glorifying the sacrifice of human lives made to the false god of national security. The theological stratagems we have constructed to justify our alliance with violence, the “just war theory, “two kingdoms” doctrine or “Christian realism,” are best understood as corporate psychic defense mechanisms enabling us to overcome this glaring contradiction. There is no better evidence of their failure than the psychological distress of so many returning veterans deeply scarred by all that they have experienced. Theological rationalizations for violence work just fine on the black board. On the battlefield where real people are called upon to hold together in heart and mind the conflicting commands to love the neighbor and kill the enemy, not so much.
Of course, we who call ourselves pacifists have no claim to moral superiority. We are just as vulnerable to the lure of violent conduct as everyone else. Violence is not limited to the threat or infliction of bodily harm. It includes any type of coercive action to compel, manipulate or intimidate another. We find this sort of violence all too often in the class room, in the board room, in the work place, in our churches and in our families. I am a violent man frequently tempted to resort to violent solutions. I get impatient with people who will not be persuaded to see things my way. No, I don’t own a gun or a pair of brass knuckles. But as a parent, attorney and pastor, I have learned to use the power of position to get what I want. That kind of violence can be just as hurtful and destructive as threatening someone with a weapon.
We are a violent people. Left to ourselves, we would devour each other. But Jesus reminds us that we have not been left to ourselves. We are not orphans. We have been called away from the violent reign of Caesar to abide under the gentle rule of Jesus, God’s tender and merciful right hand. This news is just too good to pass up. That is why I celebrate Ascension-even if I have to do it out of season.
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 1st 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. Paul will begin carrying the good news of Jesus Christ “to the end of the earth.” Vs. 8.
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 less than the more intimate presence of Jesus in and through the disciples. The miracle stories at the beginning of Acts are intended to illustrate how 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.
The acclimation, “The Lord is King,” seems to echo proclamations of kingship found in the Hebrew Scriptures, e.g., “Absalom is king” (II Samuel 15:10) and “Jehu is King” (II Kings 9:13). This has led some scholars to conclude that this psalm was used in an annual festival, possibly Tabernacles, to enact or celebrate the kingship of Israel’s God. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 209. While plausible, this suggestion is speculative at best. It does appear nevertheless that the psalm is an enthronement liturgy sung at the Jerusalem temple to acclaim God’s reign over all the universe. Vs. 5.
Enthronement ceremonies are believed to have originated in Mesopotamia. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 617. Thus, scholars tend to date this psalm after the Babylonian Exile, viewing it as a liturgy for worship in the second Jerusalem temple. This reasoning is not conclusive, however. Because the enthronement liturgies were present in Mesopotamia centuries before the rise of the Babylonian empire and found their way into Canaanite religion at an early date, it is altogether possible that Israel borrowed this imagery from its Canaanite neighbors during the period of the monarchies or even before. Ibid. 618. In either case, the psalmist expresses the conviction that Israel’s God is enthroned triumphantly over the waters and so also over all sources of chaos, violence and injustice that threaten human life and community. Indeed, these chaotic forces are called upon to give praise to God as their master. Anderson, Bernhard, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 178.
The reference in verse 3 to “floods” rising up and “roaring” echoes the Babylonian creation myth in which the god, Marduk, battled and defeated the sea monster, Tiamat for supremacy. The waters generally and the ocean in particular are frequently symbolic of chaos, disorder and evil in ancient near eastern cultures. Moreover, Israel was not a seagoing people. Israelites feared the waters. The only seagoing Israelite in biblical history that comes to my mind is Jonah. We all know how that voyage ended! Yet as terrifying as the waters might be, they are no match for Israel’s God. As in the creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:3, there is no hint of any struggle for supremacy. God has established the world and it shall never be moved. Vs. 1. His throne “is established from of old…from everlasting.” Vs. 2.
This psalm does not assert that Israel is immune from danger and harm. The foods have been an instrument of God’s wrath against human evil generally and Israel’s faithlessness also. Moreover, the very presence of the waters indicates an awareness of destructive and chaotic power within creation over which human beings have no control. Faithfulness to and faith in God are therefore required in order for human beings to live confidently on this dangerous planet.
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.
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.” Vs. 23. 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.
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 (Vs. 50)-something Zachariah could not do at the beginning of the story because he was unable to speak. Luke 1:21-22. Jesus has now re-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.” Vs. 54. 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. Acts 1:10-11.
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.” Vs. 44. Then the text goes on to say that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Vs. 45. 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 and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “writings,” the largest of which is the Psalms but also included are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, I & II 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.