The Ascension of Our Lord, May 5, 2005
Luke 24:44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
More questions than answers
This text from the end of the Gospel of Luke (and it’s cousin from the start of the book of Acts) leave us with many more questions than answers. Why does Jesus need to go? Where does he go? How does he go? Is he coming back? How will he come back? Why are the two accounts so different? Which one is the “right one”?
I’m afraid there are more questions than answers in these two texts, especially when you put them side by side. We are not going to get to the bottom of most of them, today or ever. What we have here, as with much of the Christian witness is a matter of mystery that in some sense remains shrouded. We do not know, for example, why God chose to become human and enter our existence, but we know that God did. We don’t know why God chose to reveal himself in the last place we would look, dying on the cross, but God did. We don’t know why God removes himself in this last scene from Luke’s Gospel, or for that matter why Luke chose this event as the bridge between his two volumes, but there it is.
That should not prevent us from asking the questions, but these questions should also not be asked away from the both the reality of the ministry of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, nor the ministry of the disciples in Acts. These questions should not be asked without the context of our faith, in which we become the witnesses to these things, and particularly to Jesus as our Messiah and Lord even today. We do not need answers to all of our questions to come to some understanding. We do need to know what the Ascension means for us, and for where we are heading.
When leaving is not leaving at all
In most of my early Christian education I was taught the “party line” concerning the Ascension of Jesus. That he disappeared visibly to end his earthly fellowship with the disciples and to take up his heavenly dominion over all creation. This was done so that he could use his body’s new powers in the resurrection to be “present anywhere and everywhere he chooses.” (For more of this type on interpretation, see the Reu Catechism, for example.) While I have no specific disagreement with this way of thinking, it does not quite square with the text, as we have it in Luke’s Gospel.
Jesus does, on the surface appear to be disappearing. It is interesting to note, then, that the disciples do not act as though this were actually true. They do not go away sorrowful, or mourning the loss of Jesus. In fact, the text reports that they are worshiping as they return with great joy, praising God in the temple day after day. They do not experience Jesus as absent.
We don’t have to look too far back in Luke’s resurrection account to find others who experience this same phenomenon. The disciples on the Emmaus road do not in fact recognize or experience Jesus as present when he walks and talks with them. They are caught up in their loss and grief. It is only later when Jesus breaks the bread with them that he is made known to them. And in that moment, when they experience his presence most fully, he is not longer visibly with them. But rather than thinking that they missed something, instead they run back to the rest of the disciples overjoyed that Jesus is risen and still present.
It is also obvious to even the most basic reader, that the disciples take up the ministry of Jesus in Acts and do some extraordinary things. They heal the sick, they raise the dead. They die forgiving those who kill them (as Stephen did) and they endure much of the same treatment as Jesus. All along they do not take credit for any of this! They proclaim the living presence of Jesus. In fact, I assume Luke’s inclusion of these stories is meant to lead us to conclude that Jesus is very much still around and active, through the disciples. (A point Dan Erlander makes in his Children’s Communion Book, “ A Place for You.”)
It is not, as I said earlier, that Reu’s Catechism missed something, but rather it didn’t go far enough. Jesus ascension is not experienced by the early disciples as his leaving or disappearing at all, according to Luke. While he is taken from their sight, enshrouded once again by clouds (like the Shekinah of Sinai in Exodus) he is not absent at all. In fact, as the newly baptized disciples gathered around the apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread, and prayer, they experienced the presence of Jesus! (See Acts 2:41-42.) Jesus does not go to be someplace else and to show up now and again capriciously. Jesus is experienced as real and present in washing and in scripture, read and explained, in the table fellowship and the prayers on behalf of the world, much in the same way that Christians today experience Jesus’ presence in these same actions that together mark our communion.
The problem is that we think of heaven as another place, as there are places in the world. If Jesus ascends to heaven, then he must go to that other place, is the logic that many might follow. But that does not appear to be the case. In Luke’s Gospel, the Kingdom of God, what many people assume to be heaven is portrayed not so much as a reality in a different place (located up in the sky somewhere) but rather is God’s future that in Christ’s death and resurrection has broken into the present. Understood this way, we have a new possibility, even for such an ancient thing as the Ascension of our Lord; new for us, not probably for the Christian witness.
Christ goes ahead of us
If, as many theologians have rediscovered, the risen Jesus belongs to the future, then we can understand that he has also ascended to that same future. (See NT Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” for example.) The language of our liturgy and song, the language of the apocalyptic writings like the book of Revelation, the language of our creeds, and our experience all now begin to converge. We experience in worship a “foretaste of the feast to come” because we understand how God’s future banquet has broken in upon our present world of famine. Though we suffer, as did the people in Revelation we understand that in God’s future the victory is certain. When we proclaim our faith in the ascended one, we are proclaiming that despite events that seem to contradict it, we can see and participate in the future Reign of God with Jesus in the here and now. We experience, not the absence of our Lord, but his real and life transforming presence. The marvel of this is that if Jesus goes to the future ahead of us, then there is no place in our journey that we now go where Jesus is not there to greet us.
I know that in my life, in particular, I need this understanding more than ever. My family is facing a very difficult journey right now, with the terminal cancer of my father, Walter Bouman. (Some of you might know him as a theologian of the church.) I write these words from a room in my parents home, visiting and helping my family, and mostly clinging to a relationship that I know will soon be gone in ways that I have always counted on it being there. We are participating in an extended “leave taking” event along with many friends, family members, former students and colleagues of my father. It is a difficult journey for me, and I suspect for many.
What is surprising to me is that this journey, no matter how dark the bends and how terrible the destination may seem, has not, at any point along the way, seemed bereft of hope. It may sound pietistic and trite to say this way, but the Jesus of the future, has been at every turn of this journey so far, that I am inclined to trust that he will be there ahead of me, of my family, of my father, each step of the way. I should not be surprised, I suppose, but still, we do not often see what we do not expect to see. But step by step, I am coming to understand that when I confess that Jesus ascended to heaven, that I am confessing that Jesus awaits me in very ordinary places and ordinary ways with extraordinary grace and love. It is comforting, and challenging, all at the same time.
We have grown used to saying that there will be no bad outcomes of my father’s illness. There will be sad ones, of course, as we who love must always come to grips with loss. But that is as God intended. Genuine love is always given in the face of certain loss, rather than in the expectation of keeping our loved ones forever. But we remain hopeful because our Lord’s future is stronger even than death, and more powerful, by far than our grief. In all of this lies the challenge and the comfort.
Hope for tomorrow means courage for today
Here, then is the payoff. Because the future is now safely in Jesus’ hands, I have more courage to face the challenges of today with hope and dignity. We all do, really, I suppose. The ascension is the assurance that the battle is over and has been won. We live in the in between time: between the final victory and the consummation of the reality that is already present in Jesus Christ.
How many stories have we heard of the aftermath of World War II. Some Japanese soldiers were cut off from any word that the war was over. They continued to fend for themselves and hide from others, particularly Allied others that were nearby, out of a sense of duty to a country that no longer existed, at least not at war. One by one, the ones that survived stumbled out of the forest only to discover that the war was over, and they were free!
Because of the ascension of Jesus, we too now see a future in which we are no longer slaves to a community and a war that still needs to be fought. We are free to live in a new reality, where death and the threat of death no longer have dominion. We are free to live for others in a world that has yet to hear this good and wondrous news. We can live courageously, even in a world where the fighting is still going on around us, perpetuated by those who have not yet heard that the battle has been decided. We are free to experience the Jesus of the future, who still breaks into our present world giving himself to us anew in the washing, the teaching, the eating and the praying. We are called to live this future into the present as well. We don’t know where Jesus IS, so much as we know that Jesus is WITH US. We don’t know what the future will bring, so much as we know that the future is safe in Jesus’ hands. And finally, we too can return to the world after our encounter with the Risen One, hearts and heads held high, rejoicing and worshiping and blessing God.
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman