The Day of the Ascension of Our Lord, May 25, 2006
“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 and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” Luke 24:44-53 (English Standard Version)
THE END AND THE BEGINNING
A painting of Jesus being received into the clouds, pierced hands accenting his outstretched arms of blessing, formed the backdrop (formally called the reredos) of the altar in the church of my childhood. My weekly attendance there impressed upon me the sense of Jesus in all his humanity returning to the fullness of his divine position at the right hand of the Father.
The Story of the Ascension
Today’s Gospel and First Lesson were represented in that painting. Jesus’ last direct words, instruction, promise, guidance, blessing and actions are all found in these lessons. . . . .
His words reminded them again of the significance of what they had seen and heard in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of him who was speaking. He was insuring that they understood all they had witnessed: “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 and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” He pointed out that his suffering, death and resurrection were not “accidental,” but part of the divine strategy for bringing new life to the world staggering under the burden of sin and death. This, above all, they were to constantly keep in mind.
He instructed them to proclaim this good news to all nations, “beginning from Jerusalem . . . as witnesses of these things.”
He pledged to send “the promise of the Father upon [them].” (The First Lesson is explicit that it would be the Holy Spirit who would be the one bearing this “promise of the Father.”)
He gave guidance to them. “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,” he added. It is as though he said to them, “For the moment, however, don’t rush into things until the time is right. On your own you will get it all wrong. Your task at the moment is just to wait patiently for that wisdom and power that will come from God to guide you on your way. Believe me, it will come!”
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.”
Divine action replaced human action at this point: “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.”
What the Disciples Knew About This
The disciples knew from this combination of things that they would no longer have direct access to him. For forty days, we hear in the First Lesson, he had appeared at random, so to speak, coming to them at unexpected times and places (the last of which, Luke tells us in the Gospel, being at a meal where he ate with them) continually emphasizing the reality of his resurrection and interpreting it along with his suffering and death as the way by which the kingdom of God had been brought to its fullest manifestation.
When pressed for information about the future he had steadfastly refused to comment, insisting that it was enough for them to have seen and heard everything that was necessary for the gospel of salvation to be taken into all the world. They were simply to mull over what they had seen and what Jesus had told them for an unspecified period of time, trying to assimilate all that had taken place in such a way that when the Holy Spirit (promised specifically, remember, in the First Lesson) would come upon them they would be ready to begin the task of taking this marvelous Good News into all the world. For the days between his ascension and the promised coming of the Spirit, however, it was clear to them they would no longer see him in direct fashion, but were to assimilate, absorb and “inwardly digest” (as a collect of the church puts it so graphically) what had happened up to this point.
The two men standing by them in white robes (angels, it is assumed) who appear in the First Lesson add the promise that, although they would no longer see him in person any more at this point, he “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In other words, neither the world nor the disciples were through with Jesus just because he was no longer visibly present any more than he would be through with the world just because he no longer walked and talked in observable fashion on the face of the earth.
That is what the disciples knew at this time as told in the lessons and illustrated in the altar piece of my childhood, spoken of so dramatically in the Second Lesson where Paul gives thanks to God for those who, under the influence of the Holy Spirit in Ephesus, had come to faith in Christ. He says that their eyes were enlightened to see the “immeasurable greatness” of God’s power “that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
There we have it all spread before us: The Crucified One is the Glorified One, the one whose glory is the cross and who has been affirmed by his Father as having done all things well by receiving him back to his right hand from whence “all things have been put under his feet.” There he rules “as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” What more need be said of what happened this day than this? Jesus is affirmed as having overcome the evil one who would claim the world for himself and has firmly established the righteous rule of the Kingdom of God.
What All This Means For Us
We have not yet referred to what is perhaps the most striking single phrase in the lessons for today, however. We read it in the very first verse of the book of Acts! That opening verse is startling. It must be read with the “enlightened eyes” to which Paul refers in the Second Lesson. “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach . . .” Now there is a verse to bring a discerning reader up short!
Did Jesus not complete everything he was sent to do? Is this not the very meaning we have just suggested that is contained in his ascension? He has finished his work! He, himself, cried out, “It is finished” when he died on the cross. What more is there to do?
Yet Luke speaks of that which “Jesus began to do and teach . . . “ Has he made a mistake in his reporting . . . or has he seen more deeply into that of which he is writing than we are prone to see at first reading? Is he not speaking of that which Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “[He is] head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”? There is every indication that Luke, beginning his account of the “Acts of the Apostles” (also properly called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit”) is telling his readers from the start of this second volume that “the body of Christ” is now hidden within and among and through those who will go forth in his name, bearing that Good News of Salvation as his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
This lies deeply imbedded within the text of our readings when they emphasize that Jesus “presented himself alive by many proofs” (the First Lesson) and “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 and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. . . “ He had, on the one hand, finished all that he had been called to do and yet, at the same time, what he had done was only the beginning of what he would continue to do through these disciples gathered before him and through all those who would come after them as bearers of the glad tidings.
His ascension, therefore, is not so much to be looked upon or spoken of as an act of levitation, defying the laws of gravity, to be admired and wondered at, as it is an “elevation of status” before the eyes of all humanity. Witness was given to those watching that this Jesus with whom they had walked and talked, eaten and drunk, had been exalted to the divine throne, “seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places,” recognized as the head of all things visible and invisible, far above all the creation within which he had lived and died and rose again from the dead. The “cloud that took him out of their sight” is a rather common biblical way of speaking about the presence of God (“a pillar of cloud” preceded the Israelites out of Egypt – “a cloud” filled the temple when it was dedicated – “a cloud” came across the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus was there with his disciples, etc.). He was received back again into the divine glory that was rightfully his from before his birth!
The disciples’ question noted in the First Lesson, (“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”) reminds us of how easily the church can get distracted with wrong questions and misdirected actions. How easily the attention of God’s people can be diverted from the basic goals of establishing and maintaining the Gospel in the world by questions ranging from counting up numbers of those reached as a measure of our success at recruiting members through the need to cleanse society of its wrongs in order to prematurely establish the kingdom of God as an earthly reign of righteousness. If, indeed, what Jesus “had begun to do” was to be carried on by his body, the church, it dare not attempt to rise above its master through acts of self-glorification or self-interest. It is tempting to bypass or exempt itself from the suffering of being ignored, ridiculed, despised, or even persecuted by the world as the Lord himself was, attempting instead to establish itself as a power to be reckoned with by the kingdoms of this earth. It is important that we not overlook this question by the disciples at the time of Jesus’ ascension lest we, ourselves, become sidetracked from our task.
Meanwhile, we are reminded by the two men in white that “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Between now and then we are to keep in mind that which Jesus, himself, had emphasized in his last words recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20b) In short, although he is gone from any one place in this world he now becomes available to his people everywhere and anywhere. His presence is not to be sought here or there, in the sacred places or in the secular places, in the expected places or the unexpected places. He is not to be identified by location any more, but he is present everywhere at once, to every person as though he / she were the only person in all of creation and yet to all of creation as though no place were without him.
In this we find both fear and hope – fear that we can hide no sin from him, can go no place nor do any thing without his knowing it – and yet hope that wherever sin is discovered the grace of God is also present in all the abundance we have seen and known in this crucified, risen and ascended One. The fear of God’s wrath is never without the counterpoint of the promise of God’s mercy for all who seek it, want it with all their heart, “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matt. 5:6) and place all their confidence in the Christ who finished the work assigned to him while the Good News of that accomplished work continues to be established anew and proclaimed in every generation to all parts of the world through his body, the church. No sin is so big that God’s redeeming grace is not still larger for all who seek it and want it . . . and that redeeming grace fills every nook and cranny of the entire universe!
It is to worship and adore this ascended Lord that we gather in this place on this day and on every Lord’s Day. We are not here primarily or basically for our own good even though we receive good-ness from him for whom we come. We are here first and foremost and above all, however, to give honor and glory to this ascended Jesus who sits and reigns at the right hand of the Father from whom he came and to whom we give equal glory and honor for having sent his Son to redeem us along with the Holy Spirit who has called us to be his own, to carry out and “complete” that which Jesus “began to do” as the ones he has chosen for this task. Our lives are to be living monuments of admiration and tribute to this God who has so loved us that he has rescued us from all the alien powers that seek to possess us.
In all of this we are to recognize, however, as Jesus plainly said to his disciples, that our task is not to exemplify a “church triumphant” above all the suffering and distress of the world. We, the church, are rather to be the body of Christ crucified in behalf of all whose suffering and distress so permeates the very atmosphere of our present existence. We have no sword of power to wield. Our only “weapons” are those seemingly futile signs of a grace-filled word spoken, the gospel proclaimed, water poured “in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and bread and wine offered to hungry lips and lives as the body and blood of Christ given for their salvation.
Yet it is precisely here where we see this ascended, triumphant, glorious Lord most clearly – in the word of grace, in water, bread and wine! It is here where he who promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age, is found to be present in and through his people assembled as “the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This is what it means to observe and celebrate the ascension of our Lord. He was not raised from the dead for a while and then, throwing his body aside behind a bush somewhere as though it were unimportant, returned to the Father as pure spirit. He who was raised from the dead in the flesh was received again into the glory of the Father before the very eyes of those disciples gathered around him. They gave testimony that the One whom we worship as Savior is Jesus of Nazareth, fully flesh and blood while also fully revered as the One who reigns with the Father and the Spirit as one God, now and forevermore. Ascended, and yet always with us! Gone, but always here! Never visible, and yet never absent!
It is because of him that our hopes are kept high in the midst of the despair surrounding us on this earth. It is because of him that the constant movement toward death of all earthly things does not deter us from living as those who are caught up into the glorious light of him in whom all life resides and by whom death itself has been held at bay and overcome. The altar painting of my youth points to a very significant moment of truth for those who call themselves Christian. In the ascension of Jesus our earthly hope has soared into the heavens and the divine promise has come to rest on the face of the earth!
To him be the glory now and forever! Amen!
Hubert Beck, Retired Lutheran Pastor