May 13, 2018
My colleagues at Tuesday’s lectionary group were unanimous in their decision not to preach on the Ascension of Christ today. Technically, the feast of the Ascension was Thursday (and I heard they suspended alternate side of the street parking in NYC on Thursday because of it), which makes it easy enough just to skip and opt for the passages assigned for today. But, if you do that every year you end up never reading about this moment, and at the same time you reinforce the notion that Christ being sucked up into heaven is just a bit more story than our faith requires.
Somehow, resurrection is believable. Jesus rising from the dead in fact, is our biggest celebration. But, ascension? That seems like a bit much. …On the one hand, I get it. Ascension reads like the solution to a problem. If Jesus rose from the dead, conquering death forever – in other words, he’s not going to die again – we need to find a way to get him out of here, to explain his absence. So, let’s have him ascend into heaven.
You can think that way if you want, but don’t forget that this Christian faith of ours claims all kinds of crazy things, and I’m not sure why the Ascension is any crazier. And honestly, if you want a God who is greater than your own capacity to act or imagine you are going to have to accept on faith some things that are beyond the scope of explanation. My advice is to be very cautious about taking the mystery out of faith.
Another way to think about it is: Assuming that it happened, what does this story mean? What’s the confession here? What does it say to us about who Christ is or what it means to be his disciple?
What I noticed here in Luke’s version of the event is the disciples’ reaction to it. This is a moment of great joy for them. As he’s blessing them he’s carried up into heaven and they react by worshiping and blessing God with “great joy.” This actually is in pretty stark contrast with the gospel accounts of the disciples’ reactions to the resurrection, which are filled with fear, doubt, confusion, and astonishment.
It almost feels like the disciples have it backwards. They should have been joyful on Easter and fearful on the ascension. Interestingly, I just discovered that that’s exactly the way the Amish approach the story. Reflecting on these passages, Pastor Isaac Villegas talks about a conversation he had with an Amish bishop. “We don’t really think of the day as a celebration at all, but more like a time of mourning,” he said. “It’s a time for lament because that’s when we remember that Jesus left us behind – that’s when he left us here.”[i]
That response almost makes more sense to me. Our risen savior returns to us, conquering sin and death and all the world’s lies about what it takes to be of value and have meaning; he returns to us only to leave again. How disorienting! How sad! Plus, I appreciate that Amish sentiment of longing for that time of restoration, that time when all is made right, when the lion and the lamb lie down together and the victory of Christ is all in all. The ascension reminds them that all is not what it one day will be.
However, I believe that Luke has a different message. As the church retold the story and experienced the disciples’ joy what they confessed was the great secret that the Christians knew but the empire didn’t. They knew the truth that Caesar and his ways of domination and violence, Caesar and his ways of enforcing power through fear, Caesar and his ways of assigning value through citizenship, wealth, and gender were all a farce. They had been exposed as human failings by a Messiah who could be dissuaded or stopped by none of what Caesar had to offer. The ascension was a day of joy for the Christians because it was a placing of Christ in his proper position in relation to the powers of this world. Paul’s words to the Ephesians sum it up well: “God put this power to work 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 age to come.”
It’s a shame that the Christian message is so often reduced to a manual on how to get into heaven. That’s just not true to the early Christian witness. If Peter was crucified and Paul decapitated, as tradition tells us, it certainly wasn’t because they were offering wisdom about the afterlife. It was because they were proclaiming a Lord other than Caesar; they were proclaiming a higher authority and a new kind of citizenship. You could kill them, but you couldn’t take their life. You could dominate, subordinate, marginalize, and threaten, but you couldn’t change the truth that who we were to the living Christ, and therefore in truth, was irreparably loved, forgiven, called, and claimed by God.[ii]
The Christian secret changed what it meant to be alive in the world. The Christians were those who were awakened to God’s future in the present. They were in the world but not of the world. They were of the future. In the resurrection of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit God’s future was made a present reality, and the Christians and their churches took on the task of living according to the future’s ways. They adopted the power of love in contrast to the power of violence. They saw one another as brothers and sisters in a world of division and hierarchy. They found their sense of “self” in service to others. They found their purpose in the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ whose saving love was made known, amazingly enough, through their saving love.
Ascension is both an awakening of the church and an empowering of the church. It’s an awakening because it is a confession of Christ as Lord, which when made at the soul’s level, changes our lives. I think I’ve told you about Tom before. He was on a youth mission trip with me and a bunch of other kids. Most of the week was spent working on homes in Appalachia with programs in the evening intended to cultivate faith. On the last evening, when I suppose the program leaders feared they may be running out of time, the kids were gathered in the gym and the doors were shut and we were told through a compelling dramatization just how brutally Christ died to pay for our sins. And we were told that we could accept him into our hearts and have eternal life or we could not and have eternal punishment.
I gathered my group to debrief about the experience. Most felt coerced and manipulated. We aired some issues with sacrificial atonement theory. But, then Tom chimed in. He said, “I understand the criticisms, but you know, I’ve never really thought about it like this before. Christ died for me. He suffered and died, for me. I don’t know anyone who would die for me. That’s real love. That’s amazing.” In that moment Tom was awake to the truth of his life. If he was picked on, as Tom was accustomed to being, at that moment he had a higher truth. If he avoided the altar call at the end of the program, as he did, it didn’t matter because at that moment he knew himself as saved anyway, as claimed by a grace and love that was ultimately what mattered most.
Ascension is the church’s call to awaken to its claim about what matters most, what is really real, and who is really Lord.
It is therefore also an empowering of the church. It’s Christ making space for the church to be Christ’s body in the world, to be a community of people awakened to this greater truth, constantly awakening one another and the greater world.
I just read a report entitled, “New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America.” It surveyed 20,000 adults and found that nearly half feel sometimes or always alone. A quarter of Americans feel that there’s no one who understands them. Forty percent often or always feel isolated. And 20 percent feel they have no one whom they can share themselves honestly.[iii]
That feels like both a very heartbreaking reality and an indictment on a culture that is violent, overly materialistic, and competitive. It also feels like a very powerful reminder of how the world needs to know the Christian secret, and how the world needs a church who knows it too.
[i] The Christian Century, April 25, 2018, page 20
[ii] See Brian Zahnd, “Beauty Will Save the World,” page 139.