Homily for 5.12.13
Today is Ascension Sunday. Today the church remembers how the human Jesus of Nazareth -- crucified and risen -- left earth’s soil and was received into the presence of the LORD GOD, the Almighty. In fact, you will probably recall Jesus explaining to his disciples in the Upper Room Discourse how he would soon be going to the Father. Well, the Ascension describes, in part, that going and that event.
Of course, the Ascension is an oft confused event. New Testament scholar Dr. N.T. Wright -- whose work I am closely following here -- explains how the Ascension is seen today as either an embarrassment to the faithful because of the ridicule of post-modern skeptics -- both religious and non-religious, or an interpretation of foolishness through a flat-literalism by the fundamentalist, who believe Jesus the first spaceman, launched somewhere into outer space.
But, I would assert, even in the face of such confusion, there is nothing foolish being described here. And that, in fact, we have before us a moment that is deeply important to our understanding of the person of Jesus and the present and future reality of the his Kingdom.
The Ascension of Jesus, therefore, presents us with a unique perspective on the person of Jesus, explaining who he really is to us and to the watching world.
Notice, the text reads:
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them.”
Have you ever offered a goodbye to those whom you knew you would never see again? In some ways this is the moment St. Luke presents to us. It is certainly possible that Jesus was not overcome with emotion, but it would not surprise me if he were.
With his work of earthly ministry completed, now his time of intercession and priestly work continues “at the Father’s right hand.” Now the time of his coronation commences. But that also means those men and women whom he loved must be left behind, at least for a time. And so, how would the one who is touched with the feelings of our infirmities respond? There must have been deep emotion.
But, perhaps I have it all wrong. Perhaps, instead of sorrow, there was great triumph and joy among them all. After all, the text does read:
They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.
So, perhaps, this parting was not a time of sadness at all, but instead a time of hallelujah, rejoicing and hope. Either way, it seems to me that the humanness of Jesus must not only have been present, but evident. And, further, it seems to me that the reality of Jesus’ humanness must have peaked at this very moment, knowing that the only one standing between his followers and the still ferocious and hateful but defeated power of evil was the soon-to-come Holy Spirit. Hadn’t he earlier described as followers as sheep among wolves? Surely, what was happening with his departure is nothing less than that reality coming to pass.
So, in this moment he
“raised his hands, and blessed them.”
That is, he offered his blessing, perhaps a blessing of protection, of comfort, of wisdom, of hope, and of peace because these men and women were about to face the furious onslaught of hate and violence. Perhaps the blessing was even something like this:
“In this world you will have many tribulations. But take heart. I have overcome the world.”
But this is not all. For the the text tells us what happened next was marvelous and full of wonder:
“As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.”
What this must have been to see! Stunning, really! But, what we must understand from the Ascension is how this moment displays to us, in the most powerful language possible, the reality of Jesus as the coronated King of the universe. This is the point.
Again, relying upon N.T. Wright, who believes that St. Luke’s description of what is happening in today’s pericope is the presentation of Jesus the Christ as the Powerful King and the Ruler of the all nations, I want to list several truths of understanding concerning the Ascension:
- Jesus Christ lives, newly embodied and Ascended to the Almighty in heaven, is ever-present in a real place, though unseen, a place as close to the earth as the air we breathe.
- Jesus Christ continues to offer his priestly ministry for his church, as he ever-lives to make intercession for us. That is, Jesus prays for us.
- Jesus Christ is also now ever-present to the church on earth through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, whom the church experiences as power to live out the Kingdom that is both present and future.
- Jesus Christ is the ruler of earth, his cross and resurrection being the force of this achievement and the ascension being the coronation of his rule.
One of the most important promises from the Hebrew Bible for the early Christian believers was from Daniel 7:
13 As my vision continued that night, I saw someone who looked like a man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, honor, and royal power over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal -- it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
With this as a key text, clearly, the early church believed that this word from Daniel applied to Jesus, who was victorious over both evil and empire. The early church also believed that Jesus had left them empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit to take the “good news” of Jesus’ reign to the ends of the earth, even in the face of Rome which embodied both evil and empire. This meant, for them and by extension for us, Jesus was both LORD and King, not Caesar!
Or, said differently, there is both a political and a personal dimension to the good news of the Gospel.
But, of course, to say things such as this brings upon one immediate suspicion. Yes, I know there are other people and other religions in the world. Yes, I know that to say Jesus is King is to be viewed in the world as a bigot and a fool. But, I ask you, what am I to do with the texts that read:
Matthew 28:16-2016 Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him -- but some of them still doubted! 18 Jesus came and told his disciples, "I have been given complete authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Philippians 2:6-106 Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. 7 He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. 8And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal's death on a cross. 9 Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name that is above every other name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I can ignore them, of course; I can explain them away, but in reality the question boils down to this: Either the text has authority over me, or I have authority over the text. And, as difficult as this may be for the watching world to stomach, I have decided where I come down on this question.
Therefore, it seems clear, at least to me, that the New Testament’s understanding of the Crucified, Resurrected and Ascended Jesus is that he is the one and only true King. That further, he has defeated the powers of darkness and the powers of empire. And that, finally, the way of his rule is most fully and faithfully displayed when his followers -- are you ready for this? -- when his followers serve through sacrificial love and reconciling forgiveness.
You see, the Ascension does not bring forward some triumphal conquering church. Far from it. In fact, this has been tried before and always ends in failure because it directly pushes against the teachings of the LORD himself. Instead, the church, if it is truly the church of the living, risen King who is Jesus the Christ, absorbs the brokenness and hate and greed and violence of a world out of control and at war with itself, offering intercession for this world, and offering an active expression of true humanness as defined in the practices of Jesus-way.
The church that most embodies the Jesus-way, what we have termed from this pulpit the truly human way, is the church that, like her LORD, gives herself away in love, acceptance and forgiveness. Believe me, nothing is more difficult, for this constantly pushes us against all that we were taught by the culture was important, and instead offers us the path that says:
- Esteem others better than yourselves.
- Turn the other cheek
- Go the extra mile
- Father forgive them
This life to which we have been called, as we follow the King, is not easy life. Rather, it is the difficult way; it is the narrow way. But, it is the way that leads to a genuine human life, and it is the way that offers the watching world the reality of what life is like under the Crucified, Resurrected and Ascended King.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the 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,
raised his hands, and blessed them.
As he blessed them he parted from them
and was taken up to heaven.
They did him homage
and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and they were continually in the temple praising God.