Written by Pastor Ed
The Rest of the Story
May 28, 2017
Acts 1: 6-14
John 17: 1-11
For many Christians, the essential story of Jesus moves from Christmas, the birth, through Holy Week, the death and resurrection. And for a few weeks after Easter we hear the stories of his appearing to the disciples, and that’s about it. Then we move on to Pentecost and the birth of the church. But there is another important event in the church year that we tend to pass over, or ignore, for the most part, unless you happen to be Orthodox, or Old Order Amish, or perhaps Catholic. 40 days after Easter, the church celebrates Ascension Day, which was this past Thursday – it’s always on a Thursday. For those who do recognize it, most do so on the following Sunday, which is what we are doing today.
I knew about Ascension day growing up because the Old Order Amish always had church on that day, and so my Amish classmates were always absent. But for much of the church, it is just another Thursday. Oh, we know the story from the gospels and Acts that we read this morning, that Jesus went with his disciples as far as Bethany, according to Luke 24, and then left his disciples gazing up into heaven.
Ascension Day is one of the universal traditions of the church which according to tradition was first celebrated in 68 AD., although the first written evidence we have of the Ascension Day Feast is from 385 AD., still a very ancient tradition and observed in some way by the Christian church around the world of all persuasions.
So we know the account, but what is the significance, if any? As one of my pastor friends said, “For some folks, Ascension signifies the day that Jesus said, “I’m going to the corner store for cigarettes” but never returned.” That’s rather a crude way of putting it, I suppose, but his point is well taken. For some, Jesus’ ascension means that Jesus has left and really isn’t concerned about what happens now, until he comes back. Brian Zahnd puts it this way, “If we end the gospel story of Jesus by saying… And then Jesus went off to heaven (which is why he’s not here), but someday he will come back and bring the kingdom of God… then we are free to run the world the way we want in what we assume is the absence of Christ. What this does is demote Jesus from being the Eternal Lord “seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” to being Lord-Elect in exile.”
We tend to read this story with Greek eyes, and think in terms of place, like the disciples did when Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for them. They wanted coordinates and a road map. But the Hebrew way of thinking has more to do with relationships and the crossing over from one realm to another. And so, again to quote Brian Zahnd, “The Ascension is not about the absence of Christ, but about the ascendancy of Christ. The ascension of Christ to the right hand of God is the ascendency, the rise, the elevation, the promotion of Christ to the position of all authority in heaven and on earth. The right hand of God is not a cosmological location, but a poetic way of saying that God has now given all authority to Christ. The ascension of Christ does not lead to the absence of Christ, but to his cosmic presence everywhere. This is why the risen Christ says, ‘Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’”
The disciples were left standing, “gazing up toward heaven” (NRSV) as though trying to get a last glimpse of Jesus, when they are confronted by two men in white robes who say, “Why are you looking up toward heaven?” Don’t you understand what Jesus was saying to you? He has just given you a charge to be his witnesses, and has promised to be with you. He is no longer confined to a specific time and place, but has been exalted and is present at all times and places. “There is now no place where Christ is not, and there is now (no) domain over which Jesus is not Lord.” (Brian Zahnd)
The ascension is the fulfillment of that great hymn of Philippians 2, that because of Christ’s obedience, “therefore God has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name.” Jesus has become the king, the ruler of the Kingdom of God. Not a future hope, but a present reality. Not something we have to wait for at some unknown time in the future, but already being fulfilled in the here and now. His “coming again” is not a change of location, but rather an appearing, a fulfillment when we will see clearly what we only grasp in part now.
And, that coming again will be the time when we will be judged on how well we lived out the commission that Jesus gave us and lived according to the principles of the kingdom that Jesus rules over. If we see Jesus as absent, as Brian Zahnd said earlier, as sort of biding his time until he comes to set up his kingdom, then what we do now doesn’t really matter, and we can easily think that the world can just run according to the rules of whatever authority is in power. After all, it will get straightened out when Jesus comes back.
But if we believe that Jesus’ ascension was to take his place as lord of the universe, as king in God’s kingdom, as “king of kings and lord of lords” now, then we who claim him as such are called to live according to the teachings he gave us and the commission he left us with because we have become part of that kingdom with our baptism and membership in Christ’s body, the church. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we’re not talking about some future utopia, but rather about having the strength and courage to live by those kingdom principles in the here and now.
As Luke records it in Acts 1, right before Jesus left them, he gave this charge to his disciples. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) That is our calling and commission as members of Christ’s kingdom; to be witnesses. Now often times we think of that only in terms of telling someone about Jesus, and that’s certainly part of it, but certainly not all of it.
I recall going on a Mennonite Disaster Service project in Mississippi after Hurricane Camille, many years ago, and having people ask as we shovelled out mud or cleaned up brush, “Why would you give up some of your summer vacation to come and do this?” And it gave us a chance to talk about Jesus’ call to help those in need. My younger brother was a witness when he refused to be a part of a project at a nuclear facility in Colorado, a fact a number of his coworkers commented on at his funeral. When we befriend a Syrian refugee family, speak kindly to someone who is angry with us, are honest in our business dealings, or make choices that are not based on our own needs but the good of others, we are living according to Kingdom values, rather than the world’s.
Whenever we act on the principles of care for God’s creation, seek justice for the least among us, care for the widows and orphans, help those who are oppressed, and show love to our enemies, we are acting as witnesses to the kingdom of God. And, as Alan Kreider once pointed out, those things should be outrageous enough that people will begin to ask questions, and then we have to be ready to give an answer. As the saying goes, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” Living be the values of Christ’s Kingdom may well put us at odds with people around us who have different values. That’s what Jesus said would happen.
The reality is that we are preaching all the time, hopefully the message that Jesus taught us. And as I noted last week, and as Jesus reminds his disciples, we are not alone in this. It’s interesting to note that the Bible rarely speaks of the individual believer, but almost always in the plural. We don’t have a plural “you” in English, except maybe “you’ll” or maybe “you’uns, “ so it’s hard to see that in our English translations, but in the Greek most of them are plural. So when Paul says, “You are the body of Christ,” he is talking not about you as an individual, but of all Christians together.
We are not Christians in isolation, but with the whole of the church universal. And, we have the promised spirit as the presence of God with us as well. So today we celebrate Ascension Day, and the ascendancy of Christ to his place of rulership over all of creation. To again quote Brian Zahnd’s article about Ascension Day:
Christ is not absent.
Christ has ascended.
Christ is not Lord-Elect.
Christ is Lord-Eternal.
Christ is not waiting to begin his reign.
Christ is reigning now from the right hand of the Father.
Christ is not far off.
Christ is with us always.
Christ is not separate from us.
Christ now fills all things everywhere with himself.