Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24: 44-53
Let us pray: May the God’s word speak to us, may the Spirit open our hearts and Christ guide us in the way. Amen
I think it’s no great exaggeration to say this Sunday’s focus on the Ascension of Christ is one of the least helpful and most avoided teachings in the New Testament for many people. It’s just plain ‘difficult’! In our 21st century world, being presented with a picture, whether visual or oral, of Jesus being lifted up into the clouds into some real-time place above us called heaven doesn’t exactly inspire or inform our faith. Just as a literal understanding of Adam and Eve is not helpful, so it is with this day.
But what really surprised me (and should not have) is the extent to which our tradition and our culture continues to hold on to this picture of the cloud ascending Christ.
As I am wont to do I started googling some of the imagery for ascension – modern and ancient depictions of this moment – and, apart from finding little change in the depiction over time, I actually got hooked into some of the cartoons where the God in/on cloud imagery is used. And it reinforced for me that this understanding of God above on cloud was firmly ensconced in our culture and society. I found a number by Garrick Tremain – from Muldoon arriving with Rob’s Mob to Winston looking for a coalition arrangement, having run out of options on earth – and this was 10 years ago! Sometimes they can be quite funny – there was one online recently which pictures Jesus heading up into the clouds, all but one of the disciples with hands up watching him go and the one saying ‘Where, where? I can’t see him!’ And a little arrow pointing to him saying ‘Ascension Deficit Disorder’ or as Mike pointed out to me Ascension Disbelief Disorder might be more appropriate.
All fairly harmless really and unlikely to change easily. The difficulty for us arises in how we approach Ascension and mostly we seem to avoid going there at all – just too difficult. And that is a shame. For there is a much deeper and meaningful point to this final separation of the historical Jesus from his earthly life than the somewhat one dimensional picture of ascension that our words, our art, some of our preaching and communication continue to offer.
Let us look at what is happening at the time of the readings.
The disciples, the followers of Jesus, after Jesus’ death are trying to make sense of how they understand what has happened. The one they have known in an earthly life and experienced as the risen Christ with them is to leave. How do they portray this verbally to those who come after –it makes absolute sense that they draw on stories from their tradition – in this instance the story of the prophet Elijah who was swept up to heaven – a story that made perfect sense in a world where faith and the then world understanding sat side by side. But today that same story stretches our credibility. I think our problem is getting caught up with the details of the troublesome time and space action at the end of the reading instead of looking to the teaching of Jesus that surrounds this time, this event. And then we find that this otherwise fantastic episode of the ascension signals a much more practical and obvious message – that of the empowering or the commissioning of the disciples in the mission of Christ. This is a beginning, not a leaving. It is a reassurance, not a withdrawal. This is the end of Jesus’ personal ministry here on earth but, rather than a removal of God’s presence, a void, a period of divine absence, the Ascension is where both heaven and earth, the whole of creation, are filled by Christ’s presence, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It is a transference of Christ’s mission to us in the power of the coming Holy Spirit and the presence of the living God in all creation.
Let us look to the text to extend these thoughts: first Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to the scriptures and then said “You are witnesses of these things. 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.” And then he blessed them. There is a sense of no panic, little surprise, high expectation and patience and trust. They were ready for this moment, prepared for the leaving in the expectation of a greater coming. And it was important that this moment happened! Without it we would be left in limbo.
Fromm here I am going to borrow heavily from the writings of Rowan Williams (1) who offers a take on the ascension that certainly spoke to me.
The gist of his thinking is this - that the ascent of Jesus brings a closure to both his prophetic teaching ministry and to the mystical meaning of his death and resurrection by incorporating it back into the life from whence it came, to God. Without it, he suggests, all the other events of Christ’s life dangle like unresolved plot lines in a poorly constructed novel, failing to reach a conclusive witness to the dwelling of God in creation. In other words there is an air of unfinished business if we just stay with the resurrection appearances – for if you think of them in this light, the appearances of the risen Christ to the various disciples have a somewhat elusive, unpredictable air to them – with his coming and going at will, appearing and reappearing quite unexpectedly. The disciples are surprised and disorientated but, and this is a big but, they are also set on fire with the recognition of God’s power through the risen Christ. The thing is though - imagine if we stopped in that place –that there was no ascension –Williams uses this analogy to illustrate his point:
Imagine what it’s like when you first wake up in a winter’s morning. When you put on the light, all you are conscious of is the brightness of the light itself. Only gradually do your eyes adjust sufficiently to the light that you are able to make out other objects. After a few moments, however, you cease to be conscious of the light itself, and start to see what else is in the room, illumined by the light. The Gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection, says Williams, show him to have been like that initial morning light; at first Jesus’ resurrected self was so blinding that the disciples would be conscious only of him. The Ascension, however, is that moment when the light itself recedes into the background, so that Jesus becomes the one through whom we see the rest of the world. “He is the light we see by; we see the world in a new way because we see it through him, see it with his eyes.”
Moreover, this new perspective works in two ways: not only do we see the world as the place where Jesus has promised to be but we also see it as the place where we are committed to be.
The ascension message for us is the passing of the mission of God onto us – and how do we respond to that? How did the disciples respond? With great joy they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem to wait for the coming of the Spirit who would empower them in the proclaiming of the Gospel – as we approach Pentecost Day, do we wait with eager anticipation, trust and great joy for the charge on our lives as the people of Christ in this 21st century and in this land of Aotearoa NZ?