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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ascension 5/13

      Remember when George Bush stood on the battleship with the “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him?  Some of us cringe when we think about it; actually I think Bush himself cringes because obviously, at that point, the mission was far from accomplished, there was a lot more to be done.  I’m reminded of that because it makes me wonder if, on Ascension Day, we should we picture Jesus holding a Mission Accomplished sign as he drifts into the clouds?  Was his mission accomplished at that point, or years later would he too have cringed at the thought of such a sign? 

      That depends, I guess, on how you define the mission.  Jesus’ mission as a physical presence on earth was accomplished.  He modeled love and welcome for all people, he remained faithful and obedient to the will of the Father, even unto death as we say, and our faith tells us that by doing so and by being raised from the dead he overcame the power of death for all of us.  That part of the mission was accomplished.   

      But I don’t think Jesus would have carried that banner with him as he rose into the clouds, because his mission wasn’t just about him.  It was about his followers as well, followers who were to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  On that first Ascension Day, forty days after Easter, clearly that mission had not been accomplished.  But wait, you might say.  Hasn’t that mission been accomplished now?  Is there any corner of the earth where witness has not been made concerning Jesus?  If there are any such corners, there can’t be many, but that doesn’t let us, his present day followers off the hook.   

      In some ways the mission of being witnesses is more critical than ever in a world that may have heard the message but is still largely indifferent, sometimes even hostile to the claims of Christianity.  There are many reasons for that reaction, but one reason I think we should be especially conscious of is that in too many cases the witness that has been made presents a rather skewed version of Christianity, one that doesn’t reflect very well Jesus’ core teachings which were about “Love one another as I have loved you,” instead seeming to focus on judge one another, even though Jesus said not to do that.  In any case, Jesus’ mission, which is our mission, has not been accomplished. 

      Properly understood, the Ascension can help us to be more effective witnesses.  The primary significance of Ascension Day is not just that Jesus has left this world so that he now resides in heaven, so when we die we will go and meet him there.  That is a nice comforting image and one that most of us hang on to in some fashion, but theologically that’s still not the main point. The Ascension has less to do with where Jesus is and where we hope to go, and more to do with his divine role as part of the God we name as Trinity. Trying to understand Jesus’ divine identity with the Father can get complicated; it sometimes involves a journey into dense, metaphysical theology, but there are less intimidating way to approach it and a look at today’s psalm is one possible approach.   

      Part of the beauty of the psalms is that many of them are full of rather complex theology but it’s presented in poetic images that are easier to understand.  Psalm 47 is classified as an enthronement psalm and it celebrates God as “a great king over all the earth,” enthroned on high, reigning over the nations.  It’s a psalm that creates an image of God as in control, God in power, God in charge.  This isn’t one of those psalms that questions God with lament and complaint; what we have here is confident trust in the authority of the God of Israel enthroned in the divine realm. 

      The story of the Ascension can be understood as something like an enthronement psalm about Jesus, emphasizing the fact that Jesus as the Messiah did not come to occupy an earthly throne but instead to be enthroned, “at the right hand of God” as we say, with God in a position of power and authority.  This place of enthronement then isn’t so much the heaven of popular perception with angels floating around playing their harps, this is more about divine rule, heaven as the realm of God, the center of God’s presence and authority.  By placing Jesus there with God, his divine nature is accented, his power is accented, his rule is accented…but the difference of that power and rule also has to be noted. 

      We remember that Jesus’ time on earth and his message were a rejection of power as it was usually understood.  His followers tried to get him to assume that kind of worldly power, but to their great confusion, Jesus’ power wound up being revealed in humility and sacrifice and love, upsetting the expected order of things.  On Ascension Day, identifying Jesus with God enthroned as “a great king over all the earth” means that divine power is understood differently.  The God that we worship and name as Trinity is in a position to see and to care, to be involved, concerned about the things Jesus was concerned about on earth, things like healing and feeding and forgiving, welcoming the outcast and the stranger.  Jesus’ ascension makes a claim that the world is ordered differently because of this one who is enthroned and who governs according to that different order.   

      On Ascension Day we acknowledge this rule of Jesus, this reign of Jesus.  We acknowledge that all of creation is subject to his rule and governance and so we confess in the creed, “He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father.”  We confess, but with that confession we are perhaps called to engage in another aspect of the mission we are reminded of today, the mission to bring our own lives more into coherence with this different order of Jesus.   

      That coherence can take many forms, but much of it would seem to bring us back again to that command to love one another.  It’s a text that we heard back on Maundy Thursday and again the Sunday before last and actually it’s one that should never be too far from us.  Inside and outside the church these days there is an ideology that tries to make the world very small by excluding and/or eliminating everyone who is not like us, usually in the name of making us safe, sometimes for the sake of what is perceived as purity.  I’m not suggesting sinister motives on the part of all who espouse such ideology, it has more to do with fear and anxiety; but it does run away from the command to love one another, especially when Jesus went to some length to help us understand that “sister and brother” or “neighbor” includes those most unlike us, those who upset us, those who make us uncomfortable, those the world calls unclean. 

      The mission to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and all the ends of the earth, even Ishpeming is our mission. On Ascension Day though, we are also reminded of a more personal mission.  Jesus has established a new order, a new regime, a new heaven and a new earth.  Part of our mission, part of our witness is day by day to live our common life in response to this new regime. 

      The claim that Jesus ascended into heaven constitutes an act of praise that says that the gospel is true.  Because of Jesus the world is ordered differently; the world is under new management, but the fullness of his mission has not been accomplished; that banner still hasn’t been unfurled.  In our own lives, and in the witness we make to others, we don’t simply stand and gaze into heaven; we engage the mission. 

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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