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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Ascension Day 5/1

The Ascension places an exclamation point on the exaltation of Christ, exaltation which began with the resurrection. We could also say that the Ascension marks the culmination of the Incarnation, completing Jesus' earthly physical presence among the disciples as his glorified human body ascends to be at the right hand of the Father. And.the Ascension is the consummation of the union of God and Man in Jesus the Christ. All of that is perhaps overly theological but what it says is that Jesus, for awhile so close to his disciples and other followers, on Ascension Day rises into the mysterious, heavenly distance.

When Christians talk about God as Trinity, there is always tension between closeness and distance. At Christmas, when we celebrate the Incarnation we talk about Immanuel, God with Us; we talk about the Word made Flesh all of which points us to the closeness of God, closeness which is initiated and willed by God. Other festivals of the church, like the Transfiguration, like the Ascension take us in the other direction, toward the mystery of God, the otherness of God; that as close as we may and should feel to God in Jesus, there is a distance that also has to be part of our consideration; fear, not so much in the sense of being afraid, but in the sense of overwhelming awe.

It's good to have times in the church year when we're reminded of this tension between distance and closeness as we can err on both ends of it, either getting too cozy in our relationship with God so that a sense of otherness is lost or being so overcome with awe that relationship becomes impossible due to the great distance between what is divine and what is human.

The tension between the closeness and distance of God is worth thinking about on Ascension Day but perhaps is not the primary focus. A clue about what might be the primary focus can be found in the Icon of the Ascension. There is an image of this icon on the front of your bulletin and what these ancient icons do in addition to being aids to enhance worship is to provide clues about how the church has historically understood these festivals of Jesus.

In the case of the icon of the Ascension, at the top there is an image of Jesus ascending into heaven which obviously is appropriate, but almost always he is significantly smaller than the group of persons depicted beneath him still on the earth. That group includes Mary, Jesus' mother at the center, along with angels and apostles and included among the apostles is Paul, closest to Mary on the left side. Right away that indicates that this icon is not intended to accurately portray the event described in Acts and Luke. In those accounts that we just heard, there is no mention of Mary being there and Paul was not yet a follower of Jesus and wouldn't be for some time to come so he wasn't there either.

That tells us that the gathering depicted in this icon is not meant to historically show those who might actually have been there, but instead is intended to represent the church which, especially in Catholic and Orthodox tradition, places Mary in a central position and Paul of course becomes the greatest evangelist and theologian of the apostolic church. All of that then is an indication that in our consideration of the Ascension our primary focus is not so much on the event itself nor is on where Jesus is going either.

It's true that both the Apostles' and the Nicene creeds include the statement, "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father;" that is a statement of faith but we don't want to get too distracted in trying to picture this heavenly throne room which probably just winds up looking like what I pictured as a kid, God the Father, real old with white hair and beard, seated at a big throne in the middle, Jesus seated at a slightly smaller throne on the right and a Casper the friendly ghost like Holy Spirit on a similar throne on the left.

The actual event of the ascension and the heavenly throne room are not the focus. The focus is on the significance the event has for that earthly gathering at the bottom of the icon. The point, whether you view this as a literal event or if you view it as a poetic affirmation that makes a claim for Jesus, the point is that God in human flesh, the same Jesus who was crucified and raised has been given the rule and we now live in the world under that rule. That's the focus on Ascension Day.

Living in the world under that rule creates another point of tension, tension between waiting and acting. We know that the kingdom announced by Jesus is not fully realized among us and so we wait for that to happen; but we don't wait simply staring off into the sky like the group in the icon. We don't just stare off into the sky because Jesus has called us to be witnesses. We witness to the reality of this crucified, risen and ascended one; we witness to what has been handed down to us, to what we have seen and heard to be true. We witness to the rule of Christ, to a different kind of power made known in compassion and servanthood.

We witness but we also wait because the full realization of the kingdom is not our work but is the work of the Spirit. We don't make it happen. We're called to witness; we do have a role to play but we wait on the Spirit; we wait on Jesus.

The evidence indicates that we don't wait well though. We're often impatient, still unsure about God's ability to pull this off. We don't wait well, often being distracted by the latest gimmick that promises to grow the church. We get nervous about the numbers which then distracts us from witnessing. We're afraid that the story we have to tell isn't enough, it's not making things happen fast enough so we should dress it up, make it more fun, make it more entertaining.

But the story is enough. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the story of Jesus crucified and risen has always been enough to transform lives; the story of Jesus who ascends to the right hand of the Father, the same Jesus who feeds the hungry crowds, who touches the sick and they are healed, who welcomes children, who hangs around with and welcomes those who the usual power structures disapprove of; the story of Jesus who meets us in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine.

That story is enough because it describes what is real and true. Living in the world under the rule of the ascended Jesus means being witnesses of the new reality he makes known and moving our lives into closer coherence with that reality. From earliest times, that has been the message and meaning of the Ascension.

On Ascension Day we are an extension of those depicted in the icon. We are the church. We witness and we wait.


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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one such child in my name
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not me
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one who
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