Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ascension 05/17/2012

The two accounts of the Ascension that were just read, one from Acts, one from Luke are the only two such accounts.  It’s pretty widely accepted that Luke wrote both Luke and Acts so that means he’s the only one to tell this story, none of the other gospel writers mention it.  Yet, despite its limited attestation, the Ascension is classified as a principal festival and Jesus’ ascension is mentioned in both the Apostle’s and the Nicene Creed so it does have a significant place in the tradition.  That’s why we’re here this evening although I’m pretty sure our little gathering is the only such gathering this evening, around here anyway.  If other churches observe the Ascension at all, they bump it to Sunday.

For Luke, the Ascension brings his story of Jesus full circle.  When the angel appears to Mary at the beginning of Luke, in response to her “How can this be?” question, the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, that the power of the Most High will overshadow her, which tells her and us, that the child to be born comes from God.  If Jesus came from God the circle is complete when he returns to God.  That is the story of the Ascension. 

Theologically though, there is still more going on.  With the Ascension, Jesus is exalted to heaven.  The earliest belief, the earliest confessional statement regarding Jesus for his followers was “Jesus is Lord.”  He wasn’t just another martyred prophet to be remembered.  He was Lord; in other words, in some fashion, he was God.  It would be awhile before there was any official doctrine regarding exactly what this meant, but Jesus’ exaltation, his return to heaven gives substance to this confession that Jesus is Lord; in terms of explaining who Jesus is, this is an important part of the story. 

So Luke the storyteller comes through again with this memorable telling of Jesus return and exaltation to heaven.  Jesus disappears into the clouds and angelic men in white robes appear to address those gazing into heaven.  With the other gospel writers, the return to the Father is assumed, but Luke gives us a story and it’s good that he does.

From a literary perspective another thing Luke is doing here is clearing the stage, for lack of a better way to put it.  His primary concern in writing Acts is to tell the story of what happened when Jesus wasn’t around anymore.  Jesus was obviously instrumental in God working out his purpose for humanity, but what would happen now?  To tell that story, Jesus would have to be gone and he is, ascended into heaven.  At that point, from one perspective, the disciples become the main characters in what follows, although more accurately the Holy Spirit emerges at this point and really becomes the main character and driving force behind things.

As something of an aside, you can see from this why the heresy known as modalism is attractive.  Modalism says that God isn’t Trinitarian in nature with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all existing as one at the same time, but instead God appears in different modes; so during Old Testament times the mode was the Father, following the Incarnation the mode was Jesus, the Son, following the Ascension and Pentecost the mode is the Holy Spirit.  Makes it much more understandable, but it leads to lots of other theological questions which I don’t want to get into right now. 

The icon of the Ascension also seems to put some emphasis on removing Jesus from the scene.  Most years that we’ve had this Ascension Day service I think I’ve put the icon on the cover of the bulletin because I think that contemplation of this icon is as good a way as any to approach this day.  One of the things that is often noted about the icon though is that the figure of Jesus is not necessarily what you are first drawn to.  He’s there, up at the top, but Mary, front and center surrounded by two angels and two groups of apostles could also be seen as the main figure in this icon. 

For us, Mary’s presence is a bit incongruous as she is not mentioned by Luke as having been there.  However, the earliest worship texts include Mary as having been a witness to the Ascension and in the Orthodox tradition from which the icons come, such worship texts are held in equal value along with scripture plus Mary’s identification as the Mother of God is central to their faith and their worship, so there she is.

Another thing that comes up in the commentary on this icon is that it seems to be more about the church than it is about the actual event of the Ascension.  Part of the intent is to provide an image of the church and it’s an image of the church in its fullness rather than just a depiction of the people who the story tells us were there to witness the Ascension.  So you have Mary depicted in the center, right below the ascending Jesus.  Also present is the Apostle Paul at the head of the group on the left even though, as the story is told in Acts, his conversion experience hasn’t even happened yet.  Historically he doesn’t fit, but he is central to the church and its teachings as it develops and so he is included among the other disciples.

Also significant is the contrast between the posture of Mary opposed to the posture of the apostles.  Mary appears to be essentially motionless, still, her hands uplifted, the ancient gesture of prayer.  The surrounding apostles are in a variety of positions and gestures, perhaps talking amongst themselves, appearing much more animated than Mary at the center, but it all has to do with the church.  Mary, in her posture of prayer, indicates prayer and worship in their many forms as the primary activity of the church.  The more active apostles around her are indicative of their diversity for one thing, but they also indicate the diversity of other activities that are part of the life of the church.  Worship and prayer are central, but from that come the rest of what the church does in carrying the message to the world and all of that is included as part of the icon. 

Another point that is often made about this icon is that it’s not really clear which direction Jesus is going.  It is the icon of the Ascension so the assumption is that he is a-scending but the account in Acts also ends with, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  So there is a degree of directional ambiguity built into the icon, ambiguity which adds a future oriented dimension to it; it’s a dimension that we can’t lose sight of on Ascension Day or any day.

Our faith is a future oriented faith.  As part of the communion liturgy we announce the mystery of faith, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again,” and that too is a reminder that we’re always looking forward, toward something new.  In one sense this story of the Ascension does bring Luke’s Jesus story full circle.  But the story isn’t over.  There’s more to come and the proclamation that Christ will come again is a proclamation that leans us into that ongoing story.

In the story Luke tells, the two men in white robes point the gathered apostles toward that future, drawing them out of the trance of their heavenward gazing.  Prior to his Ascension, Jesus himself told them that there was work to be done and many years later we follow them in that work with the promise of the future always before us.   

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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