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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ascension 05/09/2013

The Ascension of Jesus is the final act of his earthly mission.  Forty days after Easter it culminates what we started to celebrate back on Christmas when Jesus as the Son of God, the Word made Flesh came “down from heaven” to do the work he was given to do.  Having accomplished all he was sent to do, we see him go back “up into heaven” as he returns to the Father. 

Luke uses the Ascension as the hinge event between volume one of his account, his Gospel, where he tells about the Ascension at the very end, and volume 2, the Acts of the Apostles where he mentions the Ascension again at the very beginning.  In the readings for today we hear both of these versions.  Luke though, is the only one of the gospel writers who tells this story of Jesus being physically lifted into heaven so one wonders if his intent is to describe an historical event that happened just this way, or if it is another example of Luke as the master storyteller who creatively crafts a story that points us to other, more important theological implications.  Either way, the theological implications are important, and either way it is a dramatic closing chapter to the story of Jesus “in the flesh.”

What the Ascension reveals is that as Jesus returns to the Father he returns bearing for all eternity the wounded but also glorified humanity which he has assumed; both dimensions, wounded and glorified are significant.  The Ascension celebrates the fact that our humanity in all its variety and vulnerability has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life.  In Christ, humanity enters the inexhaustible depths of divinity thus changing both.  Now, for sure that’s some pretty dense and difficult to understand theology and it’s difficult in large part because it doesn’t fit our conventional images of God or ourselves.

No matter how much we hear about a wounded, vulnerable God, the image of God as all powerful and all knowing is hard to get away from.  To one degree or another that image is there for most of us.  Yet wounded and vulnerable is where our theology takes us and where it has always taken us from the early church fathers, through Luther and into the present.  Central to Christian theology is the fact that Jesus has taken on our human nature and taken it back to the heart of God so that God then is touched by humanity.  But the Ascension also affirms that humanity is touched by divinity but no matter how much we hear that, the image of ourselves as sinful and unclean and unworthy is hard to get away from.

God is touched by humanity and humanity is touched by God; that’s the real message of the story that started with Christmas and ends with the Ascension and in a lot of ways this theology and anthropology represents what is unique about Christianity.  The Ascension confirms the message of Christmas and Easter, a message which is about God’s love for and commitment to humanity, broken and flawed though it is.  It’s important to emphasize this and think a little bit about it because the story itself, along with paintings and images and icons don’t immediately take you there.  They can make it hard not to just picture the Ascension as the movement of Jesus from here to “up there,” somewhere, with the Father, overseeing the cosmos. 

It’s easy to picture the Ascension as mostly being about Jesus, but it’s just as much about the glory and worthiness of humanity and the regard with which we are held by God.  Irenaeus, one of the earliest church father’s said, “The glory of God is humanity being made fully alive.”  Jesus’ Ascension somehow brings us fully into the endless life of God.  But again, that is really difficult to understand and in our humanity we probably aren’t capable of understanding, but still we try.

Somewhat easier to understand is how Luke uses this story to mark the transition from Jesus to the church.  During his earthly ministry Jesus’ work was centered on his own physical presence.  After that though, the mission would continue in the work of those who were his followers.  That’s Jesus commission to them in the Acts version of the story:  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  That’s followed by the angelic men in white robes asking, “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?” their way of reminding those gathered that there was work to do. 

That work however wouldn’t start until they had received the power of the Holy Spirit and for that we wait another ten days with the celebration of Pentecost.  When the disciples are told to wait to receive power “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” though, it is reminiscent of Gabriel’s words to Mary at the beginning of Luke when she was told that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”  In both cases it is the movement of the Spirit that will bring about something new and unexpected. 

This transition from Jesus to the church as told by Luke is easier to understand, but it’s not just a case of time marches on and the main characters change.  It still it goes back to the theological implications of the Ascension that celebrate the changed nature of things.  With the return of Jesus to the Father both humanity and divinity are changed and that creates new possibilities.  Mostly it creates new possibilities for us as it unlocks the potential we have to be agents of God, to do God’s work, to do things that we might not have thought we were capable of doing.  That’s the story Luke tells in the Book of Acts, the story of those first apostles doing things they shouldn’t have been capable of doing.  But it’s not just them because time does march on and the characters do change; the story continues and in this time and place we are the ones for whom new possibilities are available. 

Another line of note in the Acts version of the Ascension story is the disciples question, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” an indication that even at that point they were still looking for Jesus to be who they had wanted him to be, a king who would rule by the conventional rules of power.  But Jesus was about power made known in weakness, power revealed in the mystery of the cross.  That too is difficult to understand theology and the truth is, we often don’t understand it any better than they did.  In the church we still tend to measure things by the same conventional rules of power by which everything else is measured.  We see the glory of Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, but we don’t see that this is the same Jesus who welcomed sinners, who was rejected, suffered and died at the hands of conventional power.

The Ascension is about the transition from Jesus to the church.  His mission becomes our mission.  That mission is not a quest for power and glory though, as it’s a mission that always takes us back to the cross where we find not glory but compassion, Jesus suffering with us and for us.  It’s a different way, one that runs in conflict with the prevailing ways and wisdom of the world, but it’s the only way that honors the crucified, risen and ascended Lord.

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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