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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ascension 05/29/2014

“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Those are the words we will say in a few minutes as we say the Apostles’ Creed but it really doesn’t matter which creed we use, the words are pretty much identical, words that are based on the readings we just heard. That’s our confession of faith, but then there’s always the question of whether we’re expected to take the Ascension story literally or if it’s an imaginative interpretation intended to convey some theological truth. I think you know which way I lean on that but I would adapt a quote about the Christmas story that I found in a Christian Century blog and adapt it to this one and say that everything about the Ascension story is true…even the parts that aren’t.

To me that means it doesn’t really matter if you believe that the disciples actually saw Jesus bodily ascend into the clouds kind of like you see him on the cover of the bulletin, or if you see the story as a way to explain the fact that Jesus was no longer physically present with the disciples. What matters is what the story means or more specifically, what matters is the truth it reveals to us about Jesus.

Clearly, those who formulated the creeds felt that the Ascension was important to mention because there are many other details of Jesus’ life that aren’t mentioned. On the other hand, the biblical witness is slimmer. The story of the Ascension isn’t in all the gospels; it’s is only told in the verses we just heard from Luke and Acts as well as at the end of the longer version of Mark, an ending which is not included in the majority of manuscripts. But…the versions in Luke and Acts are not the same even though they are presumably written by the same person. That’s a clue that the author is more concerned with telling us something about the Ascension than he is with recording exactly what happened. The theology of the event trumps its historicity, so maybe the best way to get at it is to say that the intent of story of the Ascension is to provide us with the truth about Jesus…now.

The essence of that truth is the conviction that Jesus is now exalted and glorified and enthroned with the Father. Despite the limited gospel mention of the Ascension, Jesus’ exaltation and glorification is a conviction that is prevalent throughout the New Testament. The biblical witness to that is substantial with today’s verses from Ephesians being just one example, testifying as they do to Christ being raised from the dead and seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, all of that being figurative language, not literal or geographical. The Ascension story is also about glorification and exaltation. The beauty of it though, is that the image of Jesus rising into the clouds conveys this truth of exaltation very clearly; it creates an image and understanding of who Jesus is now, an image that that stays with us and says more to us than theological explanations of terms like exalted and glorified would do.

Another way to get at this is to say that the Ascension puts an exclamation point on the story of Jesus. Jesus’ mission, if you will, was to make God known, to make God’s nature and God’s ways known in as clear a fashion as possible. Jesus didn’t represent the first revelation of God by any means. The Old Testament gives witness to a variety of experiences with God, a variety of images of God, some very gracious, others more demanding and judgmental. The testimony is inconsistent which isn’t surprising based on the number of authors involved never mind the fact that the character of God is by nature complex. We’re naïve if we think we can or even should be able to entirely comprehend God.

But the God we worship, while mysterious, is also a God who wants to be known; hence, the incarnation. The character of God is complex but God becoming flesh in Jesus was God’s way of saying this is what you need to know. What Jesus taught and the example of his life, a life of love and sacrifice, a life of forgiveness and grace represents what we need to know about the God we worship. Then, understanding Jesus as ascended to the Father and thus exalted and glorified is a way to say “This is most certainly true!” You can’t know all there is to know, but in and through Jesus you know enough. You know enough to be the people of God, you know enough to be the people God would have you be.

That’s the other aspect of this story. It’s the beginning of the story of what’s next. In the story Luke tells, the two men in white don’t provide much in the way of comfort to the disciples as Jesus disappears from them but instead, more or less echoing the two men in white at the empty tomb, they urge them to get on with it; just gazing into heaven after Jesus isn’t going to get it done.

What the Ascension does is to tell the disciples that what has been revealed to them about Jesus is true; it’s the truth about the nature of God and now it is their job to witness to that truth. The mission of Jesus is now their mission so while this does mark the end of one part of the story, for those gathered disciples, it is the beginning of another dramatic story. Some of that story is told in the book of Acts, portions of which we have heard throughout this Easter season, but Acts isn’t the end either. It’s a story that has continued to be written and has continued to be told sometimes in ways that haven’t been very helpful but still the story goes on. Now though, in our time we are both participants in and tellers of this story; it is now our job to get it right.

The story of the Ascension is another example of the imaginative way the writers of the gospel conveyed theological truth. Everything about the story is true…even the parts that aren’t.

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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