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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ascension 5/14/2015

Did Jesus really float off into the clouds in the presence of his disciples or… is this another example of Luke creating an imaginative and memorable story intended as something of an exclamation point, exalting Jesus and placing him in the mysterious presence of God? My best guess would be that it’s probably some combination of the two. Clearly there is symbolic stuff going on with some of Luke’s details, for example, Jesus’ presence with the disciples for forty days after the Resurrection; forty is one of those biblical numbers that shows up a lot including Jesus’ forty day temptation in the wilderness so forty isn’t just a random number, it means something. The clouds are another symbolic detail as they bring back memories of earlier events in Jesus’ life, events like his baptism and the Transfiguration. It’s safe to say that the inclusion of details like this is not accidental on Luke’s part; as always he does have a theological agenda and he uses imaginative ways to convey that agenda.

On the other hand, at some point after the resurrection and after some resurrection appearances it stopped. Jesus was no longer among his followers in any physical way, so something happened. For obvious reasons there is an element of mystery about it resulting in inconsistencies in how the event is remembered; for example in some of the accounts it seems as if the Resurrection and the Ascension are essentially one event; then there are some Christian traditions that extend the period the Risen Christ was around to much more than Luke’s 40 days, one has it at 18 months, another 12 years.

Scholars debate these things, but in light of such discrepancies it’s probably best not to get too hung up on details, better to just settle on the fact that something happened. It could have been something dramatic, more likely it was hidden, known only to Jesus and the Father. All we can really say though is that something happened to remove Jesus as an earthly, physical presence. From there is does belong to the realm of mystery.

However it is understood, the Ascension is about Jesus. Our concern though isn’t with a reconstruction of history; our concern is with what the Ascension says about Jesus and the short answer to that is that the story exalts Jesus and places him at the right hand of the Father which is an important piece of Trinitarian theology; it’s what we confess in the creed every week. As part of Luke’s theological agenda it says that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar or anyone else.

Having acknowledged that exaltation, the question then shifts in our direction asking what the Ascension says to us. The short answer to that is that as his followers still living in a world that continues to struggle against the forces of sin and evil, we know that we are led by one who already sits enthroned, above all other powers, one who has already revealed the ultimate victory.

Having answered that question, we are then faced with the question of the angel: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” In the story the question is addressed to that gathering of followers, but in reality it’s addressed to all of us when we forget that our faith isn’t about gazing into heaven. It isn’t about gazing into heaven waiting for Jesus to come back nor is it about gazing into heaven merely longing for the heavenly hereafter. The angel serves as a reminder to the disciples of Jesus’ earlier words to them, “You will be my witnesses. You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The Ascension always reminds me of the story I’ve told before of Jesus back in heaven following the Ascension with the angels gathered around him as he tells them about all that had happened during his time on earth, the good times and the bad, including his trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

When he was done, one of the angels asked, “What happens now? What happens now that you’re back here?”

Jesus said, “Well, I left behind a small group of faithful men and women. They will tell my story. They will express the love that I shared with them. They will spread the good news of the kingdom I talked about.”

“That sounds good,” the angel said. “But what if they fail? What if it doesn’t work? What if they’re not up to it? What’s the plan then?”

Jesus looked at the angel and said, “There is no other plan.”

There is no other plan. You will be my witnesses. That’s it. These days it’s easy to conclude that the plan isn’t working as pretty much across the board the number of people involved in church is smaller. That was one of the headline stories just this past Tuesday; the number of people in the United States identifying themselves as Christian continues to decline. Because of that, it can be tempting to stray from the mission “to be my witnesses” and instead to just reach for the latest gimmick or marketing strategy guaranteed to grow your congregation. Those gimmicks and strategies can have validity, but only if they stay true to the mission.

To be Jesus’ witnesses means that however we do it, we continue to proclaim what he proclaimed, which is an alternative kingdom, an upside down kingdom where the poor are lifted up and the rich are made empty, a kingdom where strangers are welcome, where those thought to be unclean for whatever reason are made clean by what Jesus has done for us, where God’s undeserved grace is available to everyone, where the last worker hired gets the same wage as the one who worked all day. It’s a kingdom that does come with responsibilities, we don’t want to forget that either; Jesus talked about the responsibilities and but they are pretty simple to remember; love God and love your neighbor in a neighborhood that is pretty large. That’s it. The responsibilities and the mission are easy to remember but not always so easy to do.

It is good that we mark this day of Ascension because the story we tell each year, beginning with Advent and Christmas and then ending with Pentecost, isn’t complete without it. Every year the Christmas gospel from John is “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” What the Ascension symbolically does is to take us back to that starting point, reemphasizing the identity of Jesus as the revelation of God himself. That return though reminds us that the mission has now shifted to us, his followers. There is work to be done. We’re part of the plan, and there is no other.

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
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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