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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ascension 05/30/2019

In all of the accounts of the resurrection, there is confusion among those who find the tomb empty, there’s confusion among those who then experience the presence of the Risen Christ. It’s not surprising of course as resurrection is way outside the boundaries of what would be considered normal and possible. It’s not surprising and apparently such confusion continued throughout the forty days Jesus was among his followers after his resurrection.

In today’s gospel reading from Luke though, it says that prior to his Ascension, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” which sounds like he was addressing the confusion. In the account from Acts on the other hand, just prior to his Ascension, the disciples were asking Jesus if this was the time he would restore the kingdom to Israel. That sounds like they were still confused, still stuck on the idea of the messiah being a political and military revolutionary who would get Israel out from being under the control of the Roman Empire.

In defense of the confusion of those early witnesses though, while Jesus was among them for those forty days, his presence wasn’t normal. He wasn’t a resuscitated corpse who picked up where he left off. His trial and crucifixion weren’t just a brief interruption in his ministry of preaching and healing. Instead, all of his appearances were rather mysterious as he would suddenly be among his followers, sometimes passing through walls or locked doors, and then, just as mysteriously, he would be gone only to show up unexpectedly somewhere else. It was all very strange and hard to understand and what we do with that which is strange and hard to understand is to try and fit it into categories that we can understand, hence the desire of the disciples to hang on to the idea of Jesus as a political, military messiah.

One would have to think that the Ascension would only have added to their confusion. That’s one reason I like what is depicted in the icon of the Ascension which is on the cover of the bulletin. There are lots of paintings of the Ascension, many of which I find pretty schlocky, with Jesus kind of soaring into heaven like Superman with those gathered below reaching up, seeming like they’re trying to grab on to his big toe or something. The icon though, portrays the confusion of the disciples pretty well as they seem to glance at each other trying to figure out what’s going on. They along with Mary and the two figures in white are really the focus of the icon more than Jesus and the two angels. Your eyes are drawn more to the group that dominates the lower half of the icon, a group that represents the church, a group that represents us, and none of them look very certain of what it happening.

That brings me back to the verse about opening the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures. The story of the Ascension is clearly one that challenges understanding. One option is to accept it literally, to say that with God all things are possible so that Jesus floated off into the clouds on the way to the right hand of the Father, never to be seen again. Another option is to dismiss its historical value and instead to rationalize it by trying to get inside the mind of the author looking for a metaphor of what Jesus’ Ascension is meant to represent.

Neither of those options is wrong; in the Lutheran tradition both are acceptable, both can represent faithful and helpful responses. Some of you know though, that I am about using imagination in interpreting scripture, allowing yourself to play a little bit with the words and the images in order to get at deeper meaning. It would seem to me that the Ascension texts are meant to be approached with imagination and wonder.

For the disciples, the future of Jesus’ mission, the mission that would become their mission, depended on their minds being imaginatively opened. The mission would fail if their minds weren’t opened to the impossible possibilities that Jesus represented. It would fail if they didn’t share his alternative vision of a world centered on grace and forgiveness and welcome. It would fail if they couldn’t imagine a God who became incarnate, both fully human and fully divine, a God who would live with them and would die, but be raised to new life and again become one with the Father. The mission would fail if their minds were not imaginatively opened. But Jesus opened their minds and they didn’t fail.

I think it’s important to note that the text doesn’t say that Jesus turned off their brains so that they could understand scripture, so that they could, in the immortal words of Archie Bunker, believe what no one in their right mind could possibly believe. The text says that he opened their minds. For them and for us I have to believe that such opening includes the ability to imagine possibilities beyond what logic and reason would allow. It doesn’t mean that we understand it all or that we fully understand the possibilities, only that our minds are not limited by logic and reason. We allow ourselves to imagine more.

Every week, whether we use the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, we confess that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. In light of what I just said, I’m not going to try and explain to you exactly what that means because…I don’t think I can and I don’t think I’m supposed to. Ascension, along with Creation, along with Incarnation, along with death and Resurrection, along with the coming of the Holy Spirit that we celebrate in ten days, Ascension is another image that stretches our understanding of God. An honest journey of faith involves engaging those images as we grow in our relationship with the risen and living Christ.

It can be frustrating. Living as we do in a world of information, we want answers; we want explanations that settle things but a life lived in relationship with God can be short on certainty. Maybe some of the Ascension paintings that I don’t particularly like aren’t so bad after all as those on the ground are depicted as grasping for something just out of reach and that’s what a journey of faith can feel like sometimes. When it comes to God, understanding is elusive; we do better to focus on the images and the relationship they lead to.

The disciples provide a good example. With their minds imaginatively opened, Jesus’ disciples moved from the Ascension and back into ministry. Despite their confusion they returned to Jerusalem. Jesus as they had known him was out of reach, but they were ready to stretch, ready to question and doubt, ready to learn and discover, ready to attend to and care for those with whom they came into contact. In awe and wonder they were ready to worship and proclaim the good news of a mysterious God. Moved and inspired by the Holy Spirit they would tell stories of Incarnation, stories of death and Resurrection and stories of Ascension. In doing so, they too would open minds to new possibilities and to new life.

The message and the mission haven’t changed. Perhaps more than ever, there are minds waiting to be opened.

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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