May 16, 2010
Commentary by Bruce G.Epperly
See also: [Year C Archive]
“What shall we say as moderate and progressive Christians about Jesus’ ascension?” The Ascension narrative raises an unspoken, but significant, question “What shall we do about the Risen Jesus?” The Ascension, as a literary device, serves to get Jesus “off stage” and let the disciples get on with the work of the church. Everything in the post-resurrection narratives is foreshadowing a time in which the disciples will move from followers to leaders, shaping the future of Christ’s mission. It seems that spiritual leaders, for example, Gautama Buddha, must depart to make room for the further spiritual adventures of their followers. The same is true for Jesus’ departure. The imaginative Christian is challenged to ponder the possibility that, apart from the Ascension, the Risen Jesus might live forever in earthly form or grow old and die like the rest of us. Jesus needs to intentionally step out of the way, like every good parent, for his followers to claim their maturity as spiritual leaders.
The Ascension of Jesus is a curious event for persons who no longer see themselves as living in three-story universe – heaven above, earth in the middle, and Sheol (the land of the dead) below. Literal images of Jesus ascending and later descending from the clouds perpetuate a world view that post-modern persons can no longer accept. While we don’t need to accept without question Bultmann’s de-mythologizing project, post-modern, progressive, and moderate Christians don’t need to worry about the mechanics or geography of Ascension. Rather, we can see the Ascension as an invitation to a wider world vision and faith perspective among those who follow Jesus.
The Ascension as a “farewell” story points to Jesus’ utter non-competitiveness and his affirmation of our ability to shape his future message. John’s gospel reports that Jesus promised his disciples that they would be able to do “greater things” than he in the emerging life of the church. Jesus neither micromanages nor co-depends his followers, but leaves the future in their hands. While they will always be influenced by Jesus message and energetic field of force, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the creative power of the Parent, the disciples are given the freedom to creatively transform Jesus’ message in future generations. Indeed, we are part of that ongoing process of creative transformation. In our post-modern pluralistic age, it’s up to us to shape the Christianity of the future.
The Ascension in Acts notes, at least, two important spiritual truths for Christians then and now. First, the future is open. Since we do not know when the realm of God will be fully embodied, our calling is to be partners in bringing God’s wisdom and justice “to earth as it is in heaven.” Second, when the angels admonish the disciples not to “look at heaven,” they are reminding them – and us –that our work is here on earth. We don’t need to look ahead to a Second Coming, if the Spirit is working in our lives. If God is truly omnipresent, we are always in the presence of God, receiving guidance, insight, and challenge. This world is holy and sufficient just as it is, and in light of God’s future movements within us and the world.
Ascension Christians look upward to find perspective for living holy lives today. We don’t need to look ahead to the afterlife: the Spirit of Christ is our companion right here, whether in the everyday tasks of life or in our quest for justice and peace. If we are faithful to God’s calling today, we can embrace God’s future beyond this lifetime. As singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer proclaims in her “Holy as a Day is Spent”:
Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Showerheads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With a bit of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent
Holy is the busy street
And cars that boom with passion’s beat
And the check out girl, Counting change
And the hands that shook my hands today
Hymns of geese fly overhead
And stretch their wings like their parents did
Blessed be the dog
That runs in her sleep
To catch that wild and elusive thing
Holy is a familiar room and the quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can
I’m letting go of all I fear
Like autumn leaves of earth and air
For summer came and summer went
As holy as a day is spent
Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can
The empty page, the open book
Redemption everywhere I look
Unknowingly we slow our pace
In the shade of unexpected grace
With grateful smiles and sad lament
As holy as a day is spent
And morning light sings “providence”
As holy as a day is spent
~Carrie Newcomer, “A Gathering of Spirits"
This is Ascension living, encountering God in events small and large as we awaken to our role as God’s partners in bringing beauty to life. We don’t need a future Second Coming if divine wholeness/holiness is coming to us with every breath.
Psalm 47 grounds praise in the centrality of God’s work in the world. God is “sovereign,” that is, God is the essential reality that guides our lives and the universe. Lived in awareness of God’s transformative power, all things are seen as they are – to quote William Blake – “infinite” in their revelation of divine wisdom and energy.
In Ephesians, Paul prays that this new group of Christians receive a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that they will have authentic hope and experience divine abundance moving through their lives. God’s power is immeasurable, but our awareness shapes how much of that power we can experience in our lives. As church, we are Christ’s “body, the fullness of Christ who fills all in all.” The power of God moving through all things invites us to ask: Are we expecting too little of God’s power in the church? Are we expecting too little of ourselves, even though Jesus promised that we would be able to do “greater things?” While we may chuckle at the grandiose claims of some Pentecostal Christians, we must admit that they don’t lack for belief; they don’t let mountains get in their ways, but believe that God can make a way where there is no way.
Luke’s gospel speaks about being “clothed in power from on high” and describes a scene in which Jesus blesses his followers. Once more, this passage is not about physical location: “on high” refers to God’s gifts in our lives. If God is omnipresent, then all the energy, wisdom, and insight we need is already here. This is true for us, for our church, and all humankind. We don’t have to invoke an energy or power from somewhere else, when God is always moving in our lives.
Luke reveals the transforming power of blessing: when we bless, or praise God, we awaken to the radical interdependence of life and the divine power moving through all life. Blessing connects, transforms, and enlightens, both the giver and receiver. Blessing enables God’s power to take new and more effective forms in our lives and in the world.
In light of the Ascension, we are asked to embrace a larger perspective on our lives and the church. We are called to experience our lives in relation to an expansive universe that supports our deepest needs. As Christians, we need to be realistic and embrace the concrete limitations of life, but we don’t need to think small, for – as the philosopher Whitehead suggests – the limitations give birth to possibilities. Ascension invites us to claim and live out our vocation as God’s partners in transforming the world and the faith we affirm.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure:41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy:The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry (with Katherine Epperly). This book was just selected Book of the Year byt the Academy of Parish Clergy. He may be contacted for speaking engagements, retreats, and workshops.
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