Why Celebrate Ascension Sunday?(Ps. 93; Eph. 1:15-23; Lk. 24:44-53)
Today is Ascension Sunday, when the Easter season officially comes to an end. Most Baptists I know don’t know what to make of Ascension Sunday or, really, of Jesus’ ascension. Of course, most of us are aware that the New Testament says that this thing “happened,” and, it’s not that we can’t believe it, but most of us aren’t sure what significance it might have, other than marking the point at which Jesus’ disciples didn’t see him physically any more – which happened nearly two millennia ago. Is Ascension Sunday simply a way of marking the end of Jesus’ earthly presence with his disciples a long time ago?
While there’s no doubt that the Ascension certainly is that, both the Gospel and Epistle Lessons for the morning treasure the ascension as more than that. It wasn’t just the end of something, it was the beginning. On the one hand, the Ascension is the completion of Jesus’ Resurrection. This time he is raised into God’s direct presence. On the other hand, the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost marks the initiation of the Mission of God to the world. The two days are complementary: one is a “going,” one is a “coming.” Jesus’ goes, the Spirit comes. The common point of this coming and going is God. Jesus goes to God, the Spirit comes from God. The Ascension is not simply about Jesus, but about God. To think of the Ascension, we need to think of God.
That’s one reason why I wanted us to consider Psalm 93, with its robust statement of the eternal sovereignty of God. Psalm 93 begins what Old Testament scholars call the Enthronement Psalms (Psalms 93, 95-99) that speak of God’s reign on earth as the ruler of all. The psalm begins:
The LORD reigns, robed in majesty; The LORD is robed, girded in strength…
The Enthronement Psalms are not only concerned to celebrate God’s reign somewhere “out there” in heaven, but here in our flesh and blood world. Psalm 93 extols this great God for being the one who has firmly established the world in which human beings live, and who continues to govern the world with trustworthiness.
The psalmists knew full well, however, that the world does not easily yield to the rule of God, nor does God’s rule look like it’s firmly established. Rather this world is, frequently, a place in which chaos and unruliness reign supreme – or seem to.
The floods (mighty rivers) have raised up, O LORD, The floods have lifted up their voice; the floods raise up their roaring…(v. 3)
The metaphor of water, floods, rivers, the sea, is quite often, the biblical writers’ favourite way of thinking and talking about the chaos that threatens to wash out our lives. All of us who have lived any time at all past a protected childhood realize in horror the experience of chaos and tumult in life. There are wars, there are national and domestic catastrophes, there is disease, there is unemployment, and a list of dozens of other threats to our wellbeing in this world that God has supposedly firmly established. As I say, there is no one who hasn’t been buffeted by such chaos and swallowed its waters down into our lungs, to emerge hacking, coughing and panic-stricken. Some of us here this morning have, no doubt, experienced such chaos during this past week; others, no doubt, will in the coming week. We know that’s what life is like.
And yet. The Psalmist makes bold to give voice to another thought – a faith-filled thought – a counter-intuitive thought, in the face of life’s chaos:
More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, More majestic than the waves of the sea, (Most) majestic on high is the LORD! (v. 4)
As debilitating as chaos is, God’s might and majesty are greater, says the Psalmist. God’s glory silences the thunder of the mightiest waves of chaos, defeat, and destruction. It is not that God is so naïve about the world as to think that all chaos is taken away (nor should we be). No, the floods still rise up, thunder, and roar, and they are mighty. Nonetheless, the voice of faith affirms that, in the midst of all the chaos, God’s presence, peace, and stability is to be trusted, and is more powerful in the end of the day than the chaos. The psalmist confesses, in the midst of all of life’s storm, that God’s decrees are sure. The person and purposes of God are trustworthy – they will hold, not only the natural world, but us, through whatever the chaos brings. In the words of Moses, from Deuteronomy 33: “The Eternal God is our resting place, and underneath are the everlasting arms…” The 93rd Psalm, then, is an audacious statement that flies in the face of the experience of chaos and destruction. This sacred singer holds steadfastly and stubbornly to the reality of God’s good reign in this world. God, not chaos, is sovereign. Something to think about in our time and season.
I have stressed this simple point because, when the disciples saw Jesus go from them, they could have been devastated, but they trusted that he did not simply go off into the air, but was elevated to sovereignty at the right hand of the eternal, almighty God of Psalm 93. The reality of all the imagery of Jesus’ “ascension” (i.e., “going up”) is that Jesus is now exalted to where God is, and from standpoint of the ancient world that’s “up.” It isn’t literal for us, but it points to the fact that a disciple’s experience of Jesus now is an experience of God. God in Jesus empowers Jesus’ own people.
Our passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians circulated some time before Luke’s Gospel, and already assumed Jesus’ ascension as the “gate” through which he passed into God’s direct presence and authority. The word-pictures here point to the fact that the God we know in Jesus is the God we know from Psalm 93 – the sovereign, eternal God who has created the world and who holds us firmly even in the midst of a chaotic experience of life.
Here in this passage we find the Church expressly called the Body of Christ. Many of us are used to hearing the Church referred to in this way, but it was a new thing when Ephesians was published. After Jesus’ Ascension the Church is called the Body of Christ. Although Jesus’ physical body is gone from the world, in another sense, it is still here. The Church is now Christ’s very physical presence in the world. The Church is, in its way, a continuation of the Incarnation. The church is the way in which God’s will and way continues to be embedded in this world. The Church is intended to be no less than that!
Most of Ephesians 1 is a prayer in which the writer is confident of God’s power, and gives thanks that these Christian folk have been given the power of God. It says, this power was “put to work” (or “made practical”) in Christ. This power of God, which is, theoretically, for “wisdom and revelation” is that very power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at the right hand of God to make practical and useful the empowerment of the Body of Christ in its world. We are intended to be the hands, the feet, the body of Christ in the world. No less. So, Ascension Sunday does not only celebrate the sovereignty of the chaos-conquering God with Psalm 93; Ascension Sunday also celebrates the Church as the Body of Christ that exists in the world as the practical continuation of Christ’s message, mission, and very presence of hope and freedom in it in Ephesians 1 (and other places).
Our Gospel Lesson this morning was written by Luke some 50-60 years after Jesus’ ascension to answer an important question for communities of faith that no longer have the physical Jesus with them. Can the presence of Jesus be real for them (and us) without his physical presence? Luke says, “Yes.” The first way is found in that odd story of Jesus wanting to be touched (and so touching the disciples in return) and eat with them in order to show his reality. In the story on the Emmaus road (just previous), the presence of Jesus was intermittent (“Their eyes were opened and they knew him, and he ceased to be seen of them”). Here we have the opposite affirmation. Jesus’ presence is dependable, practical, and real in a reassuring human touch and in the common hospitality shared around a table (both the Lord’s supper and other meals together). This is a way the Risen Christ is truly present (as v. 39 has it, “…see that it is I myself…” or, in less grammatical, if more familiar terms, “It’s really me.”) And he’s as real that way now as in Luke’s day. So Jesus is real in human touch and common hospitality in his name.
Verses 44-49 points to the second way communities of disciples experience the reality of Jesus’ presence. This paragraph speaks of the necessity for communities to read and interpret the Bible as Christian scripture in creative ways for their own times. The Christian scriptures are not only relics through which we may unearth a lost past. The scriptures are not only witnesses to what was true long ago, but what remains true now in our faithfulness to their principles and creativity in their application today. This happens in creative teaching, preaching, and action.
When I mention “action,” this points to the third way in which contemporary communities of faith may know the reality of Jesus’ presence. Verse 49 reads:
…See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.
“Being clothed with power from on high” refers, primarily, to what happened at Pentecost. The community of faith may know the presence of Jesus by the presence and power of the Spirit. This Spirit is known, I think, by the adventurous action of communities of faith in following the Spirit of Jesus “outside the box,” more than in pious talk, in acts internal to the community, or in an attitude of negativity toward the world at every turn.
Jesus counselled disciples, at the first, to wait in Jerusalem (at home) until they were clothed with this power. While it may be argued that the whole Body of Christ has been clothed with power from on high since Pentecost, I also think it’s legitimate that local communities still must, from time to time, wait to be clothed with power from on high. Sometimes that can give hope to those of us in small communities when we cannot see where things are headed. But this waiting must lead to action in the Spirit. Jesus is known in the shared adventure of life in the Spirit of Christ.
At the end we read that the disciples went back to Jerusalem with great joy after Jesus’ ascension. We might have thought they’d have been sad, but, again, remember, this wasn’t written for the apostles, this was written for folks like us who have never known Jesus in the flesh. We may go back to our Jerusalem with joy because we know that the risen Jesus is really present with us in our community. We can know that, although his earthly ministry ended, this was not but the close of one chapter and the beginning of another. As Jesus birth had been good news of great joy, so his going opened up the way for the Spirit to come and the community of faith to go forward, in joy, to love the world as God did.
So, let us remember today that Jesus’ ascension witnesses to us of God’s power to interrupt the chaos that threatens to engulf us, and sends us back, not only to worship with joy, but to our Jerusalem to work as the very Body of the Risen and Ascended Christ. And that’s a cause for great celebration!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.