Ascension

In the Church Lectionary, there is a note which says: “The nine days after Ascension until the Eve of Pentecost are observed as days of prayer and preparation for the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.” What a shame! What a shame that we give only one day’s attention to the supreme climax of the story of the Incarnation, to the pivotal moment when the disciples finally recognise who Jesus is. This story is the climax of Luke’s gospel and the hinge which links it to the momentous events that he records in Acts. And the Church gives it one day. This morning, let’s take time to look a little more closely at the story.

To begin at the beginning. This is exactly what our reading does not do. It is only the end of the narrative of the events which apparently all happen on the first day of the Resurrection. Chapter 24 begins on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, when the women visit the tomb, receive the message and are disbelieved. Then Peter runs to the tomb, goes away thinking, and, at some point in the same day, Jesus appears to him. Again on the same day, two disciples talk with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and after realising who he is, return to Jerusalem with their news. Jesus then appears to them all “while they were still talking about this”. It is at this point that our reading begins – right in the middle of Easter Day. Yet how far the celebrations are apart! It is as though the Ascension is a separate event, not part of the narrative of the Resurrection. But it is. It is the time when Jesus is utterly revealed as God. The disciples’ minds are opened to the truth, the sum total of all that they have experienced during his ministry.

The impact of this moment is extraordinary. The Greek word translated as “opened” has the same sense as the opening of the birth canal when a child is born. It is a moment of absolute change from one reality to another. And it is more than just their minds that are opened. One commentator says: “ ‘Their minds’, is the same term a psychologist might use for a “gestalt experience”; an understanding that bursts upon the mind in such depth as to involve the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual being. It is something that happens when the sum of one’s life experience suddenly focuses on an instant.” Perhaps the Ascension is accorded little time simply because it happens in an instant? But it is an experience like many events recorded in the bible, where suddenly the participants are overwhelmed by the absolute presence of God. Think of Moses or Isaiah, for instance. Such moments last only an instant because we are not able to bear the full experience of God’s glory and power for long. They are always moments from which a new understanding and a new mission are received. God does not merely appear. He opens up new possibilities which must be acted on though new understanding. The command is “go and do” – don’t just stand there being awestruck, although awe and reverence are also central to the experience, enabling the participants to recognise and acknowledge what is happening. As living followers of Christ, do we pay enough attention to such mind-opening moments in our lives? Do we pay them awe and reverence? And most important, do we go and do what we have been told to do?

The idea of going is important in this reading too. The next thing that Jesus does is to lead his disciples out. The verb Luke uses is the same as appears in the Septuagint to describe God's leading the people from Egyptian slavery in the Exodus. Not only is Jesus is about to complete his exodus to his Father, but he is leading his disciples to an entirely new world. And like Moses, he will leave them there and they will carry out his mission without his immediate presence. The links to the Old Testament narrative are strong in this ending of Luke’s gospel and in the beginning of Acts, which takes up the story with the same event. Perhaps we often miss the close connection between these two sections of Luke’s “orderly account” because John’s gospel comes, somewhat arbitrarily in my view, between them? Taking the two accounts of Ascension together, we find that it is full of references to the Hebrew scriptures and, most strikingly, to the signs of God’s presence. The mountain location, the concealing cloud, the appearance of those in white (God’s colour) and the ascent itself, pointing, in Hebrew cosmology, to the place of God above the dome of the firmament. Luke intends his readers to relate all the previous experiences of God with the fact that these are now visible in Jesus himself. The great narrative of the coming of the Messiah has reached a climax at this moment. Jesus ascends to his place, God’s place. The word is “ouranos” - the vaulted expanse of the sky with all things visible in it the universe ... the seat of order of things eternal and consummately perfect where God dwells and other heavenly beings.” There is no doubt any more. Jesus is God – period, as the Americans like to say.

But the story does not, of course, come to a full stop. Far from it. Luke not only links back to the past but forward to the future. The whole impetus of the reading is about what the disciples are going to go and do with this new knowledge. Jesus is trusting them to be his body now on earth and empowering them to act as he would act. He is gifting them with the power to change one world into another. They will be completely transformed by this. The image is wonderful and awesome in itself. The two words for clothed with power literally mean to be covered head to toe with the abundant power of the Holy Spirit. And the word for power is of course “dynamos”. As one commentator put it: “clothed with dynamite”. I wonder what the church would look like today if we opened our minds and became “clothed with dynamite? Maybe we’ll find out next Sunday. For God’s processes are never static. The Ascension and Pentecost are not just historic events. They are a living process by which individuals and fellowships and the world are utterly transformed.

Finally, Jesus is giving them his blessing as he ascends. This is important. He doesn’t bless them and go. He blesses them as part of his return to his true place. He moves from the world of time to the reality of eternity and as he does so, he is blessing and continues eternally to bless us all, so that we may know, as the epistle says, “the fullness of him who fills all”. Far from the Ascension depriving us of Jesus’ presence, it completes it in us continually.

But that is not the end either. Luke completes his gospel with the moment when, for the first and only time in it, the disciples worship Jesus as God. At this pivotal moment between the old and the new worlds, the disciples are filled with joy. And not just any joy – the word “chara” means “the cause or occasion of joy of persons who are one's joy”. Jesus is their joy. I wish I could play you  my cd of Finzi’s setting of “My Spirit sang all day”, which ends with a great crescendo of “Thou art my joy”. Such was the experience of the disciples and their spirits continued to sing all day in the Temple, witnessing and giving thanks to God.

Exciting events are to follow – and the rest of the story is not, as the saying is, “history. It is life. Life now, for all of us. Life which the Ascension fills eternally with the fullness of knowledge, power, blessing and joy. Thanks be to God.

NOTES:

ACTS

Verses 9-11: For direct verbal echoes, see 2 Kings 2:9-13 (Elijah’s ascension) and Sirach 48:9, 12. While only Luke tells us the story of the Ascension, there are other possible traces of the tradition of the Ascension in Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Timothy 3:16; John 20:17; Epistle of Barnabas 15:9

Verse 12: “a sabbath day’s journey”: i.e. 1 km (half a mile).

"Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed." Over to you. Proclaim these things, don't merely "teach" them. Declare them. Announce them. Make them actual. Over to you.

You are the called-into-court-sworn-witnesses of these things. Get ready to testify to the truth and nothing but the truth. Over to you.

And as if to emphasize that this blessing of his disciples has not been finished - is still on-going - Luke tells us that:

While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.
Luke 24:51

Might it not be that even in heaven Jesus-now-resurrected is still blessing his disciples?

EPHESIANS

Verse 20: “in Christ”: This phrase occurs frequently throughout this letter in contexts referring to the unity of Jews and Gentiles (e.g. 1:4; 2:13; 3:11). It speaks of Paul’s sense of the Christian community, i.e. the fellowship of those whose fellowship in Christ gives them mutual benefits and sets common standards.

Verse 23: “the fullness of him who fills all”: The Greek is difficult. Perhaps Christ is the source and goal of the body’s growth, as described in 4:15-16. “Who fills all” can be translated as “who is being filled with all”. Thus several Patristic authors (Origen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Chrysostom) read this; they interpreted it as meaning that all things created contribute to the fullness of Christ. However, Old Testament usage would favour the active sense (as in the NRSV) when speaking of God: in Jeremiah 23:24, Yahweh says through the prophet: “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”. See also Ezekiel 43:5.

LUKE

It is possibly still Easter Day. V. 13 begins “On that same day ...”

Verse 50: “led them out”: The verb Luke uses is the same as appears in the Septuagint translation to describe God's leading the people from Egyptian slavery in the Exodus. Jesus is about to complete his exodus to his Father.

Verse 52: “they worshipped him”: The christological high point of vv. 36-53, indeed of the entire Gospel, has been reached, for this is the first and only time that Luke says that the disciples worship Jesus. Luke's christology is close to that of John 20:28.

45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,

He opened their minds

This is an implied spiritual gift that Jesus gave to his disciples prior to departing this earth. The term for opening is the same as for a baby passing through the birth canal. “Their minds,” is the same term a psychologist might use for a “gestalt experience”; an understanding that bursts upon the mind in such depth as to involve the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual being. It is something that happens when the sum of one’s life experience suddenly focuses on an instant.

We need not struggle for this experience because it is God-given. It is a “charis,” a spiritual blessing that one receives through prayer and relationship with God as well as submitting one’s life to God’s will.

I have learned from every “opening moment” of my life, that each one preceding it was quite simply a partial experience on the way to a fuller understanding of a God that I can never fathom. It is like climbing a mountain comprised of a series of steppes, each tabletop opening on to a grander vista and more pristine air, the journey itself being all a part of the destination.

49 “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Clothed in dynamite

The two words for clothed with power literally means to be covered head to toe with the abundant power [dunamis] of the Holy Spirt.

diïstēmi – to separate or put apart (as well as go away)

ouranos - the vaulted expanse of the sky with all things visible in it the universe ... the seat of order of things eternal and consummately perfect where God dwells and other heavenly beings

chara - the cause or occasion of joy of persons who are one's joy

dynamis – miraculous power, heavenly beings