A sermon for Ascension.
Here’s a question: What do we know about God today that we didn’t know six months ago?
Isn’t this a great question? My dad came home from Sunday school once, a long time ago, all excited, and said “We had the greatest class today! We had a guest teacher, and she asked us … ‘What do you know about God today that you didn’t know six months ago?’”
There’s a lot in that question: the reminder that God is alive; and also truly beyond our comprehension, “wholly other” some people say, so of course we are bound to be learning new things about God all the time as our minds open up to the transcendent reality of God; and the expectation that we are in an ongoing relationship with God, that is developing the way all relationships do … that question is an expectation and a reminder, that we are always coming to know God … it turns one of those verses we just read into a question … what is the gift of that spirit of wisdom and revelation doing in your life as you come to know God … ?
This Sunday, this Seventh Sunday of Easter, my answer to that question involves the Ascension.
The Feast of the Ascension was actually Thursday. Forty days after Easter. We got that from the Acts reading – which is a recap of the story of the Ascension told at the end of Luke’s gospel. These days, we are more likely to bump the Ascension to the following Sunday, if we pay attention to it in church at all, which we might not …
… because the Ascension suffers a little from neglect by modern theologians and the church – even from the ancient ones, for that matter, although there are many references to it, or that depend on it, in the New Testament; like our Ephesians text, that tells us God “raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” And made him the head of the church, the Body of Christ. That’s a reference to Ascension.
It’s a slightly oblique one, actually, because technically, the author of Ephesians isn’t talking about the “going up” of “ascension,” but about the “sitting down” of what theologians might call “session,” the seating of Jesus Christ “at God’s right hand,” the place from which Jesus exercises all that power that far exceeds all the other earthly powers – but obviously, Jesus had to get there before he could sit there, so the ascension is in there, the power lifting behind Jesus’s heavenly Lordship.
While we’re on that topic, here’s a joke: A little girl gets in the car after Sunday school and says, all excited, “Mom, Dad, we learned, that God made EVERYTHING, the heavens and the earth and everything …” as they’re nodding “AND that he did it with his left hand!” So they say – “oh … really?” and little girl says, “Yes, because Jesus was sitting on his right hand.”
They must have been working on the Apostles’ Creed that day in Sunday school, eh?
So, if we laugh at that joke, it’s because we get that the little girl is thinking terribly concretely, and also because we know that we don’t mean the articles of our faith that concretely. We don’t think Jesus is sitting on God’s right hand the way I might have tried to sit on my little brother’s right hand in the back seat of the Chevy on our way to church on a Sunday morning to keep him from tickling me. We don’t even think God HAS a right hand, not like THAT. It’s something we say, a figure of speech, a personification.
If anyone pressed us – if anyone said to us, “well, what does it mean to you, then, that Jesus “ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God?” – we might say something like “it’s symbolic” or “it’s a metaphor” – many of us say that a lot. Then, if our rude conversation partner, our precocious grandchild, or our atheist philosopher friend, or whoever keeps on about what precisely do we mean by that, we would probably come up with some words like “it means Jesus, the Word made flesh, has a place of exalted honor in the presence of God, the highest possible” or maybe even just “it means Jesus is in heaven with God.”
Would we say more than that? Should we? … The theology of the ascension can feel a little optional these days. We didn’t spend much time on it in seminary. Not many of us read through the whole book of confessions, and even if we do, once we get past the Westminister Longer Catechism and its brief references to how Christ is exalted “in our nature,” we won’t read much about it – the Confession of 1967 doesn’t mention it at all.
It’s easy to give in to the temptation to think of the ascension as a concrete-thinking, literal-minded hold-over from late medieval times, when artists liked to depict it as Jesus’s disappearing feet, with the astonished apostles all standing around looking up as soles of Jesus’ feet vanish into the cloud that is – again, symbolically – the artists’ visual representation of the presence of God.
We could say that the Ascension is a way we talk about Jesus being Lord, about Jesus having power – the real power, the ultimate power – that Jesus rules time and space from that lofty position at the right hand of God.
And that power probably does matter to us, to some of us especially.
I read this week on the internet, in the course of searching for discussions of the Ascension, that the house church in China finds this doctrine of special personal relevance – The Chinese house church faces a frankly hostile political climate, and restrictions on their activities are tightening. “Ascension theology” is especially relevant, because knowing that humanity, human nature, in the person of Christ, is even now enthroned with God in “the heavenly places,” as Ephesians describes it, strengthens these Chinese Christians to endure and to thrive in that hostile climate. King Jesus has power, and the knowledge of that power is empowering to the members of Christ’s body here on earth. We think of these Chinese Christians as “witnesses to Christ,” they think of themselves that way, and they credit this “Ascension power” with energizing and sustaining that witness.
We don’t have to be experiencing persecution to appreciate that kind of power, though. I was eager to spend time on this text from Ephesians, because I have a story, a personal one, about that –
As people who have grown up in the church often do, have stories about Bible verses or Bible passages – because these texts become part of our lives – and I did grow up in the church, as my parents had, and their parents … and the churches they had grown up in were the biblicist kind, the Mennonite Brethren and the Southern Baptists, so the Bible was simply an integral part of our everyday life, and it wouldn’t be strange for me to walk into my mom’s room and see her sitting on the bed in the morning with a Bible and a concordance and other books all spread out around her doing her morning reading … and one morning, I walked in on Mom reading, and she said, “here, read this …” and “this” was specifically the Good News Translation of Ephesians, chapter 1, the text we read this morning, where the author prays that the Ephesians will know “how very great is God’s power at work in us who believe. This power working in us is the same as the mighty strength which God used when God raised Christ from death and seated him at God’s right side in the heavenly world.”
And then Mom said, “I like that wording the best: that The same mighty strength God used to raise Jesus Christ from the dead is at work in us.” Sometimes, that really makes a difference.”
Makes a difference because for some of us, there are days when it takes, when it feels like it takes, the same mighty strength that raised Jesus Christ from the dead to get us out of bed and get us through the day. Sharing that experience is also what we mean by being a witness.
When Jesus says to the disciples in Acts “you will be my witnesses …” he is telling them they are going to share their experience of him, his impact on their lives – because that’s what a witness is: someone who has seen something, or heard something, or felt something, someone who has evidence to give that consists of their experience, someone who has personal knowledge of some real state of affairs. And for all of us, including the Ephesians, and including the Apostle Paul who might have written that letter to them, who never met the human Jesus in person in the usual way, it’s the Ascension that anchors our experiences of the risen Christ …
We’re likely to credit the Holy Spirit – another gift of the Ascension, actually – with a lot of that experience: with that sudden, significant sense of comfort at a time of need, or that important moment of insight, or that nudge that sent us in the right direction that turned out to be significant for us – we likely all have stories of how our own faith was supported, or restored, or sustained so that now, here we are, still able to be people of faith in, let’s face it, a fairly hostile environment …
We are only a few miles – 65 miles, to be precise, down I-71 to Williamstown, Kentucky – from the Ark Encounter, which is a celebration of concrete thinking and very literal reading of some key scriptural texts, and a vociferous, well-funded assertion that Christian faith demands that concrete thinking and that style of reading from us. For some of us, that assertion may pose no problem. But for others of us, it poses a real challenge for faith.
Because the knowledge of God is not simply something we come to in the same way we come to our knowledge of, say … physics or chemistry or sociology. In fact, many of us have struggled to bring Christian faith into living, harmonious working relationship with reason, understanding, truth, epistemology – and sometimes that struggle has been long and arduous. We may not be Kierkegaard, but we may have felt we had to make a “leap of faith” at some point. Or, if not a “leap,” then a labor over the precise wording or symbols or metaphors that would allow some article of faith to make sense, or reveal the wisdom of some doctrine that otherwise seemed too incredible, or that enabled us to read the Biblical text in a way that didn’t demand we deny what we knew of plain empirical reality.
My guess is that everyone here – because we are here – has a story of what has made being here possible, what has made holding on to faith, with genuine integrity, possible, what has made pursuing the knowledge of God possible … in a world that does not hesitate to insist that faith is not possible; that there are no good reasons for it; that the doctrines of the faith are only for the credulous, for the concrete thinkers, for the irrational …
And what makes that faith possible is also, I think we have to say, along with the Chinese house church Christians, and along with my mom, “Ascension power,” the same mighty strength that raised Jesus Christ from death … the power of grace informed by an intimate knowledge of humanity …
Because if we are honest, I think, we will acknowledge – along with the author of Ephesians – that faith is more grace than work, more caught than taught; more gift than act; that faith feels more like experience and personal knowledge, all of which is something for which we cannot, in the end, take credit, but for which we are constrained to be grateful, to some mystery, some power that is greater than any power that originates with us.
As people of faith, we are witnesses to that power.
And I learned this week, our experience of that power as sympathetic to our humanity, with its limitations and its needs, owes something to our affirmation of an ascended Christ, who shares that humanity, knows it from the inside, and empowers the transcendent, wholly other divine mystery to know us that way, too, through the grace of Jesus Christ.
This brings us back to that question, “What do we know about God today that we didn’t know six months ago?”
Because God is alive. And our knowledge of God is growing and changing. The Bible says Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but what we know about Jesus Christ is meant to develop throughout our lives … that little girl in the joke will not, we hope, be thinking Jesus was sitting on God’s right hand her whole life. But we hope she will still be excited to come home from Sunday school and tell the people in her life what new thing she has learned about God, a witness to faith sustained by the same mighty power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.