Monday, May 16, 2011

Ascension Day Years A,B,C

Ascension Day Years A,B,C

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24: 44-53
(Revised Common Lectionary)

The story Luke/Acts tells begins in the Temple in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, the capital city. It stretches from concerns crucial to Jews to the non-Jewish world, from local to universal. Throughout this sweeping story, the Holy Spirit has intervened at crucial points-- from intimacy with Mary to authorizing and empowering the followers of Jesus to continue his mission to the entire world. At the last possible moment, just before his miraculous ascension into heaven, Jesus asserts: "you will receive the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth."

In psalm 47, God is given all the attributes of a mighty king who reigns over all nations. In psalm 93, the psalmist, as does any good poet, takes a known experience-- the sea crashing against the shore-- and uses it to intensify one's experience of God, who gave the Law as a sign of God's consistency and loyalty for all time.

The writer of Ephesians offers empowerment to all believers by linking God's great power in Jesus to them as members of the church.

The last act of the Risen Christ in Luke's account is a hermeneutical task: Jesus explains himself in texts of the Torah, the prophets and the psalms and tells his disciples: "You are witnesses of these things."  He now tells them to wait briefly before they receive what the Father had promised them, that is, "until you have been clothed with power from on high."  He lifts his hands in a farewell benediction and "withdrew from them and was carried into heaven."  No earthquake, no wind or fire (that will come in ten days!), he just "withdrew."

L.P. Hemming (Blackwell's Postmodern Theology, Graham Ward, ed. p. 452) observes that God became "transcendent" in the Western imagination when space became infinite. The God of the biblical texts acts in human history in the lives of specific individuals and communities. Perhaps it was inevitable that Western Enlightenment/Modernity would push God to the periphery or to the merely personal.


The biblical texts, which follow the movement of the place where God acts in the world from one person, Jesus, to all who follow, makes a seminal claim whose meaning is inexhaustible. Now, the claim goes, the divine is imminent, even mundane, not out there somewhere but here, now, between one another, not esoteric but in the routine ethics of daily life. Which is the more astounding claim: God in Jesus or at work in us? Are both claims a kind of incarnation? The departure of Jesus is dealt with almost perfunctorily by Luke. Most of his story follows the greater miracle--the impact of the claim that God transfers God's mission to ordinary people and basic human relationships and interactions.

In a sense, Ascension Day is the calm before the storm, the (pregnant) pause before all (re)-creation breaks loose.  Its drama comes in its understatement about Jesus-- he simply "withdrew"-- and the breathtaking implication of his final promise-- his followers (the same crowd who denied, deserted and betrayed him) will be "clothed with power from on high."