Audio is available here: Ascension 2013
Today we celebrate the Christian feast that, St. Augustine tells us, fulfills the rest. Without it, Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost and the almost innumerable Sundays that follow, make no sense. It is the feast of the Ascension. What does Augustine mean? He means that the Feast of the Ascension marks the climax of the Gospel. It underscores the truth of the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. It completes and discloses the meaning the Resurrection that we celebrate at Easter. It points us toward and gives the rationale for the Pentecostal coming of the Spirit and the sending of the Church into the world. And it does all that work because the Feast of the Ascension is, at the end of the day, the church’s declaration that Jesus is Lord.
Three little words. Jesus is Lord. For the early Church, those words or the conviction that they encapsulate could end a promising career as a soldier or government official, could send someone to prison, could even send someone to the arena to die. For if Jesus was Lord, then the accompanying, if unstated conviction, was Caesar is not. And the powers Caesar embodied could not hear that their reign was not theirs, but was given to them, that whatever loyalty they commanded, they could not command final fealty. For Jesus had, in his Ascension, removed Caesar from his throne, or better, exposed Caesar to be what he was—at his best a mere functionary under the reign of God and at his worst, a beastly usurper whose blood-lust for the saints of God would ultimately be his downfall.
This is why the writers of the later New Testament and the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament take great pains to insist that they are not revolutionaries. That they are loyal citizens. That they pray to God for the Emperor’s wellbeing even if, on pain of death, they will never pray to the Emperor to secure their own. Even by Augustine’s day, a century after Rome had bowed the knee to Christ, he could still insist that while Christians had a foot in two kingdoms—what he called the City of Man and the City of God—their final citizenship was in the second city only. And that as a result, they should regard every exercise of coercive power with just a little bit or perhaps a lot of critical distance. It was of Christian Emperors that Augustine said that it was only the number and size of their ships that made them different from pirates.
For the early Church, and for many Christians even after the Empire became Christian itself, there was no rhetorical strategy to distance the claims Jesus is Lord and Caesar is Lord from each other. Both Jesus and the Emperor at some level claimed Lordship, authority, rule, to the same space. And the martyrs were those who wagered their lives on the hope that the true King was King Jesus. That the true King was he who ascended to the Father’s right hand. That the true King could bring them through death into resurrection. That one day, the open secret on which they based their lives, would be made plain to all. And that King Jesus would reign without interference. For the early Church, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is Lord were claims to the same public space. And it was the Ascension of Jesus that grounded the public nature of that claim. The Ascension was not about Jesus’s soul going to heaven, but about the exaltation of a human being to reign as God’s vice regent over all the world, and all of its Caesars, both great and small.
Now, we don’t believe that, of course. We believe something quite different. We—notice that I am including myself in this—we believe something more like this: “Jesus is Lord, but that is just my private opinion.” Now what kind of a community, asks theologian Stanley Hauerwas, do we have to be to produce a speech act like that? That’s a loaded question. A pithy answer, with more than a kernel of truth, is one that has grown tired of the public invocation of Jesus’ name and lordship to justify the most horrendous of evils that one human being can inflict on another. And the solution—we should invent a space called “the private” to which we can banish Jesus. Another answer, again one with more than a kernel of truth, is that we are a community is, in this kind of language, actively trying to restrict the Lordship of Jesus because we have become too comfortable in Caesar’s world and would rather live under his dominion. Jesus has set before us God and Mammon, that is money, and we have in our idolatrous ingenuity, found a way to serve money while keeping the Jesus vocabulary to leave us feeling soothed in our sinfulness.
We have become a community, whether for good and noble reasons or for others, or—as is more likely the case—for reasons that mingle both, that does not know just what to do with the Lordship of Jesus over this world. We have decided it is safer to leave Jesus’ Lordhip in our private and to live accordingly, which is to say, to ignore it. We have cut ourselves off from our fathers and mothers in the faith whose conviction about the public Lordship of Jesus caused them both to refuse Caesar’s sword and to reject Mammon’s rule, who identified with their Lord even to death in the hope that they too would be highly exalted even as their Lord was highly exalted in his ascension into heaven.
Well, if you are inclined to think that this move, this re-desciption of Jesus Lordship, this transposition of that Lordship from a public claim which one must either accept or reject to a private opinion which one may safely ignore, represents a loss to the Church, a fundamental misunderstanding and rejection of the mission we received from the Risen Lord, I think you are right. And the solution, it seems to me, is to deliberately recover the ascension language that is found throughout the Bible—Old and New Testaments—in order to use it. We have to say before we can see. We have to have language before we know just what it is we are looking at. We have to return to what Karl Barth called the strange new world within the Bible, in order to let its vocabulary open our eyes, so that we can see God, the world, and ourselves as God intends them to be seen.
There is a sense of course in which this is exactly what we do every Sunday. If I might quote Stanley Hauerwas again, what we believe and do as Christians is often so crazy, we have to get together on Sundays, if only to convince ourselves that we aren’t nuts. But with Augustine, we must add that this is especially true of the Ascension. For the Ascension rightly understood obliterates the distinction between public and private, and helps us again to see ourselves as a community whose citizenship lies elsewhere and which acts accordingly.
So what must be said about the Ascension? Negatively, we must say this: The Ascension means that the kingdoms of this world—kingdoms that the prophet Daniel likens to animals in their form and intent, kingdoms that were, in fact, the frustration of God’s intention for humanity—have been decisively overthrown and it was time to live in that truth. Positively, we must say this: The Ascension is the day that Christ in his humanity, fulfills not just his destiny, but all of human destiny as God the Father’s vice regent. He reigns in his humanity. And if and as we have been united to him, we reign too.
Now, let’s unpack this a little more. First of all, we need to be clear about where Jesus did not go. He did not to a secure undisclosed location somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn. This is not a tale of pre-atomic age space travel. Nor was his ascension a flowery way of saying that he left his body and his humanity behind so that he could go back to what he was before: God. The incarnation is not an interruption in the being of God the Son.
Now, perhaps a little way of positive speech. Where did he go? He went to that space where creation is fit for the full presence of God. Can we go there now? That’s a good question, and one that I’ll get to in a moment. But before I do, I really want to stress that in his going, he did not leave his humanity or us behind. He took his humanity with him. Where he is now, he is in—as the theologians put it—the unity of his person, fully God, fully human. He is the God who descends to our level, to take up our humanity. He is the man who ascends to God’s level, so that we might go with him.
That we might go with him. Think about that. That we might go with him! Now back to that question I just put off. Can we go there now? The answer is, We do! Every Sunday, we go there with him.
Here’s how Thomas Cranmer put it
Being like eagles in this life, we should fly up into heaven in our hearts, where that Lamb is resident at the right hand of his Father, which taketh away the sins of the world; by whose stripes we are made whole; by whose passion we are filled at his table; and whose blood we receiving out of his holy side, do live forever. (Thomas Cranmer)
I can tell you exactly when that moment happens—we go to where he is every Sunday when we are bidden to lift up our hearts. The sursum corda, as it is called, is actually a command more than it is a polite request. It would be an entirely appropriate translation of the Latin were I to say this morning, “Hearts UP!”
When we come to the Lord’s table, we come into the heavenlies, where Christ himself is seated. We come to the table where he feeds us with his very life.
There, in that very instant, we are given a glimpse of God’s future, given a glimpse of our humanity made fit for the fullness of God’s presence, given a foretaste—literally!—of the heavenly banquet that is being prepared for us even now.
Imagine how our attitude toward Sunday service might change if we really believed that. “Sorry, I can’t make that tee time, that restaurant, that long awaited date with my pillow and duvet. King Jesus has invited me to his house for breakfast.” Can you imagine? That’s not a fair thing to say just as we’re getting ready for our summer slump is it?
And yet, that’s what happens every time we gather at the Lord’s table. We are called upward and forward by him. Called to a place where creatures can and do commune with God, a place where creation is made fit for his presence. In that place, we are placed before Jesus’ table, that place where he reigns as the Lamb, and he feeds us with his very life.
And then, we are sent. You are witnesses to these things. These things—not just a past teacher who gave us an ethic, but a present and living Lord who reigns, and who is transforming this world even as we speak. As he who reigns not as the Pantocrator commanding the armies of heaven, but as the Lamb who was slain for the redeeming of the world.
We are—like the first followers of Jesus—sent back into the world not mourning a martyr, but celebrating a living King, who has made us—us!—the vanguard of his reign. To rule not with violence, but with patience and joy even in the midst of suffering. Sent to tell of his Kingdom’s coming and to live in its presence even as we wait for the rest of creation to be transformed.
Which brings us to our last stop.
How is all this possible? It is possible because of the promise. The promise the risen Lord alludes to in our Gospel lesson. “See I am sending you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
What on earth does that mean? Come back next week!
Right now, I have to get ready for a banquet. And so do you.