Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ascension: Hope Ascending (Ephesians 1:15-23)

In writing a story, sometimes you will end with an epilogue. The main action is over, the plot has run its course, but the author adds a final section that allows some sort of ending or closure. For example, the dragon has been defeated, the kingdom saved, and now the knight and princess share a quiet scene at the end. Cue the grand music, and then the end credits roll as people dig around for their jackets and purses and start trying to remember where they parked outside the movie theatre.
The ascension of Jesus is treated as mere epilogue to the greater story. The gospels narrate the life, death, and resurrection, and now Jesus offers words of blessings and leaves the stage. Most Christians, though, tend to stop the story here, speaking less about what happens “next” in the story of Jesus. Did you know that the story continues?

As narrated by the Nicene Creed, Christ ascends in glory to sit at the right hand of the Father, where he shall be until he returns to judge “the quick and the dead”. (NOTE: This particular phrase came from the creeds, not Louis L’Amour.) For centuries, Christianity has recited creeds along the lines of confessing belief in Christ, the one born of a virgin, who lived his life among us, and died upon the cross. Then comes the pinnacle of Christian belief. We confess that on the third day after burial, Christ rose from the dead.
We might dismiss the Ascension as an “extra scene”, optional to tell only if there is time left at the end or just a bit of extra story that feels like “filler” to pad out the end. The Ascension is critical to the story of Jesus, serving as epilogue to the Gospel and “prologue” to the sequel, the story we call “Church”. The Ascension is the prologue of what is about to happen in the story ahead. Usually, prologues are brief scenes that set the stage, foreshadowing what is to come. Here, Christ ascends into the heavens above, and the disciples are staring up at the skies above. Now the question looms: “what happens next?”
This day, we find ourselves somewhere between “epilogue” and “prologue”. The story has finished in part, but not in full. The Church can keep staring off into the heavens, hoping for a glimpse of the Christ who shall return. Often, the temptation is to do just that. Baptist activist and New Testament translator Clarence Jordan used to joke most Christians live as if the Lord’s Prayer says “Our Father, who art in the heaven, stay up there”. If we understand the ascension, we live with expectation of the “not yet”, while embracing the call to live in the “here and now”. As Jordan translated Acts: “Get your work britches on! We’ve got work to do!”

In the day of the New Testament writer Paul, the first Christians were dealing with the ambiguity. Jesus said he would return. We believe he will. The world seems to be falling apart, so where is he? It is a subtext of the New Testament, this lingering question of “when?” Paul speaks to it in his writings, affirming that there will come a day when Christ shall return, speaking of death not having the last word, and the day when we shall see in full, not in part, the glory of God. Nonetheless, the New Testament writers, Paul included, do not subscribe to a “wait and see” approach. The New Testament writers called upon Christians to live in the “here and now”. Early Christianity engaged in all manner of care for those in need, sharing resources, and welcoming persons regardless of race, social class, or gender. While they waited, the early Church also “got their work britches on”.
The early Church did so under the shadow of the Roman Empire. Christianity was an often persecuted, barely tolerated movement, only enjoying widespread acceptance when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion in the early fourth century. In the years of Paul’s ministry (approximately the 40-60s of the first century), Christians endured great persecution and hardship, including Paul’s death at the hands of Romans in the early 60s. Despite the difficulty and adversity, the early Christians did not give up on the here and now. They were an expectant people, but they waited with remarkable faith, not just for Christ to return in judgment and glory. They also kept living out their lives, shaped by the gospel’s call to tend one another and “the least of these, my brothers and sisters”.
It is that radical witness of the early Church, that ability to stick to it, even when one’s hope for Christ’s return wears thin, even when the pressures of living out the contrary witness of the gospel seemed too much, it is this radical witness to Jesus that resounds in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul gives thanks for the dedicated faithfulness of the congregation, celebrating the goodness of what they do together for the sake of the gospel. Imagine these words as ones of encouragement to a little gathering of believers: May you know Christ, the one whom God
raised from the dead and seated 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.

To the New Testament, this is the way the world should be perceived, not as a place where sin, brokenness, and death have the final word. Keep your head out of the clouds and the wonderings of “when”. Live as if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ provide you the pattern for how you live your life. Let this story of the Ascension be the prologue to a life lived in faith.

In the midst of Paul’s thanksgiving for the distant Ephesian congregation, Paul also imparts a blessing. Being Paul, however, the blessing comes in one long strand of pearly wisdom, a run-on sentence you used to get your knuckles wrapped for writing in middle school grammar. Paul offers:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

Vermont writer Frederick Buechner references these words of Paul in his 1999 autobiography The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found. In this book, Buechner writes of imaginary conversations he has with his departed relatives and friends. Buechner’s life has known its share of sadness and loss, yet through his faith, especially in his writing of novels and essays, Buechner has found the gospel there in the midst of his life.
Buechner does not profess to have explored the greater depths of the faith (I argue this point with him, for he writes with such candor and perception). Nonetheless, in his life pondering God in the midst of things, Buechner has glimpsed enough of that rich and abundant hope Paul speaks of that he is satisfied that the gospel is indeed wonderfully true. In the midst of the hurts, fears, loss, and sorrow of life, Buechner claims there is a deeper wisdom and joy to be found if we only but seek it. Out beyond the sum of our fears and loss, our inadequacies and anxieties, there exists a wonderful, abundant, and life-giving way.

We live in a world often prone to feeling its broken down nature, yet Christians are given this vocabulary full of contrary words to live by. Words like peace, joy, love, and hope stand out and ask us to define them, not with wishy-washy triteness, rather through the concrete experience of letting our eyes be open to the world, yet seeing what really matters through our hearts shaped by the great hope we find in Christ Jesus.
Through belief in Christ, the one who was born and lived among the marginalized, whose death was at the hands of the “powers that be” of this world, and whose resurrection, Ascension, and promised Return, we learn to tell, and live out, a different story. The response of the faithful is not to turn blind eye toward the sufferings of the world, nor are they to be willing or silently complicit partners to these sufferings taking root in political, economic, or social policies.
The Ascension is part of the greater story of Jesus and those who would dare follow him. We await with anticipation his return, yet we live in the meantime with hearts enlightened and emboldened to speak and live truthfully to the gospel and its mandates. Like the early Christians, we catch ourselves sometimes pondering (and even sometimes longingly so) questions of “when?” Like the early Christians, Paul blesses us to see with the eyes of the heart, and live in the “here and now” as well.

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