From Private to Public
As many of you know, I traveled to Israel earlier this year to tour the holy land. Now, of course, Israel is a popular tourist destination, and so everywhere there are kiosks and shops filled with merchandise waiting to separate hapless tourists from their money. Included often among these things are these t-shirts (I’m sure you’ve all seen them): “My parents went to Israel and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” At the risk of speaking irreverently, I wonder if we have ever felt left out of the special experiences of Jesus’ disciples about which we’ve been reading during the Sundays of Eastertide. “The disciples spent forty days with the resurrected Jesus in the Judean hills and all I got was their lousy travelogues.”
I suppose we may be tempted to entertain this thought from time to time. But if we are, let us consider this: What was private to the disciples, what seemingly was meant for them alone, has now become public, meant for all. This is the significance of what we celebrate today. I refer of course to the Ascension Day. And the scripture lesson designated for this special day describes it succinctly as follows: “As the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (1:9). We celebrate this event today, but in fact we acknowledge it each Lord’s Day when we recite the Creed: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”
Yet despite our repeated reference to it in our liturgy each Lord’s Day, the ascension really doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Not too long ago my friend mused that he cannot ever recall hearing a sermon on the ascension. The theologian Douglas Farrow asks whether it’s because we live in the age of the Hubble telescope and the space probe, of evolutionary theory and faith in global progress, that it’s become something of an embarrassment to us. Rudolph Bultmann’s famous claim that a man with a wireless and a scientific worldview could no longer take Jesus’ ascension seriously was one attempt to face that embarrassment. (I don’t know if Rudolph Bultmann is a name familiar to you, but he was a German New Testament scholar in the twentieth century.) Bultmann compared the Christian faith to a seed or fruit: You have first to strip away the historical husk in order to extract the timeless kernel. While ancient people found the idea of tangible body rising up into the heavens credible, modern people cannot. Therefore, we have to discard the historical narrative to see what spiritual meaning may lie behind it. That’s what Rudolph Bultmann thought at any rate.
That may seem natural and appropriate to us. But it’s a mistake to assume that ancient people were so different than we are. In fact, long before the radio or even the telescope, Bible teachers were proposing alternative ways of reading our lesson. In the third century, the great Alexandrian theologian and teacher Origen, for example, taught his students to think of the ascension of Jesus, not as an ascension of the body, but as that of the mind. And in the centuries immediately following, many more proposed similar viewpoints.
But these have their own problems. In fact, to many of us they are no more credible than a plain reading of the narrative. Furthermore, they don’t tend to consider ascension in relation to the claim central to the Christian faith. I refer here to the claim that Jesus is the Christ. Let me pause here to say more about this.
Jesus is called the Christ or messiah. Contrary to popular belief, Christ is the not the last name of Jesus. It’s a title. Many of us already know that it literally means “anointed one.” In ancient Israel, before a king assumed the throne, he was anointed with oil. That ritual set him apart and authorized him to exercise his royal office.
Now without the ascension it’s meaningless to call Jesus the Christ. Let me use a play on words to bring home the point. Ascension is accession. That is to say, in ascending Jesus accedes to the throne of God. He assumes all authority on heaven and earth. Universal authority is what God gives to him. Listen carefully to Psalm 110, which was a key text in the early church for making sense of Jesus as the Christ:
The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ The Lord commits to you the scepter of your power: reign from Zion in the midst of your enemies. Noble are you from the day of your birth upon the holy hill, radiant are you even from the womb in the morning dew of your youth. The Lord has sworn and will not turn back: ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’
The ascension is about Jesus’ kingship. God has 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, according to the first chapter of Ephesians (1:21-22). Note that God has also appointed him to be priest. Since the throne to which he ascended is the heavenly throne itself, that is to say, since he sits in the very presence of God, he combines the office of king with that of priest.
That too is a very important truth about the ascension. In ancient Israel, the high priest, once a year, went up to the sanctuary, into the holy of holies, to present the blood of atonement at the mercy seat. This happened on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. If all went well, he would carry God’s blessing to the people waiting outside. Year after year, Israel’s representative was received into God’s presence and granted an audience. And year after year, he was put out again.
But when Jesus went up to the heavenly sanctuary, he presented, not the blood of an offering, but himself, once for all. This is the message of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament. Preaching on Hebrews, the famous fourth century bishop John Chrysostom put it like this: “Christ offered the first fruits of our nature to the Father and the Father admired the gift, and on account of the worth of the offerer and the blamelessness of that which was offered, the Father received it with his own hands and placed the gift next to him, and said: “Sit on my right hand.”
That explains why he does have to repeat this offering year after year. Christ, our head and representative, our brother, in our humanity, is continually in the presence of God. The one seated at the right hand of the Father is singularly qualified to understand us, to care for us, and to listen to our prayers. And he speaks to God on our behalf, always making intercession for us. He is our great high priest as well as king. These are the precious truths that the Epistle to the Hebrews teach us about the ascension. The ascension is about Jesus’ priesthood as well as his kingship.
For their part, the apostles seem to be aware that what is about to happen relates somehow to Jesus’ kingship. “When they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Who else can restore a kingdom but the king himself? The restoration of the kingdom to Israel is the hope of the ages, and it means blessing for the whole world. Was it about to happen? After all, there was nothing to prevent it; it was clear now that Jesus completed all that God had given him to do. Nothing stood in its way. But that’s not the plan, at least not yet. Here Luke introduces the Holy Spirit. Here he prepares us for Pentecost. The ascent of Jesus involves the descent of the Holy Spirit. “It is for your benefit that I go away,” Jesus tells his disciples in John 16: 7, “for unless I go away, the Spirit will not come to you. But when I go, I will send him to you.”
We said at the beginning that what was private to the disciples, meant for them alone, has now become public, meant for all. That is God’s gracious plan. In ascending into heaven, Jesus enters into God’s eternity, where he is no longer bound by the limitations of time and space. And in and with the Holy Spirit, he becomes present to all times and places. This explains how he can say to the disciples before his ascent according to Matthew’s Gospel: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:20).
The Holy Spirit will empower the disciples to be Christ’s witnesses. They will tell the whole world about Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. They will invite people to repent, to turn to God, to receive this message.
Because of the Spirit, because of the disciples’ witness, the saga continues. We are not excluded from the special experiences of the disciples. They are meant to be ours, and to be those of all who come to believe the message.
Jesus is the Christ. He is the ruler of the kings of earth. He has a territory that encompasses a very large domain, whose borders coincide with the boundaries of the universe itself. And yet he is so close to each one of us, that he knows exactly what to speak to God on our behalf, when making intercession for us as our great high priest.
All this we have to proclaim on Ascension Day, which we will celebrate until that day when Christ returns in the same way as the apostles saw him go into heaven. Amen.