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Saturday, May 11, 2013

On the Ascension of the Lord

On the Ascension of the Lord
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Mother's Day

            My mother is a wanderer.  She is one who can lose herself in the going and the watching and the looking around the corner. Her wanderlust was always getting me into trouble, too: when we would go to a store together she would inevitably wander off when I went to get something to contribute to our basket, causing me to learn a weekly ritual of part panic and part comic frustration. I would find her in some random section of the market, breathe out a sigh of relief, and latch on to her for the remainder of the trip.
            On some of those days I’d be able to find her by looking up and down every aisle of the store or in every section or garment rack. Other times I’d be able to quickly find her by a unique sound she would make when she coughs. It’s a sound that has been in my ear since I was very small, and it served then and now as a disembodied marker of my mother’s presence.
            There are many was in which my mother’s voice, too, has set up a residence in my mind. No one in this world reads Scripture aloud like she does. When I hear someone read Luke chapter 2 in December it conjures the sounds of Carol Ann reading about the birth of Jesus with authority and tenderness. In more ways than one, her voice has become a presence in my own mind, reminding me of how precious and tender the Scriptures are.
            We joke that the voices of our parents are in our heads and occasionally on our tongues as we grow into adulthood. Sometimes we’ll use a phrase that has no meaning in our own generation or use a tone of voice that we were all too familiar with as children. Other times mom or dad might play the role of Jiminy Cricket when we’re about to make a questionable decision.
            Our best psychologists and sociologists point out that the process of parenting is to gradually separate children from their parents into adulthood where they can be independent and autonomous. While parenting styles widely differ, it is certainly the case that parents are concerned with the formation of identity within their children that is (in varying degree) disjoint from their own. One recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review concluded that, “by all means, parents, help your children. But don’t let your action replace their action. Support, don’t substitute. Your children will be more likely to achieve their goals — and, who knows, you might even find some time to get your own social life back on track.”[1]
            It is this idea of a separate identity that is so difficult. The years of experience and knowledge and wisdom that parents have relative to their children makes fostering autonomy that much harder. I would rather allow my children to walk protected in my shadow than to have them suffer the slings and arrows of this life. But that must not be. It is a detestable thing to smother the image of God made real in a child in the name of the parent’s own inability to separate their identity from their offspring’s.

Our congregation has explored this idea of identity separate from parents and from children through the insightful work of Richard Rohr in his little book Falling Upward.”[2] While not specifically a text on the nature of parenting, Falling Upward reminded us that the first stage of our lives is the creation of a container, that is, an identity that we progressively define as independent and autonomous people. The second half consists of living out of the resources we’ve poured into that container, be they time, money, education, family, or whatever else makes us who we are.[3] So many of us are stuck in the first phase of Rohr’s schematic, handicapping our identities and our spiritual maturity as well.

The Ascension of the Lord is precisely about this issue of identity. Certainly the event of Christ’s departure from our sight and his seating “at the right hand of the Father” is a historical, theological, and spiritual event, but we are greatly helped in our discipleship to see the Ascension as a necessary event in the birth and progress of God’s redemptive plan for humanity.
            Consider the first-century experience of those following Jesus. They had been called by him, seen his miracles, heard his teachings, witnessed his crucifixion and experienced his resurrection. The Lord himself sums up these things, saying "This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."[4] And in another place, saying, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”[5]
            He has set the stage for the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit and begin the spread of the Gospel to all the nations. But the critical moment of the identity of the believer is also here, buried in the implication of Jesus’ words. As long as Jesus remains with the disciples, whether in his pre-crucifixion state or his post-resurrection form, the movement that would one day be called the church could not exist. So long as the disciples knew Jesus as the wise rabbi whom they followed and to whom they listened was present with them, they had neither need nor desire to depart from him. He was the Way, Truth, and Life; he was the Vine; he was the Good Shepherd. So long as he was with them they would be, at most, a congregation in Jerusalem following the Lord on his itinerant ministry.
            The nature of Christian discipleship in the ministry of Jesus was limited by the disciples’ understanding of just what constituted a disciple. They understood a “follower of Jesus” to be, quite literally, one who had followed Jesus and experienced his teaching and miracles.[6] Even those who had not committed their entire lives to Jesus’ itinerant ministry could be considered disciples if they had been involved in the Jesus Movement temporarily.[7] Discipleship meant proximity to the master, and as long as Jesus was present with his disciples that is all it could be.
            What the Ascension of the Lord does is revolutionize the potential of the Gospel. In no way does the Ascension add to or take away from the saving power of the Cross or the confirmation of Jesus’ divine identity in the Resurrection. Rather, the Ascension is a necessary corollary to those crucial events. Consider the ministry of Jesus after the resurrection without the Ascension: the disciples’ minds would be opened to the Scriptures, but they would have no need to preach such an understanding. Instead, curious seekers could attend the next seminar put on by the increasingly popular resurrected Jesus. The people would have ultimately tried to “make him king by force” and possibly would have started a revolution more serious than what eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem.[8]
            No, the glorious Ascension of the Lord was absolutely necessary for the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption for the entire world. His disciples, whom we find gawking at the heavens[9] and worshipping the Lord as he goes,[10] are forced to reinterpret what being a disciple means as soon as they lose sight of the Master. We find them in the spiritual tension between the power of the Lord’s resurrection and the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit. Wayne Weissenbuehler comments that, “By uniting what precedes and follows it, the ascension is a signal of both continuity and discontinuity. It is the same Jesus who began to do and to teach who now continues in the proclamation and deeds done in his name. Now, however, the manner of his relationship to the mission of the Kingdom of God is through the Holy Spirit and the witness of the apostles. The continuity and discontinuity must be clearly seen if the mission is to remain on track.”[11]
            How the disciples will respond to the absence of Christ’s presence will define how the Church will exist for the next 2000 years. The struggle to understand their identity as followers of the Way is wrapped up in their heartfelt desire to see Israel restored and the Day of the Lord to arrive; it is mixed in with their terror of being left alone knowing that they do not clearly understand what it means to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Weissenbuehler continues, “The apostles must be turned from a longing for consummation and for fulfillment of their needs to the need and plan of Christ's intended mission and their place in it.”[12]
            How will the disciples reinterpret their roles in Christ’s absence? Clearly they cannot follow Jesus around the Sea of Galilee anymore; he has gone from their sight and will not return for a long time. Certainly they cannot rely on him to clean up their messes or ineptitude as they did before.[13]They have been ordered to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes upon them, at which time they will not only be informed about the work of the Gospel, but also empowered to complete such a transformative task.
            We join with the disciples in this already-and-not-yet moment between our experiences with the risen Christ and the fulfillment of his promises. We wait, not on the coming of the Holy Spirit, but on the consummation of all things under the rule of Jesus Christ who will certainly come in glory in the same way he departed. We live in this undetermined state; we are on one moment the inheritors of the triumphant name that is above all names and in the next we are the harried, hurried, and harassed disciples waiting on the Master to show us the most excellent way. We must hear the words of Paul writing to those first generations of Christians as he earnestly prays that they would receive 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.”[14]
             A disciple must learn to form their identity in a way separate from the immediate presence of the risen Lord. A disciple must learn to shape an identity through the working of the Holy Spirit that will surely come upon the Church and imbue each believer with that sweet priesthood which helps us to work out, with fear and trembling, what our hope of salvation really means. The disciples living in a time without the physical Jesus must learn a new way to be believers. We must learn to mature into spiritual adulthood without the constant presence of Jesus by our side.
            But how? Surely spiritual adulthood is too lofty a goal to attain by walking the Way without the Master. In a culture such as ours when being young at heart usually means being immature in spirit, we are called to do what seems impossible. Even our beloved Protestant identity is becoming more and more ossified in youth, creating “a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.”[15]
            The Church needs more mature believers who have invested the hard time of what Rohr would describe as building and filling the container of our spiritual identity. We need to be nurtured by our spiritual elders and by our communities of faith toward the fullness of the spiritual life that is made possible through Christ.
We can confidently take on this task, for we are surely not alone. No, Jesus’ Ascension did not end God’s work among humankind; the Ascension of the Lord provided a necessary and strategic point of maturation for the disciples.  Just as so many are even now graduating from various schools and preparing for college, career, seminary, or whatever is next, so, too, does the Ascension mark a transition, a maturation, a graduation in our relationship to God and God’s great work. To see it though, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit. To see us through, we have not been abandoned but have rather been empowered and equipped by that same Holy Spirit to fulfill the work of Jesus Christ, that same work so faithfully reported to us by Luke and the others.

The Ascension of the Lord is a hinge-point for disciples. It is that historical moment when the Church begins to realize that things will not be business as usual, that it is time to begin living out of a “second-half” pattern of life. Further, the Ascension also serves as a spiritual metaphor for disciples today. We came to faith through the knowledge and spiritual testimony of the Cross and the Resurrection; we came to faith through the Gospel. As we mature from that moment of belief we are pulled forward, pulled onward into spiritual maturity. We cannot stay at the kerygma, that proclamation of the fallen state of humanity and our need for a Savior. As comfortable as such a place is, as familiar as it is, we cannot stay. We must, must “come to know him” and move ever closer toward maturity in Christ.
But we are not alone. Even in our spiritual adulthood we hear the voice of that Holy Spirit and feel that Holy breeze along our journey. We must find the spiritual maturity to wander, knowing that our motherly God has gone before us and who, if we listen, will sound out telltale notes of the Spirit that we may find our way. Thanks be to God for a mother who taught me these things even before I was ready to know them. Amen.

[2] Rohr, Richard; Falling Upward, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
[3] See Rohr, chapter 1, “The Two Halves of Life.”
[4] Acts 1:4-8.
[5] Luke 24:46-49.
[6] See Wilkins, Michael, Following the Master, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, 98-121.
[7] Ibid. See also Wilkins, Michael, The Concept of Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel, Leiden: Brill, 1988.
[8] Cf. John 6:15.
[9] Acts 1:10-11.
[10] Luke 24:52-53.
[11] Weissenbuehler, Wayne, “Acts 1:1-11,” Interpretation, 46 no. 1, 1992, p. 61-65.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Cf. Mark 9:14-29
[14] Ephesians 1:17-19.
[15] Bergler, Thomas E., “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenalization of American Christianity,” Christianity Today, 56 no. 6, 2012, p. 18-24.

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