Thursday, May 21, 2009

Going Up

JD Walt has an interesting post asking about the point of the Ascension. We get this strange story at the start of Acts where Jesus is "taken up" from their sight, hidden by a cloud, and the disciples are left looking up into the sky. Why? What does it mean?

The Reformers struggled with it. Finding it important, but not really saying why, they gave it a place of honour and confusion in some of the great statements of Protestant Faith. The Westminster Catechism says:

He ascended into heaven, and there sits at the right hand of His Father, making intercession. So why the aeronautics? Is heaven in the sky?

The Heidelberg Catechism (always a favourite of mine - I was caught out on this at my interview for Oxford a million years ago) tries harder:

Christ, before the eyes of His disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven, and that He is there for our benefit until He comes again to judge the living and the dead. I'm glad it's for our benefit; but how exactly? I mean - how exactly is all that floaty floaty stuff for our benefit? Well, it asks this question (not in those precise words, you'll understand) and answers:

First, He is our Advocate in heaven before His Father. Second, we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, our Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself. Third, He sends us His Spirit. Now I think that something important is being said here - especially in the second item, though it sounds a bit clinical for my tastes in this version, and I'd like a bit more majesty in my theology. So I want to tease this out a little.

You see, I think the Ascension is one of those events that is a "beyond words" event. Like Pentecost. Read Acts 2 - there was no mighty wind & tongues of fire, only things like the sound of a mighty wind and something that looked like tongues of fire. It was beyond words. Luke is describing the indescribable. And so it is the same in Acts 1: Jesus is "taken up" or "ascended" - but the same word in John 17.1 means he "lifted up" his eyes, and in Acts 2.14 it means Peter "raised" his voice. As for the cloud that "hid" Jesus, the same word means "assume" or "suppose" in Acts 2.15. My point is - we have difficult, compressed, complex pictorial language describing something experience can't easily compartmentalise; and we reduce it the picture at the top of this post to our peril.

Because then we lose the point, as we try pointlessly to cling on to Jesus' sandals, and end up staring with the eleven into the space where he was rather than seeing with wonder the glory of the creation he now fills - but differently.

John 1. The great prologue. In the beginning was the Word. Jesus, the Son, with the Father & the Spirit from all eternity. Trinity 1-0-1. Colossians 1.15 and following - he is before all things - the creator with the Father. Hebrews 1. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. But look how Hebrews continues at that point:

After he had provided purification for sins he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. He goes back to the Father. Returns home. But the Ascension says -

He goes home different to how he left.

He left heaven as God. God the Son. The Second person. The Word.

He returns as God. God the Son. The Second person. The Word. In human flesh. Glorious, resurrected, perfected human flesh. But human. When he leaves the disciples he makes it clear - he does not change out of his final fleshly suit and with relief go, "thank God that's over". He returns home fully God and fully man.

The Ascension assures us that God's love is not temporary, not for a season, not here today and gone tomorrow. But that our humanity is wonderfully, strangely, unimaginably at the heart of our God. The difference between bacon & eggs at the heart of God. (Bacon, you understand, for the pig, being real commitment; eggs for the chicken not quite so much.) His love is totally committed to you and to me; he wasn't wearing it on his sleeve, he wasn't wearing it at all. It was for real, and for always. There is a part of Almighty eternal God, Lord of all Creation, Maker of all things that is ever and always human.

Now if that isn't worth us stopping and celebrating and dropping our jaws and giving thanks for, I'm not sure what is.


Anonymous said...

I hope you'll be preaching this on Sunday,as its my last weekend in ponty I think I deserve a treat.

The ascention for me, is one of a few moments when I realise how strange Christian faith is.

"strange" is the wrong word. "wonderful" is perhaps better.

It is commonplace (at least in my experience) for Christians to want to make our faith sound more sensible for non-believers, so that we dont sound quite so bizarre. This is one of those moments when we get to say "this strange thing happened, isn't it marvelous".

John David Walt said...

I agree-- a beyond words experience, but I would distinguish Pentecost and the metaphorical "like" language from the Ascension where it seems to be described quite literally as a matter of fact. Luke, the historian, gives us specifics like Jesus telling them to "wait in Jerusalem." Not wait in Galilee where they lived, but in Jerusalem. Everything is described-- the "two men dressed in white," exactly what they said, their exact location, how far they walked back to the city, where they went, exactly who was there, and so on. My point is if Luke gives all of this specific historical detail about all these things, why would he make Jesus' actual ascension somehow "metaphorical."

Jesus flew! It's absurd-- but then again, so is everything else about Jesus. ;-) i'll write more on my blog. thanks Vicar..

Marcus G said...

JD - I agree & disagree. Forgive me for questioning methodology, but I think the Pentecost analogy holds. There too enormous detail is pointed out by Luke the historian - "all together in one place", "all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit" and then the famous list of places from where the hearers of the tongues came. Yet the detail of the spiritual event is clearly a painting not a photograph. The mixing of detail & being overwhelmed by God is important - for God overwhelms us in the detail of life, in our history.

Moreover, I do think we have translation problems. And I don't just mean ideas. I mean words. The cloud that "hid" Jesus from sight? That's hypolambano. Free Greek word. No charge. Five uses in the NT: Lk7.15 & Acts 2.15 "suppose", Lk 10.30 "in reply", 3 Jn1.8 "show hospitality", Acts 1.9 "hid".

Or epairo, he was "taken up" before their eyes. Usually used for raising your eyes to heaven - see John 17.1 for standard usage (Lk 18.13, Jn 4.35etc). Perhaps used for raising yourself up with pride, or raising your voice or your hands in prayer. Not obviously a flying verb.

The angels' word, analambano (and I'm still not charging for the Greek lesson) is your best bet. Often used in the context of Jesus being taken up into heaven (Mk 19.19, Acts 1.2, 1 Tim3.16) it works best - but it also just means "taken". "Put on the full armour of God": oh yes, that's analambano, and I'm pretty sure Paul wasn't including anti-grav boots & jet thrusters.

My point is this:
This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.
The same way.
The story is not about flying but about humanity and God. He may have risen above the ground; something amazing happened! Read this and then read the transfiguration - though the Greek only has a couple of words in common, the sense of the accounts is very close. Jesus exalted and hidden by a cloud... But as the disciples stare at where he was they are told in no uncertain terms:

1. He will return.
2. He will return as human as he left.
3. That means that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is God and Man for all eternity. Now, flying may be impressive, but that I have an advocate at the heart of God who really, in a corporeal, genuine and non-metaphorical way the same as me - guaranteed - that is something I should be singing about!

Anonymous said...

Good sermon, well thought through, supurbly delivered - 9 out of 10, could have mentioned the similarities with the transfiguration :p

Was fantastic, looking forward to the next I hear

Marcus G said...

I'm glad it was a faith-builder. At 8am I felt I didn't get that quite right. Trying to get people to delve a bit deeper can come off as clever-clever rather than thought-provoking, and that belittles faith rather than grows it.

At 11 I went for the wonder factor. Which I think is Luke's point. There is a perfectly serviceable word for "ascend" or "go up" in the NT - it's used 85 times - but it isn't used in the account of the Ascension! Why not? Because sometimes blue isn't blue. It's more wonderful than that. It's aquamarine and ultramarine and has shimmers of teal and indigo and turquoise about it. Just calling it "blue" and thinking we've got it isn't doing the text - or more importantly us! - any favours.

What pleased me more than anything was the number of people coming up for prayer afterwards, wanting that touch of the amazing God who understands.

And Mark - we shall miss you. Travel well. Visit often. I look forwards to continuing comments!