Sunday 27 May 2017 - Ascension Day or Easter 7
The celebration of Ascension can be transferred from today, Thursday 24 May, to Sunday 27 May, or this Sunday can be observed as the seventh Sunday of Easter. Readings and commentary for both Ascension and Easter 7 follow below.
Christ risen, ascended and glorified
Lift up your heads you gates! Lift yourselves up you everlasting doors! That the king of glory may come in. (Psalm 24:7) [NZPB, p. 601]
By raising Jesus from the dead
You proclaimed his victory,
And by his ascension
You declared him king.
Lift up your hearts to heaven
That we may live and reign with him. Amen [NZPB, p. 601]
Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53
I do not think this need be brought into a sermon, but it is fascinating to see how Luke deals with the last event in Jesus' physical presence on earth in his two texts, the ending of the gospel and the beginning of Acts. There are similarities and there are differences.
In 'big picture' (or 'big theme') terms, each passage conveys two messages: the gospel mission of Jesus must now spread throughout the world, but first new empowerment through the Holy Spirit must come upon the disciples.
The 'event' in each passage is the departure, depicted physically as an 'ascent', of Jesus from the disciples. Never again, save in episodic visionary experiences will they see their Lord again.
Where does Jesus go to? Both texts answer "heaven". Later, Peter, in his Pentecost Day sermon will add "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33).
Obviously the physical talk of upwards travel to a place beyond the observable world of earth-and-space both assumes and contributes to an understanding that "heaven" is above us.
It also offers a physical image to match the increase in glory and honour implicit in the idea that Jesus is now 'exalted' to the right hand of God (i.e. seated on a throne on the right side of the divine throne).
Ascension then is a celebration of both departure and exaltation, of the physical loss of Jesus to his followers and of the triumphant gain of Jesus exalted to glory in the realm of heaven.
With exaltation the victory won in the resurrection, the defeat of the power of death as the last enemy against humanity is completed.
With his departure the door is open to a new history of God being present among God's people, God the Holy Spirit will dwell among them.
Yet this event is also about us.
The departure of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit to come in power is integrated with the great commission.
We misunderstand Ascension and its importance if we think of it as (say) a postscript to the life of Jesus, or a snapshot of the glory of the exalted Jesus.
Ascension is also the beginning of a new era in our history, the time when we are responsible for the continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ.
Luke in both texts is keenly alert to this point. If (as some scholars of Luke's writings have supposed) Jesus has come in the middle of history, then we are now in its last period.
That this is so, according to Luke, is underlined in Acts 1:11. Jesus has departed, but he will return.
This is a fitting song of praise to God on this festive occasion.
Obviously verse 20 in this passage links the text to the theme of 'exaltation' which is an important aspect of the theology of Ascension.
The passage is part of a long introduction to the epistle in which Paul sets out a profound set of insights into salvation, Christ, Christ's relationship to those who believe in him, and the great purpose of God being worked out through history - all given in the context of prayer and thanksgiving for his readers.
There is a sermon in every verse of this passage!
Sunday 27 May – Easter 7
Ascension, Departure, Suffering for Christ, Unity, Prayer for disciples
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. (Acts 1:11)
Jesus Christ, you left your disciples,
only that you might send the Holy Spirit
to be our advocate.
Grant us the Spirit of truth
to convince the world that you are risen from the dead.
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
The ascension of Jesus is the departure of Jesus from everyday human experience of Jesus as a fellow human being, who shared in meals and conversation with his disciples.
Our prime human reporter of the ascension as a specific event in history (i.e. one moment Jesus is present, the next he is not, after that there is no return) is Luke.
To an extent Matthew is another witness. The end of Matthew’s gospel is consistent with a departure after the last speech of Jesus (28:16-20). But Matthew’s witness is coloured by its variance from Luke as Matthew places the implied ascension in Galilee, while Luke is clear that Jesus ascended from a site on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Nevertheless an extraordinary connection is formed between the geographical variations across the two gospels when the disciples are addressed as "Men of Galilee" in 1:11.
From Luke's perspective, as narrator of what we could call "The Acts of Jesus" and its sequel "The Acts of the Holy Spirit," it is important to delineate the period of Jesus (conception to ascension) and the period of the Holy Spirit (anticipated in the life of Jesus as a man filled with the Holy Spirit, available to all believers from the day of Pentecost).
This delineation occurs in chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles. With Jesus of Nazareth departed, the way is paved for the Holy Spirit to come in a visible and audible experience in Acts chapter 2.
For us, as followers of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, inclined (it seems, from current experience) to celebrate Christmas, Easter and Pentecost in colourful, festive ways, what does Ascension mean? Do we properly value it?
At the heart of the theology of Ascension lie two important considerations.
One, touched on in verse 11, is the connection between departure and return.
The Ascension of Jesus is a departure of significance in its own right (our only direct experiences of Jesus in visible form are the occasional visions of Jesus granted to some believers) but it is also a departure which underlines a promise and a prediction in Jesus' own teaching: one day he will return.
We are now between the Ascension and the Second Coming. To commemorate the Ascension should be to anticipate the Second Coming.
Two, the Ascension as departure is also an event of conclusion.
The whole extraordinary character of the life of Jesus from miraculous conception to notable birth to special commissioning through baptism by John and the Spirit to death and resurrection is now brought to a conclusion.
Jesus remains alive but not present to us in any kind of physical sense. With the ascension we celebrate the end of the earthly life of Jesus.
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
The virtues of God as provider and protector of his people are praised in this psalm.
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Continuing through 1 Peter, today's reading returns to a key theme woven through this letter: participation in the sufferings of Christ. To suffer for and with Christ is 'blessed' (4:14) and thus Christians can appropriately 'rejoice' when suffering (4:13).
Yet Christians need a certain kind of vigilance (5:6-11). Life should be lived in such a manner as to not incur deserved suffering (4:15) and to avoid suffering that might be a consequence of giving in to the devil's wiles (5:8-9).
All of which is worthwhile (5:10-11).
With such a God on our side, we can confidently 'cast all [our] anxiety on him because he cares for [us]' (5:7).
Verse 11 is key to understanding why we have this reading on the Sunday after Ascension:
'I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you.'
John may not have a specific description of the event of ascension but he has a clear view of its occasion (see also 20:17).
This chapter is a final prayer of Jesus, sometimes called 'the high priestly prayer of Jesus.' Within the context of the gospel the content of the prayer is a masterful recollection of the great themes of the gospel (check out, for instance, words and phrases such as: glory, eternal life, sent, the hour has come, revealed, world, believe).
In continuation of our gospel readings in John through these weeks, the final verse reminds us of what is arguably the greatest theme in the gospel: the unity of the Father and the Son and the desire for unity between the disciples as a reflection of the continuity of divine life between God Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the disciples:
'... so that they may be one as we are one.'