05/13/18 – A Writer’s Eye on Jesus

A WRITER’S EYE ON JESUS

May 13, 2018
Ascension Sunday
Acts 1: 1-11, Luke 24:44-53
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

The late Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers of the 20thand 21stcentury, described an unusual experience at a small rural church he visited. The service began with Communion. After they celebrated Communion they sang a hymn and then the whole church walked outside. Being a preacher, he was mightily concerned there had been no sermon, so he asked someone: “Isn’t there going to be a sermon?” “Yeah, yeah” was the response. And, sure enough, after they came back into the church they sat down and listened to the sermon. After the service was over, Craddock asked: “What was that about?” The response he got was: “The Bible says after the Lord’s Supper, they sang a hymn and went out.” “You’ve got to be kidding!”  The reply: “That’s what the Bible says.”

Some of us Protestants have difficulty with understanding the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist as it was known from the time of the early church. The Bible tells us a lot about the meaning of breaking bread in fellowship, but we do not get a user’s manual that spells it out in steps 1,2 and 3. It is an experience to be shared, not a requirement to be accomplished. Jesus told his disciples in the Upper Room: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.” He didn’t tell us who should be invited and who should not. He did not tell us to make sure we don’t do it the way some of our fellow Christians do it. The tradition of the Eucharist comes from the first known book of worship for the Christian church called the Didache. This book was used in the second century, long before the Church became the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire. This sacrament is our here and now, a continual encounter with the Risen Christ. In the same way, the bible is a living, God-breathed, account of God’s relationship with humanity. As my mentor often explained: {In the Bible,] “God is not in the words, God is in the spaces between them.”

If we read the gospel and the Acts text today as literally as that little church Fred Craddock visited, we would be quite confused by our Luke and Acts passages read today. The reading from Luke’s gospel comes immediately after Cleopas and his traveling companion met the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, broke bread with him, then recognized this was Jesus resurrected. After the meal, Luke tells us Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Luke 24:27) Then, from where we started our reading today, Luke tells us they watched as Jesus ascended into the clouds to heaven – on the evening of his resurrection.

However, we read at the start of Acts, written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, that the risen Christ stayed with his disciples for 40 days after the resurrection teaching them to prepare them for their commission before he ascended into the clouds before a multitude of witnesses. At the end of Luke Jesus ascends on Easter evening. In Acts, he ascends 40 days after the Resurrection Day. Did the author, I’ll refer to him as Luke, have a memory loss? Did he need a proofreader? No. From what biblical scholars have deduced from both Luke and Acts, the author was intelligent, well-educated and perceptive. His facility with Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic are evidenced. He demonstrates knowledge of a variety of subjects and his literary style is quite sophisticated. Luke did not make a mistake.

Luke wrote a theological commentary on the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. If we get bogged down in applying Enlightenment science and logic – that being the modern perspective of 17ththrough the early 20thcentury mind — we miss the point of Luke’s message in his gospel and in Acts. This is where the Postmodern thought reigning today helps with biblical interpretation. Truth is embedded in differing worldviews and thus, is relative. To reach closer to the truth, one must consider the perceptions, cultural norms, etc. of the person espousing “the truth.” Some truths are easier to get to than others; and, we know from politicians and the media, even verifiable facts can be presented, or excluded, in such a way as to lead others to reach different conclusions about a fact.

Each gospel writer had their own perception of truth and made different choices as to how to present the truth as they saw it and how they understood their audience who would receive their writing. Remember, Jesus did not give his audience much in the way of explanatory details. He spoke in parables and asked his audience’s questions; and, most of all he demonstrated God’s truth in his actions his audience witnessed. Jesus’ aim was transformation, not indoctrination.

Luke’s audience would have had an easier time ascertaining the important message without getting bogged down in details that were meant to provide truth, not scientific evidence. Each description of the circumstances of Christ’s Ascension was designed to articulate theological truths in a meaningful way for his audience, who would understand the many references to scripture passages from the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.

Luke was not writing history that could have narrated a video recording if he had access to modern technology. He was writing about Jesus and the early Christian Church that traced the phenomenon of God’s sending a promised Messiah; and, then sparked a mysterious, yet undisputed, the spread of the Christian faith throughout the Roman Empire. Luke makes it clear this miraculous spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ was the work of the Holy Spirit.

Luke is the only gospel writer that includes a description of the Ascension. Mark says nothing on the subject and Matthew and John merely say Jesus ascended into heaven – that is all.  In Acts’ description of the Ascension, Luke draws heavily on the Hebrew Bible to demonstrate to his Jewish audience that Christ’s ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension were the fulfillment of God’s promise to the people of Israel. Another reference to the Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah, both ascended and their prophets-in-training, Joshua and Elisha, respectively, then received their prophetic spirit. If Jesus had not left, which he had always warned his disciples would happen, the promised gift of the Holy Spirit pronounced by the prophet Amos, would not have needed to be delivered. Jesus delayed would be Jesus denied to all those living outside the boundaries of his physical presence.

It is relevant to mention, that in the Jewish faith of the time, to attest to an event there had to be two male witnesses. I apologize for bringing up this patriarchal tradition on Mother’s Day. In both Luke and Acts, this law is fulfilled. We may have some hesitancy in picturing Jesus as a  “Rocket Man”; but, it is important to consider the worldview of that time. It was believed that the world was flat. Heaven was where God resided, and it was above the earth. Gehenna, the place of the dead, or hell, if that was the theological belief, existed below the earth. In order to be with God, he had to go up.

Luke’s account of the Ascension targeted the collective memory of his Jewish audience. The inclusion of the 40-day period in which Jesus continued to teach his disciples through the Hebrew Scriptures about the kingdom of God was a powerful symbol. Noah, in his ark, spent 40 days in the water before the flood waters receded; Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years; the great prophet Elijah spent 40 days in the wilderness, and there are far more examples of the significance of the number 40 as the time of preparation before an act of God’s salvation and renewal. In those 40 days after his Resurrection, Jesus prepared his disciples for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

God’s presence was often indicated by the imagery of a cloud in the Old Testament. For example, when the Hebrew slaves fled from Egypt, God went with them as pillars of clouds; when Moses met God on Mount Sinai, the mountaintop was enveloped in a cloud. Through the study of Scripture, the disciples were reminded that God has always had the power to raise the dead to new life. For example, remember those barren women, like Sarah and Hannah, who were dead in a society that deemed barren women to be of no value. They were raised to new life by becoming mothers. That is the transformation that Jesus had created in his healing, forgiving, and accepting those who were not truly living. Jesus raised from death to life those who were as if dead due to their illnesses and disabilities, their slavery to shame in a society that equated societal bestowed honor with human value, and those who were marginalized by their lowly status in their communities.

After Christ’s Ascension, Luke tells us that the disciples continued to gaze upward toward heaven. Two men dressed in white robes, those two required witnesses, appeared. One might speculate that the two men in white were Moses and Elijah, who appeared with Jesus at the Transfiguration. Luke intended his audience to understand that God’s promises to Israel had always been fulfilled and would continue to be fulfilled.

Jesus promised them he would return but warned them not to concern themselves with when. Instead, we are to live in the comforting assurance of his promised return as well as the challenge of being prepared for his judgment. That is both our comfort and challenge as a church. These divine witnesses told the disciples to stop looking up. It seems Luke is telling us that Jesus does not want us to look vertically toward the afterlife, but horizontally to recognize the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in this world now. We are to look out to see the continued presence and power of our Triune God.  The book of Acts reminds us that God truly showed up in the flesh and blood Jesus. God shared the sacrifice, struggle, and glory of His Son. Jesus was enfleshed and is now still present in the Spirit. Next week, on Pentecost we will be reminded that we have been promised the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus in our life together, that will give us what we need to carry on Christ’s mission.

That is why we come to Christ’s table — to be strengthened by the presence of the Risen Christ through his Spirit that was promised to us. Like Cleopas and his fellow traveler, we recognize our risen Lord in the breaking of bread. The power of our collective memory sharpens our vision of the kingdom of God. Our gratitude to be welcomed and fed inspires us to go out and welcome others into fellowship and fill the empty tables of those that are hungry. Let us look outward to see Jesus alive and well around us; and, the places of need Jesus has already been before us and is calling us to follow him there.

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God.

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois