05/29/22 – Exit Stage Right

EXIT STAGE RIGHT

May 29, 2022
Ascension Sunday
Acts 1: 1-11, Luke 24:44-53
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

I don’t know how many of your previous pastors have paid attention to the Ascension of Christ, but it is one of the oldest major feast days of the Christian liturgical year, dating as far back as the 4th century. To give you some historical perspective, Christmas did not become a major feast day until the 9th century. The date of Ascension comes from counting 40 days from Easter, and always occurs on a Thursday; but we are parsimonious with our worship services, so most denominations that observe the day, do so on the Sunday following and call it “Ascension Sunday.” We find the word, “ascension,” in the earliest official creed of the Christian Church, the Nicene Creed. It reads: He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven…”

I have always found the evolution of Christian art interesting. The artistic image of the Ascension was first seen, widely, in the Middle Ages. The Ascension was most often depicted with a group of people looking up with just the feet of Jesus appearing at the top of the work, sometimes sticking out of a cloud – an ancient version of a “Rocket Man” minus the jet pack. An excellent example of a more modern rendering of the Ascension was painted by Salvador Dali in 1958.

In Dali’s painting, the viewer looks from the perspective of being below the Christ figure looking directly up at the bottoms of his feet. The body of Christ is set in the background of Dali’s rendition of the nucleus of an atom. For Dali, this nucleus represented the unifying spirit of Christ. Above the atom is the face of a weeping woman with a white dove under her chin, representing the Holy Spirit.

Dali grew up with an atheist father and a Roman Catholic mother. He struggled with his faith, but eventually joined the Catholic Church, though his theology was not orthodox. He saw no conflict between science and religion. He eagerly studied the scientific discoveries of the 20th century, while he also immersed himself in the journals of the 16th-century Spanish mystic, John of the Cross.

In his 1942 autobiography he wrote:

“One thing is certain: nothing, absolutely nothing, in philosophic,
aesthetic, morphological, biological or moral discoveries of our
epoch denies religion. On the contrary, the architecture of the
temple of the special sciences has all its windows open to heaven.” (1.)

We look upon the Ascension with the suspicions of any event without firsthand witness or scientific authentication – those of us who trust in the scientific method, that is. So, when we read two differing accounts of Christ’s Ascension, from the same author no less, we aren’t sure how to interpret the conflicting data.

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. The reading this morning from Luke’s gospel comes immediately after Cleopas and his traveling companion met the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. With obvious Eucharistic imagery, after the risen Christ shared a meal with them, during which he blessed the bread, broke it, and shared it with them, they recognized this was Jesus, resurrected. After the meal, Luke tells us: “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 for their commission before he ascended into the clouds before a multitude of witnesses. 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 and perceptive. His facility with Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic; his knowledge of a variety of subjects; and his sophisticated literary style indicate he was well-educated. Biblical scholars point to this evidence to dispel the notion that Luke made a serious error with the discrepancy in his two different accounts of Christ’s Ascension. Luke was interested in presenting theological perspectives that would help his audiences understand Jesus’ identity and mission. In Luke’s two accounts of Christ’s Ascension, he wrote theological commentaries on the mission of the church and the universal, even cosmic, implications of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

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 can be embedded in differing worldviews and thus, can be expressed differently. To reach closer to 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, that 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 questions; and, most of all, he demonstrated God’s truth in the actions people 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 divine truth, not scientific evidence. Luke’s audience who, more than most contemporary Christians, would have read with the perspective of understanding the references to scripture passages from the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, which add to Luke’s expression of theological truths.

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. For another reference to the Old Testament, the 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 would not have needed to be delivered. Without the Holy Spirit, Jesus would have been inaccessible to all those living outside the time and space boundaries of his physical presence. Luke wanted his audience to see the broad scope of God’s intervention in history, which culminated in the long-awaited Messiah entering human life on earth and continues to serve as the mediator between God and humanity after his ascension to heaven.

It is important to remember that the worldview in Luke’s time was the world was flat. Heaven was where God resided, and it was above the earth. Gehanna, the place of the dead, or hell, if that was the theological belief, existed below the earth. In order to be with God, Jesus had to go up. Luke’s theological point was that Jesus was now with God. The great comfort of the Ascension is that Jesus promised we would be with God after our time on earth also. In these past few weeks in which many thousands of people, including children, were killed by young men wielding weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, our belief that the victims are now with God is our only solace. Though the numbers of the dead were fewer in Buffalo and Uvalde than in Ukraine, their deaths are mourned throughout the country.

On the day of Resurrection, after meeting the two travelers, Jesus then appears to the disciples in the upper room. He reminds them of what he had taught them from the bible, the Hebrew Bible: “These are the words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24: 44) Jesus informs his disciples that their reading of scripture will affirm what they had been taught. Luke writes: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (Luke 24: 45) So, Jesus made the point an open mind is necessary to understand the scriptures. The scriptures must be studied and pondered; they are not catchphrases to throw out to support one’s own desires.

With Jesus’ admonition to study the scriptures, Luke makes a continuous line between the story of God and the people of Israel. Jesus then tells the disciples: “Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” (24:46) But wait a minute, it was not written that the Messiah would rise from the dead on the third day. It just isn’t there. What was Luke doing? Although many people have tried to put Jesus in the Old Testament, he isn’t there. What is there is what Jesus read in the scriptures and used as a guide to his own life and ministry.

In a recent biblical commentary on the Ascension in the Christian Century magazine, my New Testament professor in seminary, Dr. Greg Carey, explains:

“Jesus opens the disciples; minds to understand the scriptures
differently because reading them a certain way requires starting
with new assumptions. From very early on Christians have argued
that Jews who did not acknowledge Jesus as Lord failed to understand
their own scriptures. We call this replacement theology, the
insidious notion that Christianity displaces Israel in God’s saving work.
A faithful God would never call Israel and then discard them, as too
many Christians imagine.”

Today we have another “insidious” theory called “White Replacement Theory.” In the same way Christians have demonized Jews with “Replacement Theology” to exalt themselves and marginalize Jews, this replacement theory is a traditional fear tactic to create a perspective that whites are under attack. The current theory that has gained new traction from far-right media figures, like Tucker Carlson on Fox News, is that there is a plot to replace whites, who have historically maintained privilege and power in this country, with non-whites. According to this theory, it is the Jews, who make up 2.4% of the population of the U.S. (and less than one percent worldwide) who are orchestrating the replacement of whites with non-whites to gain the level of political dominance whites have historically claimed.

Unfortunately, this replacement theory has spread through the various media, most particularly the internet, and impassioned young white males, who feel insecure and marginalized, to acts of violence targeted at non-whites. It was spouted at the White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville a few years ago; and, most recently by the 18-year-old, white male mass killer in Buffalo. In Luke and Acts, the author makes it clear that Christ’s mission was to expand God’s kingdom, not draw a wall around it. Paul’s letters testify to the extension of God’s covenant with Abraham to bring all nations of the earth to God.

The Ascension story in Acts targeted the collective memory of Luke’s 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 floodwaters 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 more examples of the significance of the number 40 as the time of preparation before an act of God’s salvation and renewal. It was Christ’s role in the salvation of humanity that Luke conveyed in Acts. Like Jesus’ own experience in the 40 days he spent in the wilderness after his baptism and before he began his ministry, in those 40 days after his Resurrection, Jesus prepared his disciples for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us in Acts: “After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them for forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3) Thus, Luke joins the gospel Ascension with the Ascension story in Acts. The disciples looked with a new perspective of the signs and grew in their understanding of who Jesus is and what he expects his disciples to do.

After Christ’s Ascension, Luke tells us that the disciples continued to gaze upward toward heaven. Two men dressed in white robes, the two required witnesses in Jewish law, 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. It seems Luke is telling us that Jesus does not want us to spend all of our time looking 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, and the Church is now charged with the continued expansion of God’s kingdom on earth.  Jesus, once enfleshed, now continues to be present in the Spirit. While the Ascension of Christ gives us comfort that the dead, including one day us, have joined Christ in God’s heavenly kingdom, it also confronts us with Jesus’ commandment to go out into the world to share God’s love for the sake of God’s kingdom on earth. Next week, on Pentecost, the crowning glory of Easter, we will celebrate that we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, which 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 the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, 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 go out and welcome others into fellowship and fill the empty tables of those who have been excluded from the abundant feast of life. Let us look outward to see Jesus alive and well around us; and may we see the places of need Jesus has already been before us. He is calling us to follow him there.

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

1.Evens, Rev. Jonathan. Salvador Dali: The Enigma of Faith. Artlyst Art News, April 19, 2020    https://www.artlyst.com/features/salvador-dali-enigma-faith-revd-jonathan-evens/

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
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