Readings for Sunday, May 24 – Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23
I remember standing by the edge of the softball field surprised to see it in use in the middle of the day. An excited group of Amish folks were playing a game at the retreat centre where I worked. It was the first time I had seen a group there like that. I walked up to a few older women, they were more interested in watching than playing, and asked what the occasion was. They told me it was Ascension Day.
At that point I wasn’t aware that “Ascension Day” was a “Day.” I learned later that several traditional Anabaptist groups continue to observe Ascension Day. I watched the softball game for a bit, then went on with my work.
Not all the special “Days” observed by our Anabaptist cousins seem particularly critical to the story of Jesus. For instance, some insist on observing January 1 as the day to commemorate Jesus’s circumcision. It’s good to remember that Jesus was Jewish, but I hesitate to think of how one would decorate for such a feast day.
The ascension of Jesus, on the other hand, is an important part of the story. We often overlook it, but it’s important. I think the softball players in straw hats and head-coverings had it right.
The ascension of Jesus is not about his balloon-like rise into the clouds. Notice the key verse from our Ephesians reading: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come (vv. 20-21).”
The early Christians didn’t envision Jesus sitting in the sky. They envisioned Jesus sitting on a throne. The commemoration of the ascension is about Jesus being welcomed to that place of honor and influence. We can actually say that the ascension is about the completion of the resurrection.
When early theologians told the story of God’s incarnation they told it as a story of descent and ascent. Remember, the incarnation is the Creator’s act of solidarity with us and the rest of creation. Early theologians told this story as a narrative that began with humility and ended with honor. It was the humility of giving up divine privilege, suffering voluntarily for others, and descending even to the depths of death itself (I Peter 4:6, Eph. 4:9, Apostle’s Creed). The resurrection of Jesus is just the start of the upward arc. Humility . . . then honor.
A lot of us refer to God as “Lord” when we pray or sing. The poets of Psalms do too. This language comes from a world where a lord ruled over domain. Many people might have worked on the lord’s property, but it was the lord’s goals and the lord’s character that ultimately mattered. Think of Robert Crowley, Lord of Grantham in Downton Abbey (the British TV show) or think of any CEO of any company ever. The “lord” language of the Bible comes from a similar place.
The ascension is how we get from Jesus as a dead carpenter-preacher to Jesus as shaper of our faith. The humble way of Jesus is not much more than voluntary (and maybe pointless) suffering without the validation of the ascension. Notice though that Jesus’ ascension to the throne doesn’t change his character or the life to which he calls us. Jesus’s authority has nothing to do with self-benefit and everything to do with wanting the best for others.
So what does this mean for us?
Well, first, and as we’ve already noted, it means a lot for the way we talk about God. But second, the fact that Jesus has ascended to the throne means that God has put “all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things.” Don’t miss that—all things!
We’re changing our lives quite a bit right now to account for the power of a virus. But scripture tells us that the humble carpenter-healer named Jesus of Nazareth is hitting the drum we should listen to. A virus depends on an unwilling host; Jesus is our willing and loving host. One of these should establish the deep rhythm of our lives, the other should not.
Whether we realize it or not, we always go about our lives assuming certain rules of the game. These rules tell us all kinds of things, but most significantly they tell us what or who deserves honor. The ascension tells us that humble service and care for the flourishing of others deserves honor. Because Jesus sits on a throne that is true.
We may not be able to play softball today, but I do hope we can join our spiritual cousins in remembering the ascension. If you’re looking for a reason to feast today, this is it. The ascension, the honoring of the one who joined creation even in the depths of death is worth celebrating!