25 May 2009

the necessity of ascension

Over the past number of months (perhaps couple of years in some respects) I have become aware of the underemphasis of the ascension of Jesus among Western evangelicals (Acts 1). There are perhaps a number of reasons for this, some of which are quickly identifiable. 1) the disruption of Luke 24 and Acts 1 by the insertion of John's Gospel leads to a dissociation of death and resurrection from the beginning of Acts. 2) Modern Western evangelicalism has been quite content to focus on the cross as a means of individual salvation that the narrative seems exhausted by the time one reaches the empty tomb. 3) Building on this second point, the attention given to the cross as individual salvation leads to a natural underemphasis of the central theme of the ascension, namely, that Jesus is now installed as Lord of the entire universe. There are perhaps more, but this seems to be a good starting point.

So it seems that much of my teaching and preaching on Jesus comes down to this particular point: that culmination of his messianic work is not a two part event (as has been so easily passed along for some time) in death-resurrection; rather, the culmination of the Messiah's work comes in the three part event of death-resurrection-ascension. Further, it appears as though the theme of Son of Man cannot be complete without this particular triad, for Acts 1 is the moment when Daniel 7 finds fulfillment - the clouds of glory enveloping the one to whom the authority and dominion of Yhwh himself is given. (Amazingly, this passage has nothing to do with Jesus' spatial movement.)

Even further, the ascension of Jesus is the necessary step between resurrection and the Spirit's outpouring at Pentecost. I find it odd how many read through Acts 1 simply thinking it is a prelude to Acts 2 without giving it much regard. But this assumes that Acts 1 has nothing of value on its own, dismissing Jesus' words to his disciples and the promise of the coming Spirit. Instead of this dismissiveness, we should read this passage as integral to the ongoing story of Jesus as it moves through the work of the church. Simply put, in order for Jesus to have the authority to send his Spirit into all the world he must first be the rightful sovereign over all the world. And this is precisely what the early church proclaims as the Spirit comes upon them - making this the outworking of the remaining narrative of Acts.

In the end, it must also be emphasized that the scene in Acts 1 is not Jesus' going away from the world. This is a reading which has too often been assumed by believers who are content to read the text with physical eyes only (and those who have allowed the competing voices from the world to direct their biblical interpretation). But if the reading of this scene is set in the context outlined here then we will be able to see that the ascension is about Jesus' drawing near to his creation, especially because of the movement of the Spirit upon the world through the church. And much theology begins to take shape here. Unfortunately, there remains an evangelical community who still acts as though Jesus is not present in this world.

Hopefully, we will not find ourselves in the same position as those 'Men of Galilee' who were caught staring into the sky, trying to get a glimpse of Jesus instead of seeing the work of the world as moving outward.

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