Ascension Day: 2 June, 2011
Fr Tom Brown
Associate Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
It's quite hard to know what to make of the accounts in the New Testament about the weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus: the empty tomb, the appearances of the risen Christ, leading on to the Ascension and then Pentecost. These accounts can be quite puzzling. For example, there's disagreement between the gospels about the number and names of the women who came to the empty tomb (John 20.1 cf. Matthew 28.1, Mark 16.1, Luke 24.10). According to Luke, the risen Christ orders his disciples to stay in Jerusalem until Pentecost (24.49), yet in Matthew and John we find them in Galilee (Matthew 28.16, John 21). Why, on several occasions, do the disciples at first fail to recognise the risen Christ? And the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on the disciples: according to John this happened on the evening of Easter day (20.22); according to Luke it occurred at Pentecost, fifty days later (Acts 2). And the Ascension itself: at the end of his gospel Luke says Jesus ascended to heaven on Easter Day (24.51). In his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke says it happened forty days later, as we're commemorating it this evening.
These difficulties and inconsistencies in the Easter stories arise, I believe, if we regard the incidents between Good Friday and Pentecost simply as a continuation of the events of Jesus' lifetime: events like his baptism, his entry into Jerusalem, the crucifixion. We need to recognise that the Eastertide accounts are different in kind from the accounts of Jesus' incarnate life. Everyone in Jerusalem on Good Friday could go and see Jesus carrying his cross and being nailed to it. But the risen Christ could be encountered, not by just anyone, but only by those whose minds and hearts were open and receptive: those whose eyes are opened, like the two disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24.31).
So what are we to make of these Eastertide accounts? To help us understand, I'd like to look at the account of the crucifixion in St John's Gospel. John depicts Christ on the cross very differently from the other gospels. In John, Jesus' last words are not a cry of desolation, 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' but a shout of triumph: 'It is finished!' (John 19.30). The Greek word translated 'finished' doesn't just mean that the crucifixion is ending. It has the sense of completion, of accomplishment, of having achieved a purpose. Everything Jesus came to do has now been done. Jesus has now achieved the whole purpose of his coming into the world. As John depicts the crucifixion, Jesus is not a pitiable figure of defeat and agony; he is shown as lifted up, exalted, a figure of triumph. Even now, as Jesus dies, the tree of defeat becomes the tree of victory. 'It is finished!' The whole work of Christ is at this moment completed: incarnation, death, exaltation and glorification. After saying 'It is finished' Jesus 'bowed his head and gave up his spirit'. This is the translation in the version we use. But in the Greek of the gospel it's not his spirit but the Spirit. And the verb translated 'gave up' can have the meaning of deliberately passing something on. Jesus 'bowed his head and handed on the Spirit'. That is to say, at the moment of his death, Jesus handed on the Holy Spirit to the band of faithful people who stood by the cross: his mother, the beloved disciple and the other women. This tiny group of people can be seen to represent the church; indeed at this moment they are in a sense the whole church, the only ones who are faithful; everyone else has abandoned Jesus.
So as John describes it, everything happens at that instant of completion: death, exaltation, and the bestowal of the Spirit upon the church; Good Friday, Easter Day, Ascension and Pentecost, all at once, instantaneous, all compressed into a moment. And in one sense it did all happen then, at this moment in eternity, we might say. But in another sense, the significance of it all has to be, as it were, unpacked for us who live, not in eternity, but in time. I suggest that this is what the New Testament accounts of Eastertide are doing: unpacking what happened in that instant, in order to bring out the full significance of God's work in Christ.
I'd like to mention briefly two major themes which the Ascension in particular points to. One theme is that Jesus is now Lord. Jesus, St Paul tells us, "became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him . . . [so that] every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord . . ." (Philippians 2.8-11). In raising Christ from the dead, as Paul sees it, God is exalting him to glory, to sit at his right hand. I suggest that the ascension is best understood as pointing to this aspect of Easter. Rather than seeing it as a historical commemoration, we can see the ascension as how Luke emphasises this particular aspect of Easter: the exaltation of Christ as Lord, to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven.
Jesus Christ is Lord. This of course has implications for our own lives. If Jesus Christ really is Lord, this means he is my Lord and your Lord. So the Ascension should perhaps prompt each of us to ask ourselves whether this is really so; to ask, who is my Lord? Is it God? Is it myself? Whom do I worship and serve? God or something else? Who or what really determines how I live my life?
A second theme that the Ascension points to is that, when Jesus ascends into heaven, he takes in some sense into the Godhead his human nature — our human nature. The Epistle to the Hebrews sees Christ who has been exalted into heaven as our high priest. "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses," the epistle tells us, "but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin". As a result, the writer to the Hebrews tells us, we can "approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (4.14-15). Christ's experience as a human being, tempted as we are, is not forgotten in his exaltation to the right hand of the Father, where he ever lives to make intercession for us. So we can be confident that in him we 'receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.'
So on Ascension Day, we remember Christ exalted as Lord, and we acknowledge that he is our Lord. Yet when we fail to live up to our calling to live as the disciples of our Lord, we can still approach God by the new and living way Christ opened for us, knowing that the one who intercedes for us shares our human nature and so is able to sympathise with our weaknesses.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.