‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.’
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
• Psalm 2:6-7
Although all the elements of the gospel remain irreducibly vital, Jesus’s reign is the most important stage for us today.
• Matthew W. Bates
…the ascension demands that we think differently about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation.
• N.T. Wright
• • •
This past week (and Sunday in some churches), Christians celebrated Jesus’ ascension. In our congregation, one of the readings was this description from Acts:
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
• Acts 1:6-11
In the Creed each week we affirm: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I don’t think it was until I started practicing my faith in a liturgical tradition that I ever heard much about the ascension. And even now, it is emphasized only once a year to any great extent. I think it’s safe to say that most of us don’t give it pride of place in our thinking or conduct of the Christian faith. However, the ascension is a key component, the climax and culminating event in the biblical narrative of Jesus.
One author who writes compellingly on this subject is Matthew W. Bates, in his book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King.
Bates makes the point that Jesus’ ascension, by which he was enthroned on high, is the very point of the gospel. The gospel is “The King Jesus Gospel” (McKnight). It is the story of “How God Became King” (Wright). The ascension is the means by which Jesus took the throne where he rules today. This is the culminating act in “the finished work of Christ” and it is the most important aspect of that work for our lives today. As Bates observes, the other works of Christ look back to the past — his incarnation, life and ministry, death, burial, and resurrection. But because of the ascension, a new age has been inaugurated — the age in which we now live — under King Jesus. As Bates puts it:
The kingdom of God, the reign of God on earth as in heaven, has been effected through God’s chosen agent, Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the king— God’s very own Son.
Some of the best material I have read on the ascension is from the pen of N.T. Wright, whom Bates also acknowledges as a key thinker today about the subject. In his book, Surprised by Hope, Wright asserts that our failure to grasp the significance of this event has led to all kinds of bad theology and practice.
First, in many churches where thinking has become captive to Enlightenment rationalism, the idea of a person “ascending to heaven” seems ridiculous. There has been a tendency to collapse the ascension into the resurrection and to spiritualize both. “He ascended into heaven” means something like “Jesus went to heaven when he died and is now present with us all.”
On the other hand, others, equally captive to modernism, insist upon a purely literalistic reading of the text: Jesus rose bodily into the air and “up” into the clouds, showing his friends the bottom of his feet before he disappeared up into “heaven.” I’m not sure that’s exactly what smartphone video would have captured, but whatever the disciples saw (or thought they saw), Jesus somehow disappeared from their sight and was no longer available to sensate experience. One problem with a purely literal interpretation is that it tends to reinforce a certain view of “heaven” — that it is a place which is “up there” in the sky beyond the clouds. I’m persuaded that the text is trying to describe something rather indescribable, and that it leans more toward metaphor than literal reporting.
I find Wright’s alternative envisioning of “heaven” to be persuasive.
Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Mathew’s Gospel, “in heaven and on earth.”
• Surprised by Hope, 111
In the light of this, Wright makes the case that the ascension is of vital importance for the church today because of what it says about our relationship to the risen and enthroned Christ. What it says is that Jesus is both with his people and absent from and over his people. When people downplay the ascension, Wright says, our tendency is to emphasize the presence of Jesus with the church, which can easily lead to identifying Jesus with the church and embracing a triumphalism that sees the church as the answer to the world’s woes. However, if we take the ascension seriously, we know that Jesus is not only with us but also that he also stands over us and addresses us as Lord and King, along with all people and all creation. By this we are humbled to realize our calling to serve the world in our King’s name as he did and as he instructs, empowered by his presence in the midst of our flaws and weaknesses. “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” Jesus said, “Therefore, go…”
Let me close by mentioning that the ascension and enthronement of Jesus is not only an article of faith and rejoicing for me. It also causes my soul deep anguish and trouble for the questions it raises. The big one is this, and if you’ve been reading Internet Monk, you will recognize it as my greatest theodicy question: If Jesus is on the throne and reigning, why then is the world still in the shape it’s in? Why do we still cry and lament, “How long, O Lord?”
I don’t know how to adequately answer that question and am still troubled by it, but I find some help in two observations.
First, Jesus himself told us that the kingdom and the way it comes is a mystery. It is like a mustard seed, like leaven, like buried treasure. Whatever I might expect “triumph” to look like is probably misguided. Add to this the fact that Jesus destroyed death by dying himself, and I realize that my notions of Christ’s “reign” and how it will play out are not likely to be very accurate.
Second, the fact that the next step after Jesus’ ascension was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church to empower us for service shows me that a major part of the kingdom-coming plan is for God’s Spirit-filled people to participate in the ongoing work of Jesus on earth, doing it in the same fashion he did — by laying down our lives for others daily. The Epistle to the Ephesians tells us:
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. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [emphasis mine] (Eph 1:20-23).
Perhaps my “theodicy” is more of an “anthropodicy” — why haven’t we, as the King’s ambassadors, done a better job of taking up our cross and following him?