He is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Aren't you going to join me? This works better with a group gathered in one place.
He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
Wait, am I on the wrong Sunday?
I'm not sure. It's not just me that is confused. Theologians have been wrestling with this question since the early church. When Jesus left the disciples as he was blessing them, what happened? Why did that happen? In the early church that starts right where this text ends, the disciples proclaimed the good news, what we now call the Gospel, from their memories of their experiences of Jesus. Imagine trying to remember things from the last three years, not knowing how important they were until now. We would lose sight of which was the most important, what was an authentic story, and what didn't seem to belong to the good news. From the beginning Christians have been trying to get on the same page. Now we at least try to have the same talking points. Even the bible we use has been through some revisions. The current bible that the Catholic Church uses includes 7 books considered to be authentic books of the Old Testament. Protestant bibles do not include those books as they have judged them to be apocryphal, or not authentic. (I've included a note at the end of the web version of the sermon for more about this.) The stories in our bible are only a portion of much of the writing at the time. Through the years, church councils have made decisions about these writings, and the outcome has been denominational differences.
From Karl Barth (blog) One theologian who wrote a great deal about Christianity who you probably have heard of is Karl Barth. Karl Barth was a 20th century Swiss theologian who wrote The Church Dogmatics, a four/five volume set published between 1932 and 1967. (The fifth volume was never finished.) In one volume Karl Barth gives his assessment of ascension. He said, “Christians do not believe in the empty tomb, but in the living Christ.”
Opposition to Barth often uses this quote to prove that he doesn't believe in the resurrection. The context of the statement matters. This statement was part of a conversation Karl Barth was having with readers about the resurrection and the ascension. He was discussing whether either of them were true, or if the two were the same thing, or if you could talk about one without the other, and how they might be related, and why that mattered.
A full treatise on Barth is something that is so far above my pay grade! But in “simpler” terms, Barth said that “…[the empty tomb] is indispensible if we are to understand what the New Testament seeks to proclaim as the Easter message. Taken together they mark the limits of the Easter period, at one end the empty tomb, and at the other the ascension.” The resurrection stories have so much detailed and exciting narrative and are in all four gospels. The ascension however, barely gets a few vague words. Barth's statement says that both are necessary.
“Luke's gospel is the only one that chronicles the departure of Jesus. Luke records two ascensions, one on Easter day, and one after forty days. The ascension both closes the period of Jesus' ministry and opens the period of the church's mission, so both accounts are appropriate.” (R. Alan Culpepper, NIB Commentary) And yet, they both are necessary for Christians' proclamation of the Easter story.
One commentator puts the liturgical messages like this: “The incarnation message for us is that misery loves company (so here's God in human form), the crucifixion message is kind of like, 'a LOT of misery' loves company (suffering and death)! The resurrection message is the victory of God over death. But the Ascension, makes a way for us,” the people living now. (Rolf Jacobson, WorkingPreacher podcast)
The ascension has been a topic of discussion from the very beginnings of the church. Those discussions and outcomes have played an important role in the creation of the early creeds of the church. The church faced much opposition for the first 300 years of its existence. Since much of the early church was illiterate, having something short and simple to repeat was helpful. As people discussed the sorts of things that were required in order to believe and therefore be baptized in the early church, the creeds have always been a response to current happenings in the church. Our church, PC(USA) is part of a creedal tradition that includes even these earliest statements about what we believe Each new creed, or catechism, or declaration, or confession reflects the direction of the church that ended here with the PC(USA)
We can see how the ascension played a part in shaping those statements. The two examples I will discuss, put an emphasis on the ascension is the tiniest of ways, but so crucial.
The primary way they do that, is by the tenses of some of the words that were chosen. Here are two examples from The Apostles Creed, and the Nicene Creed, two of the earliest creeds that we accept as part of our lineage of the reformed tradition.
The Apostles Creed
The Apostles Creed wasn't written by the apostles, but it does reflect the struggles of the first century church. When the Apostles Creed was first written down about 180 C.E. it was written in order to refute competing ideas. By the 2nd and 3rd centuries when there was much persecution, additions were made to the creed to reflect that current time. A statement about the forgiveness of sins was added. There were more revisions in the 5th century, and by the 8th century it came to its current form. Listen to the tenses in this small portion of the Apostles Creed (I know there are some who will say this out loud with me.).
“…and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
Again, all past tense -- was, suffered, descended, rose, ascended” and then present tense – sitteth. And the future, shall.
The ascension is the point at which everything changes. The ascension brings the entire Christian story to us, no matter when we call “now.” It was for the apostles, is for us, and is for the future.
The Nicene Creed:
Council of Nicea was convened in 312 C.E. by the Emperor Constantine as part of his plan to elevate Christianity to favored status in the new Empire created when he conquered the Roman Empire, having credited Jesus with the win. Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in order to settle a rift occurring in the church. Notice the tense used in these lines from the following: From the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed:
“For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Notice how the past, present and future are represented in this statement. Everything is past tense, until the phrase about the ascension -- Jesus came,, was, became, crucified, buried, rose; but then “he ascended into heaven and is…” “He will come again…his kingdom will have no end.”
The ascension is the very thing that brings Jesus to the present. Constantine's “now,” and “now” for you and me, and the “now” of the future. Forever.
In a way, this text, the final lines in the gospel of Luke, set us up for Part II. Starting with the resurrection and continuing until now, Luke's focus goes from stories of proof of Jesus' resurrection, Commissioning of the disciples, including you and me, so we now take over as the proof of Jesus' story, and Blessing. Being blessed is an active stance. We are blessed for our continuing task of action. Next week, the season of Pentecost begins with scripture from the book of Acts, where Luke continues the story where he left off in the gospel.
For that reason, it is important that we too, in 2020, feel the blessing of Christ that came to the disciples that day. We are in the same position in so many ways. The current isolation and inability to do so many things, the fear of all of the unknown pieces about COVID-19, might leave us feeling just as they did. Surprised, confused, doing their best with what they had, following their own best understandings of the events. We are also are full of confusion, disbelief that our quarantine period is lasting so long, the start of the next stage is not set, and we are doing our best at understanding the events. Now just as then, our best understandings differ.
We have to believe that our faith comes from remembering Jesus' presence at other times and being confident that Jesus will never let us go. I invite us to include God in any of our struggles and confused feelings. When something comes up that is troubling, ask yourself to remember another time when you felt that way. Our experiences of the risen Christ are the ones we go to, just like the apostles did, to help lead us.
Commentator R. Alan Culpepper writes (NIB Commentary), “The experience of the presence of the risen Lord led the disciples to see that he had been raised, and the experience of the individual believer and the community of believers is still the foundation of faith.”
So go ahead say it!
Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
1 The seven books which compose the Protestant Apocrypha, first published as such in Luther's Bible (1534) are considered canonical Old Testament books by the Catholic Church, affirmed by the Council of Rome (AD 382) and later reaffirmed by the Council of Trent; they are also considered canonical by the Eastern Orthodox Church and are referred to as anagignoskomena per the Synod of Jerusalem. The Anglican Communion accepts "the Apocrypha for instruction in life and manners, but not for the establishment of doctrine (Article VI in the Thirty-Nine Articles)", and many "lectionary readings in The Book of Common Prayer are taken from the Apocrypha", with these lessons being "read in the same ways as those from the Old Testament". The first Methodist liturgical book, The Sunday Service of the Methodists, employs verses from the Apocrypha, such as in the Eucharistic liturgy. The Protestant Apocrypha contains three books (1 Esdras, 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh) that are accepted by many Eastern Orthodox Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches as canonical, but are regarded as non-canonical by the Catholic Church and are therefore not included in modern Catholic Bibles.
“There is no sense in trying to visualize the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations.” Karl Barth
“Jesus ascending to heaven” by John Singleton Copley
The Ascension, by Rembrandt
Reverend Debra McGuire
May 24, 2020