Rev. Doug Floyd Sunday After Ascension 2018
Today is the Sunday after Ascension, and I want to reflect a little on ascension. Every time I try to write something about ascension, it quickly becomes too theological and quickly, I feel like people will lose interest. It will be difficult. It is one of these grand themes of the church year. In fact, it’s considered a very important event in the year of the church, and yet when you begin to talk about it, it sounds a bit mystical, it sounds a bit theological, a bit confusing. I’m just going to stick with the prayer of John 17, and through that we’ll see a lens into the Ascension.
John does not include the same kind of story of the ascension that Luke and Mark include. Luke is the story we’re most familiar with: Jesus is resurrected; he’s talking to the disciples; he puts his hands out and blesses them; and then he looks up into heaven and departs from their eyes, so they no longer see him. It’s an unusual story, and yet it significant that the nature of humanity, is being brought up into God’s presence.
John 17 doesn’t tell that story, but he shares this prayer that’s actually right before the crucifixion. This prayer is like a glimpse into Jesus’ intercession for the church that continues to this day. So we see something in this prayer that is a mystery and there are a few other places that we’ll talk about where we’ll see this mystery repeated in the New Testament.
There is a movement of descension and ascension in this prayer. I just read part of the text because it’s a rather long prayer, and even that, some of the words can sound jumbled because he repeats certain phrases over and over. Difficult for me to read at times. Jesus is with the disciples. They’ve had what we call a last supper. He’s been communicating to them the love of the Father. He’s been communicating to them that he loves them, that they are his friends, no longer servants, and they are called to be lovers.
Then he offers this prayer. Within a few hours of offering this prayer, he will be captured, betrayed, crucified. We are reading it during Easter, so we read it through the lens of the resurrection. John writes, “When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted his eyes to heaven.” We already see this upward movement from the disciples to the focus on the Father.
He says, “Father the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son might glorify you, that you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Now as we read this prayer, we see that Jesus will focus on his relationship with the Father but then he’ll also focus on his relationship with the disciples. Then he’ll focus on the relationship that the disciples have with the disciples, and then finally with the disciples that are to come after them, which would include us.
Now what’s fascinating about the prayer is that the prayer that Jesus offers for himself to the Father is parallel to the prayers that he will offer on behalf of the disciples. We see a movement in this prayer, descent, moving downward, and ascent, moving upward. This might help us begin to think about the mystery of the ascension. The mystery of Christ being lifted up.
During the liturgy, in just a moment we will pray, lift up your hearts. This is the Sursum Corda. When we pray lift up your hearts, we are actually praying within the prayer of the ascension, because it is the idea of the people of God being lifted up into the presence of God, which is a mystery.
Jesus says, “Father the hour has come. Glorify your son, that your son might glorify you, since you have given him all authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” We see in this verse, that eternal life is that they may know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom the Father have sent, a description of the mission of Jesus. “Whom the Father has sent.”
In Philippians 2, Paul writes that Jesus who being in very nature God, chose not to cling to his position, but becomes a man. Here is the mystery of God, the Son of God becoming man. This is the descent: the mission. He’s sent by the Father on mission to retrieve a people who have turned away from love. If we could follow the whole story in scripture, we see this image of a people turned away from love, turned toward self-love in a sense. Their incapacity to truly love one another becomes prison that we are imprisoned in our own selfish love.
Karl Barth says that Jesus goes to the far country, which is the language of the parable of the prodigal son. The prodigal son has left his father, taken his inheritance and gone to the far country, meaning he has spent it on all sorts of things that will destroy him. The way Barth describes Jesus’ descent, we discover that he has come to us because we are all in a far country and we cannot find our way home. We have lost our ability to return home.
So Jesus descends. This is the whole story of incarnation. The church year starts with the Advent, the waiting on the coming of the Lord, the Christmas story, the birth of the Son, the story of his life, the descent. He’s come to dwell among man. Emmanuel, God with us. He’s sent to gather us. The motion that we see with the disciples is the image of gathering. He gathers the disciples and if we had time this morning, we could explore how this connects with the whole story of scripture, the great narrative of God’s redeeming action. This image of gathering is consistent all through scripture.
God has come to gather the people who have turned away from him. We see Abraham when he calls Abraham. Abraham will be the father of many nations. Through Abraham, he will begin to gather the nations to himself. In fact, the blessing upon Abraham is, I bless you and I will bless all families through you. All the families of the earth represent different racial groups. These different people from across the nations have a longing for God, but they have turned away from true love, and so humans have been trapped in their own brokenness.
Many of the ancient cultures, particularly the culture Abraham would come from, offer child sacrifice as a part of worship. It is one way that love is twisted in these other cultures. In some ways, the story Abraham offering Isaac up on the mount, is a renunciation of child sacrifice, because he doesn’t. God provides a way.
We see God gathering all through the Old Testament, drawing people to himself. Jesus fulfills this gathering when he comes to gather the disciples to himself. They are living in his presence, the whole story of his life, learning the way of love, and they are being changed. He’s been instructing them and teaching them, and now he’s getting ready o go to the cross. Jesus says to the Father, “I glorified you on the earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.”
In the story of the gospels, we see Jesus constantly pointing to the Father. All that he does is pointing to the Father. He’s revealing God. If I want to know what God looks like, I look at Jesus. There’s no hidden God behind Jesus Christ. I see the love of God in Christ, poured out for those who are broken, healing the leper, the blind, redeeming those who are suffering, casting out the demons. He is gathering those who are brokenhearted, and we see the heart of God.
Jesus reveals that Father by healing and restoring the world that has been turned away from love. He has glorified the Father on the earth. This is what the descent is. His poured out as a love offering. That’s the image. He is the Icon of God. What we have seen in the story of Jesus is actually the mystery of the love between the Father, Son and Spirit. There’s a life constantly being poured out on behalf of the others.
The Son pours out his life in live on behalf of the Father. The Father pours out his life back on the Son. We see this constant movement between Father, Son and Spirit of love, poured out. So Jesus has glorified the Father. He’s poured out his life. Now he’s moving toward the cross, and he says, “Father glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had with you before the world existed.” This is the ascension. In John’s Gospel, the ascension is happening as Jesus moves to the cross because Jesus says this is the moment of glory.
From the cross, we will see the glory of God. We see the cross is the image of absolute humiliation, absolute brokenness. It almost seems a mockery. God embraces the instrument of execution. If you read Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, he writes a whole section talking about the guillotine and the love of that tool of death during the French Revolution. They treated the guillotine like Rome treated the cross. If you can imagine people wearing guillotine around their shirt on a chain, it would seem almost repulsive to us, some instrument of torture.
That is what the image of the cross is, when we wear it. It is an instrument of torture, and yet Jesus calls it an instrument of glory because it’s the moment he can pour out everything, every ounce of his life on behalf of the Father, his love for the Father, but in the process, he is redeeming humanity. For him this is the ascension, and if we had time, we could look through John. When we reach John 18 and 19 and the story of the cross, John begins to use the language of kingship.
When Jesus ascends to the cross, the king is on his throne. He has defeated all the powers that have entrapped humanity and the chief power of all, death. Sin and death have been broken. He’s taken his human body and he’s offered it in death because of our brokenness, and in his resurrection, we are raised with him. The cross, the resurrection and then the ascension are all seen together as what the church has called the exultation. Jesus is being exalted to his throne.
As Jesus continues to pray he’s beginning to pray for the disciples. He says, “I manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.” For the sake of time, I’ll just skip down through some verses so I can get to the heart of this. He says, “I’ve given them the words you gave me.” Here he’s taught the disciples. They’ve come to know the truth that I came from you. They believe that you sent me.
“I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me. All mine are yours and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I’m coming to you.” Jesus is speaking of the coming ascension. “Holy Father keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I guarded them. Not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction that the scripture might be fulfilled. Now I am coming to you, that these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I’ve given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world.”
“I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is the truth, and as you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. And for their sake, I consecrate myself.” That was a lot of reading, but I’m trying to just saturate our minds in this text because we could just keep meditating on this text.
He has brought the disciples into this communion of love that he has known with the Father and now as he is going to the cross, soon he will, after the resurrection, they will not see him. He is now sending them out into the world, which is exactly how the prayer starts. The Father has sent him into the world. Now we see the movement of descension in the disciples. The disciples are being sent out, and what are the disciples doing? Gathering people in love.
If we follow the whole trajectory of the New Testament, the disciples are traveling. Paul is on his way to Rome. According to the stories of the church, various disciples went to various parts of the world, to India, to Turkey, to different places. They are going out. They’re sent. That’s the descension. The descension involves the pouring out of our own lives. Paul says he’s poured out his own life as a drink offering, that he is loving the world just as Jesus had loved the world.
Paul is imaging Christ now wherever he goes. His life is being poured out on behalf of others, to serve others. In the opening part of the bulletin, I put this language that Joseph Ratzinger speaks of, that for us to understand the ascension, it requires a descension on our part, that we bow down and see the feet of one another. Because I cannot behold the glory of God until I’ve seen your feet and I’ve knelt before you and served you, because that is the whole movement of love.
The movement of love is my life, like Christ is being poured out for others, and I’m entering into this movement of love. This movement of being poured out. Descension and then being lifted up. The Father is glorifying me, transforming me, raising me up. If we continue to follow this, and I’m not going to keep reading large sections, but what we see is that just as Jesus has had a relationship with the Father, the Father to the Son, the Son, Jesus has with the disciples.
He has revealed to them the same love he knows with the Father. So we have the parallel image of a communion in the godhead between Father, Son and Spirit and a communion between Jesus and the disciples. As Jesus continues to pray, he prays that the disciples will have this communion among themselves that they will know the same kind of love. This will be worked out in the New Testament, in various places.
Paul will talk about it in Corinthians, that every gift that’s been given to us is really a gift of love, charis. It’s a gift of grace in love that I have been given, that I might serve others. It’s a gift that I can share my life and love with others. In Romans 12, when I’m called to offer my life as a living sacrifice, it is so that I can serve others. If I’m given the gift of mercy or teaching or serving, hospitality, whatever it is, I can have my life poured out to others.
Now it’s interesting that he mentions joy in the passage I just read. He says I’m coming to you. There it is, ascension. “These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” Now when Jesus in this section, when Jesus, especially if we read 13, 14, 15, and 16, as he begins to mention going toward the cross, the disciples are distraught and anxious. He’s calming them.
When we get to the end of Luke, after he’s resurrected, and he’s ascending, Luke writes, “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. So he disappears from their sight, and they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Luke mentions nothing of the anxiety that happens before the cross.
The ascension is not, even for the disciples, is not an anxious event. It’s actually a joyful event because the disciples realize that Christ is still present with them by his Spirit. He’s sending his Spirit to him and they are knowing the fullness of his joy. So now the Spirit is descending upon them, even as Jesus descended.
If we follow the history of the church, many of them martyrs as they move toward great suffering. Even in the 20th century, know great joy in the midst of suffering. One of my favorite writers, Richard Wurmbrand, who lived in Romania and was captured. Spent 15 years in prison and was tortured. If you read his journals, they’re filled with joy. In fact, he says such puzzling things that it’s hard for us to grasp.
At one point, he says when the man tortured him, he was singing, and Wurmbrand writes, “It’s been so long since I heard music, I thank God for the music I heard.” Another place he dreams that one of his guards has given him a flower. Wurmbrand prays, “Lord when you call me to heaven, I will not enter heaven’s gates unless you bring that soldier along.” This is because he dreamed that the man gave him a flower. He found a way to love his persecutors, to love those who hated him, and it was this image of Christ, this image we see in this passage, of life being poured out and the love of God shining through.
So the disciples are sent out. What are they doing? They’re gathering others, and they themselves. Part of their ascension will be often in death. They will be lifted up for the world to see. We continue to remember their story. Even as they gather others, this pattern of a community of love begins to emerge. If we look at the conversion of Rome, it’s primarily through little communities of love. It’s not anything dramatic. It’s just people finding a place of hospitality in a culture with little hospitality.
The little house churches became little houses of welcome and love. Now, as Jesus continues to pray this prayer, he begins to pray for those who come after the disciples. That they will share in the same love that the disciples have known, and that those who come after the disciples will know the love that he and the Father have known.
This is the ascension, “That they might be lifted up into my presence, to see my glory, that you’ve given me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I have made known your name to them, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.” He describes this never-ending communion that stretches across time and space with people who have learned how to love.
The Anglican theologian Gerald Bray, talks about how the church has read the bible primarily through the book of Romans. All our questions about the bible typically come from Romans. How do we get justified before God? How do we have our sins forgiven? How are we accepted into heaven? Gerald Bray says that during the first thousand years, the church typically read the bible through the book of John.
The book of John is asking completely different questions. What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to love? What does it mean to image God? Very different kinds of questions. So the church fathers in the first thousand years, as they are writing about what God has called us to become, they emphasize a lot how he has called us to become lovers. We are called to love our neighbor. We are called to love one another. In fact, so much so that they say that the world was created to be a place of revealing God’s love, so that everything that was created, every plant, every tree, every flower, every bird, was at some level was created to image the love of God.
But when humanity turns away from God, they talk about how the world becomes opaque to the love of God. They can no longer see it. So then what happens is, humanity begins to worship things in creation. They begin to fight for things in creation. We immediately see this in the story of Cain and Abel. And then Cain goes on to build cities that are based on violence. We begin to find, so we read the rest of the Old Testament, a story of people fighting over pieces of land, killing one another. We see in the Ten Commandments, we see, these commands are directed at people trying to take from one another, whether parents it’s children. The Ten Commandments address this relationship. Children, instead of loving parents, killing parents, or parents killing children, as I mentioned earlier, the child sacrifice.
We see images of brothers and sisters killing one another, so that we have the command do not murder. We have the command not to steal, not to bear false witness. All these are commands about how to teach people how to love each other again, because humans have turned against each other. They’re wanting, the 10th commandment, thou shall not covet. They’re wanting to take what someone else has. This is easily the history of the world. It’s still the history of the 21st century.
All around the world, all sorts of conflicts are based on humans trying to take from one another. So what the Church Fathers saw was, that when Christ comes, he’s restoring us to love, because once I’m restored into the image of love, that world suddenly begins to shine again with the love of God. Everything is revealing his love. Everywhere I go, the world becomes an image of his love.
Maximus the Confessor goes so far as to say that when I am transformed by love “I will become pure light.” I will, myself will become translucent. With that in mind, and I only brought all that up to talk about how the Eastern Orthodox would look at this ascension story. Dumitrue Staniloae writes that Jesus has brought humanity into completion in the death, in his death and resurrection.
So what happens? He now, his body can be seen or not seen. He appears in their midst after the resurrection, and then he cannot appear. Then he completely becomes translucent, so that they don’t see him and yet his presence is near them. It’s very much like this story of the tabernacle moving through the wilderness. Sometimes the cloud descends and everyone sees the cloud. Most of the time, no one sees it. Only Moses goes into the temple, into the holy of holies. Only Moses goes into the temple of meeting, and Aaron goes into the holy of holies. Only a selected few see the glory of God, but most don’t see anything. They just follow the tabernacle as it moves through the wilderness.
So God is hidden even in the midst of being revealed. Then, when we come to Christ in this ascension, he’s no longer seen, and yet he is revealed, to the people of God who have begun to look like the love of God between Father, Son and Spirit. Suddenly that love becomes realized in the world.
Just one last thought. Hebrews 7:25 and Romans 8:34, both say that Jesus is interceding for us right now. So in the Ascension, what does Jesus do in the ascension? He goes to the right hand of the Father and he intercedes for his church. And what does he pray for? It looks a lot like John 17, as best we can tell. We see a similar prayer in Ephesians 3. The prayer that the people of God would know the love of God. They would know the depth of that love, the height of that love. We see a similar image in Romans 8, the whole Romans 8. That all creation is crying out to see the sons of God revealed, to see this love of God fully manifest. To see the people of God raised up in perfect love because at the people of God are changed, they begin to change the world around them. They begin to become lovers out in the world.
According to Romans 8, the world is waiting, in every generation for this unveiling. Every generation there are people that begin to reveal this love. So I’ll end this reading this little end of Romans or part of Romans 8. Paul says, “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God, for creation was subjected to futility, not willingly but because of him who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
If we continue to read in Romans, what Paul will emphasize, is that the people of God have been immersed into the love of God, so much so that they cannot escape it. By the end of Romans 8, he says that neither the past or the present nor the future nor powers, ancient, nor angels or demons, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Paul is communicating to people.
You are saved completely in the love of God. Now you are free to love. You’re free to rest in his love, and as we’ve talked about, even over the last two weeks, to grow up into that love. That you yourselves might be revealers of that love in this world. This prepares us for Pentecost, because Pentecost is celebration of the outpouring of the Spirit. It is the greatest gift of God, the presence of God in our midst, teaching us to walk in this way of love. That we might reveal Christ in all we say and do.
Lord have mercy upon us. I pray that we might be transformed, in Christ. That we might become truly icons of Christ, in our words and thoughts and actions, that you would transform us and lead us from glory to glory. That we might shine out like lights in a darkened universe with the love of Christ in all we say and do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.