“Three Views of the Ascension”
Cassopolis/ White Pigeon, May 28, 2017, CELEBRATION OF CHRIST’S ASCENSION
Text: (CTW, Psalm 68:1-10); Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:1-11; John 16:32-17:19
Anybody familiar with the story of Jesus’ life and ministry as told by the four gospel writers realizes that the details of that story do not always match up across all four books. Although all obviously tell the same story, and work from a similar basic set of facts, even Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which seem to be the closest in similarity, are not identical—and John differs in many ways from those three. Each writer, we realize, tells the story a little differently. While working from the same base, each has a unique way of working, with different styles, different sources of information, and different ideas about what was most important to emphasize in the accounts of Jesus they passed on. So, while none of the differences are so major as to upset the applecart of the faith, they do exist and must be recognized.
And if this is the case for the narration of Jesus’ ministry from the four evangelists, it is the same with their accounts of the crucifixion. The crucifixion story is extremely important, arguably the ultimate point in the story of Jesus, when the extremity of God’s love for creation, and the completeness of Jesus’ faithfulness to His task of redemption are most visible, God so loved that He was willing to give up even His Son—Himself incarnate—to death. And Jesus was so complete in His dedication to God that He willing to face that death, to follow the Father’s mission wherever it took Him. And yet even here, in the crucifixion story, details differ widely even down to the last words Jesus says on the cross—are they “Father, forgive them,” or “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” or “It is finished.” These and other details of the various tellings differ along with the story the writer is trying to tell. Those differences, however, don’t do damage to the story. Rather they enrich it, adding many different layers of meaning to what Jesus’ death would do for the world God loved.
The case is the same for the resurrection accounts. The crucifixion, as important as it is, would not be complete without the Easter account. A crucifixion without a resurrection is just another man dying under Roman punishment, nothing out of the ordinary. With the resurrection, however, it all changes—the world changes. The account becomes a whole new thing—a story of a new world erupting with God announcing Jesus as His righteous and victorious and beloved Son, forever setting aside the opinion of most the old world’s power. But still here the gospels don’t fully match up. It is clear that they are relating the same story. But the telling of that story varies—the details are different—the view of each writer exposes a different aspect of the common event in each case. And if this is so of Jesus’ ministry and death and resurrection, should we expect anything otherwise in the stories of Jesus’ ascension, of the time following ministry and crucifixion and resurrection when Jesus ceases to be physically with His disciples and returns to the Father in glory?
If we do expect these to be the same, we will be sorely disappointed. Jesus’ ascension bestows the final touch needed to go along with the accounts of His crucifixion and resurrection. In the cross, we see the love and giving, both of Father and of Christ. In the resurrection, the victory of God in Jesus is revealed. And with the ascension, the glory, power, and authority given to Jesus as a result of the two is proclaimed. And again, the details from each writer are not the same. But in that difference again, we do not have a failure to tell a story we can believe and have faith in. Rather we have three views of an event which together provide a much deeper understanding of that one event than three exactly identical tellings ever could have.
The New Testament account most closely identified with the ascension is, of course, Luke’s relating of it in Acts 1, that text usually being the assigned lectionary reading for today. It is really the account that gives most of us our basic conception of what the ascension looked like. But right from the start Luke gives us some different information about it than do the other writers—Luke insists, as do none of the others, that after the resurrection and before the ascension, there was a period of forty days during which time Jesus taught His disciples about the kingdom of God. In Acts, Luke doesn’t elaborate as to what this teaching might consist of—we do get a kind of summation of its character in the final chapter of Luke’s gospel where it says that “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in His name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem…” This gives us at least a hint of what Jesus’ instruction was like and what it was intended to do according to Luke—it was to give them the understanding of His story that they will need to be His witnesses. It is possible that Luke’s insistence upon this was influenced by the Old Testament story of Israel in the wilderness, especially considering the length of the time involved. Anybody familiar with the Old Testament picks up an echo of here of the forty years Israel had to spend learning to be God’s people. In the same way, Luke seems to imply, Jesus also needed these forty days to teach His chosen representatives on earth how to be what He asked them to be. Whatever the case, however, only Luke mentions this forty-day story. And there is one other glaring difference in the way Luke talks about the ascension. In Matthew and Mark both, the disciples are told after the resurrection that they will meet up with Jesus in Galilee. Only in Luke does Jesus give them the command that they should wait and stay in Jerusalem.
Now again, Luke has his reasons for this. Jerusalem is very central to his thinking about the Christian faith. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ story of birth and growth begins in Jerusalem with the surprising birth of John the Baptist, with Jesus being brought to the Temple as a baby, and by the account of Jesus as a budding teenager listening to the teachers in that same Temple after Mary and Joseph have left for home after Passover. For Luke Jerusalem is the center of Israel—the core of the Old Testament faith. And it is from that center, in Luke, that New Testament faith—the story of Jesus—erupts and moves outward. It is in Jerusalem, that God’s presence was known to David, and it is in Jerusalem that the presence of God in Jesus begins to be known by the whole world, a movement outward that will be enabled, as Luke tells in the well-known passage of Acts, when the power of God, the Holy Spirit has come upon the disciples on Pentecost, ten days after the ascension, making them ready and able to do what Jesus instructs them just before He leaves—“You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and then Judea, and then Samaria, and then to the very ends of the earth.” And only after that does He depart, lifted by the cloud, going away, but not without one final important detail being made clear—“This same Jesus who has been taken up from you, will come back in the same way. Until then, do His word—be His witnesses.”
The account of the ascension given in Matthew is much shorter than that of Luke in Acts, and as already mentioned differs from it primarily in location—Matthew pictures Jesus’ return to God being accomplished from a mountaintop in Galilee, not Jerusalem. Mountains are important places of revelation in Matthew. It is from a “very high mountain” that Satan tempts Jesus with a view of all the glories of the world. It is also on a mountain that Jesus is transformed before Peter, John, and James, showing Christ’s divine glory. So it is fitting that in Matthew Jesus returns to the fullness of that glory from a mountain. An it’s also fitting, in Matthew’s view, that it occurs in Galilee, where Jesus’ first began His ministry. It was in Galilee that the first disciples were called to follow Him—it makes sense that from Galilee those same disciples should be sent out to the world for Him.
And they are sent out. Here we have the great similarity between Luke and Matthew—in both cases, the disciples are left with a mission by Jesus with instructions on how to fulfill it. “Go therefore,” Jesus tells them in Matthew—“and make disciples of all nations.” Now Jesus had not always spoken this way in Matthew. In fact, He had told them earlier in the gospel that they were to preach only to Israel and not to go out to the Gentile world. The crucifixion and resurrection seems to have changed all that now, as Jesus sends them out everywhere, to “the ends of the earth” as Luke puts it in Acts, making disciples of all these nations, with a disciple-making process that has two steps. First, those sent are to announce forgiveness and the possibility of new life in Jesus—“baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit,” Jesus says. But that’s not the end of it. They are then to teach these newly forgiven and baptized believers what that new life should look like—“teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Now there is one very interesting phrase in the Matthew account that doesn’t appear anywhere else that I know of—the observation that when the followers of Jesus met up with Him at the appointed time and mountain, “they worshiped Him—but some doubted”—in fact, some commentators note that the Greek could be translated to suggest that they all doubted at least somewhat. But that begs a question—what did they doubt? Certainly it’s not be the fact of the resurrection or the ascension—they were looking at Jesus right there, seeing what happened—it’s unlikely they doubted what they saw. Rather, it seems to me, that what they probably doubted, now with Jesus leaving them, was that they would be able to do what it was He sent them out for—to be His witnesses and make disciples in all nations. They probably did doubt, all of them at least a little, that with Jesus gone, they could accomplish what He had asked of them, that they could do anything good in the world. In Acts, Jesus had met any doubt with the promise that they would not be alone in their task—the gift of the Father, the Holy Spirit, would be sent to them not many days hence. In Matthew they get similar, if different encouragement. “Listen, Jesus says. “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to Me. And while you are out, making disciples and baptizing hem and teaching them, remember this—I will be with you to the end of the age.”
For our final view of the ascension, we’ll turn to the gospel of John. And there we enter a much different place. You can read backwards and forwards in John and never come to any account at all in which Jesus’ ascension to the presence of God is pictured. John certainly doesn’t deny that Jesus came from God—indeed, in the book’s opening words he claims as forcefully as possible that the Word from the beginning was with God and was God and came into the world as Jesus. But nowhere does John show us the act of Jesus’ returning to the Father—indeed, in the last chapter of John, He is still fully present to His disciples, eating with them, giving instruction to Peter to “Feed My sheep.’
And yet, John, or whoever wrote John, knew as he wrote, that Jesus was no longer physically present to His followers, and yet was also far from dead somewhere in a grave. Jesus was alive and with the Father. So where is the ascension in John? And the answer to that seems to be given, or at least hinted at, in the words Jesus speaks to His friends and prays for His friends as they meet at a final supper just before His crucifixion.
We have been reading from those words for the past couple weeks, and continued today into what is often referred to as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” a prayer He prays to God for the sake of those around that table and those who will later become believers through their witness. Just before He begins this prayer, however, we encounter a little bit of warning that Jesus gives His friends. Earlier Jesus has warned Peter that he would deny knowing Jesus at all, something Peter hotly refuses to accept, and which seems to disturb the whole gathering. At that time, Jesus had encouraged them not to be overly worried by whatever failings they might experience. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” He had told them—“believe in God, believe in Me.” Now Jesus again warns. They have just finished telling Jesus how much they understand all about His mission and how much they fully believe in Him, to which Jesus replies, “Do you now believe? Well, the hour is coming and indeed is already here when you will be scattered each one of you to his own home—you will leave Me alone.” Their professed knowledge and loyalty and belief will not alone enough for them to face what they will have to face in the coming hours, Jesus says—their loyalty and belief will not keep them from deserting Jesus at the crucial hour. But once more, He goes on to encourage. “But I will not be alone even then, for the Father is with Me. So you may have peace—peace in Me—because of what will happen. Yes, you will face persecution. But take courage even then—for I have conquered the world.”
Now in this last statement—“I have conquered the world”—we run head-on into one of the confusions readers often encounter in this section of John—Jesus seems to freely mix up verb tenses. It is never clear when Jesus talks in this passage if something He mentions has happened, is happening, or will happen later. “I have conquered the world,” Jesus says, clearly suggesting that it has already happened. But He seems to be talking about what will happen on the cross and at the resurrection. Will it be done later or has it already been done, right now, at that moment in the reality of Jesus’ experience?
The same thing goes on as Jesus begins His prayer at the start of chapter 17. “Father, the hour has come,” He prays—“Glorify Your Son so that the Son may glorify You.’ He seems pretty much to be in the present tense now, but looking forward to the glory of finishing His ministry at the cross. The same can be said about “Glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had had in Your presence before the world existed.” But He also says, “Now I am coming to You—right now. I am no longer in the world. But they are in the world”—to which Jesus prays for their protection in that world. Is Jesus already gone somehow, even as He sits there praying –how can He say that He is “no longer I the world?”
Over and again the verbs in this section lead to ambiguity—when does each action take place—when do these things occur. And the answer seems to be that for John, there is no distinct moment when Jesus goes back to the Father as there is in Matthew and Luke. All moments in time, John seems to believe, are the same moment for God. Thus, the moment of the crucifixion is the moment of the resurrection which is the moment of Jesus’ glorification and ascension to all authority—and all those moments have already been in play since the Word first entered the darkness of the world to light it up—when Jesus was being born He was already being glorified, already glorifying the Father, already enjoying the glory He had in the Father’s presence. To the world watching it seemed like a human life going by—to God it was just one moment of redemption. All the moments the world watched tied together into just one divine moment, just as the Father in the Son and the Son in the Spirit were one divine presence, and altogether made holy the body of Christ, the church.
And it was because all those moments were knotted together and because Jesus’ followers were knotted together with Jesus into the Father and Spirit, that they can be encouraged—for Jesus has conquered the world. He has “sanctified Himself”—given Himself in completeness over to the Father’s will so that they also will be and can be “sanctified” themselves—set apart as God’s own, Jesus’ own, with His joy made complete in them, those He has sent out, as the Father sent Him, as the disciples are sent out even in Matthew and Luke.
Three different accounts, in some ways very different with details which often seem contradictory. But at a deeper level, all three tells us exactly the same thing and do exactly the same thing for us—they call us, they warn us, and they encourage us. All three accounts of Jesus returning to the presence of God first call us, as we live out our lives in the midst of the world, to be witnesses to Jesus in the midst of it, to it, baptizing, teaching, being sanctified in the truth of Jesus and sent out in that truth. Secondly, as we are sent on that mission, all three accounts warn us. There may well be persecution involved—the world will not always love the one who insists on following Jesus just as it did not love Jesus Himself. In addition to that, and even more important, we are warned that we need to be on guard about ourselves. We will always be inclined to doubt, suspect that we are unable to do what Jesus sends us to do. Our human weakness and tendency to sin will always threaten to unseat us if we depend upon our own ability to keep going. This is all true. While we are called to be witnesses, we are susceptible to stumbling—we are warned that in ourselves we will never be perfect at the task set before us.
And yet all three passages end by saying, “Peace be with you.’ They end with encouragement—even assurance—the kind of assurance that can come only by knowing that even when we feel the most alone, we are not abandoned—“I am with you to the end of the age.” It is the assurance and encouragement that come of knowing that when we feel the most powerless and weak, “The gift of the Holy Spirit will come upon you” and “I have conquered the world.” And it is the encouragement of knowing that the One who says these things is the One to whom all authority in heaven and in earth have been granted, who as the psalmist says, is “The Father of orphans and widows, who leads prisoners to prosperity, and who showers the people with blessing that they might be renewed”—sanctified—made strong in God. This is what the ascension is all about—that not only are we not alone, but we have the mightiest power in creation—the power that made creation—beside us, within us and with us. And it—He—will not leave us, never for an earthly or divine moment, until the day comes when He returns, as promised, to bring all things, us and the world, to its best—its wholeness—to completion. +++