Christ’s Ascension calls us to become obstacles to worldly power

Gospel for Sunday, May 28, 2017

Feast of the Ascension

By Glen Argan

The story of Christ’s ascension into heaven is a political story (Acts 1.1-11). It is not political in the sense that it would make Jesus and the Church political actors who compete against politicians, corporations and military leaders for worldly power. Far from it.

Rather, the Ascension relativizes worldly power. Caesar or Trump or Trudeau may think they are lord, but actually, no. Jesus is the one Lord. All worldly power is finite and will fade away, soon to be forgotten. Jesus is Lord yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Ascension2N.T. Wright, in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, notes that Roman emperors were declared divine after their deaths. Invariably, a couple of witnesses claimed to have seen the soul of the dead emperor rising to the heavens. The new emperor was then pronounced “son of God” due to his connection with his supposedly divine predecessor.

Jesus’ ascension has obvious similarities, but also important differences, with the ascension stories of the caesars.

First, Christ’s ascension is a theophany, a direct revelation of the presence of God. As in the accounts of the Transfiguration and the empty tomb, two men dressed in white present to witness to the significance of the event. Further, when Jesus was lifted up, he was taken from the sight of the disciples by a cloud. The cloud hides the realm of the divine from God’s creatures,

Second, the Ascension is not the end of Jesus’ power, but a passing-on of that power, through the Holy Spirit, to the disciples. Jesus’ power is democratized among all who receive the Spirit.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” As Wright notes, while many assume Jesus’ answer to the question is “no,” in fact, it is “yes.” Once the Spirit comes, Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Spirit’s community will live by God’s logic, not the logic of Caesar. As well, it will extend to every corner of the earth, a geographic reach even further than that of the Roman Empire.

None of the post-resurrection stories in the Gospels paint Christ’s resurrection as a guarantee – as does St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 – of our own resurrection to glory. Rather, the post-resurrection period is portrayed as the coming-together and empowerment of Christ’s disciples so they can build God’s kingdom in this world.

St. Matthew’s account of the Ascension in Sunday’s Gospel (28.16-20) makes this even clearer. Jesus proclaims, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” – yet another rebuke to the power of Caesar. Jesus’ disciples are called to “make disciples of all nations,” baptizing them and teaching them to obey all of Jesus’ “commands.”

The early Church’s proclamation of Jesus as the one Lord led to conflict, persecution and even martyrdom. Worldly powers took that proclamation seriously.

Today, the story continues, with the Church in many places seen as the major obstacle to the expansion of the secular religion. The question Christian believers should ask themselves is whether our witness to the lordship of Jesus is so clear that we too might be seen as obstacles.

[Other readings: Psalm 47; Ephesians 1.17-23]

(Photo courtesy of Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints)

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