Worshiping the Ascended King

Note: This blog post concerns the lectionary passages for the Feast of the Ascension (May 30, 2019), which can be observed on the Sunday afterward (June 2, 2019).

The ascension is an oft-neglected feature of Jesus’ story. There are several possible reasons for this. First, conceptually the ascension seems to some to be an understood part of Christ’s resurrection. Along these lines, several Pauline texts are not always clear in distinguishing Christ’s resurrection from his ascension (see Ephesians 4:8-10). Second, not even all the gospels discuss the ascension. In fact, only one gospel explicitly mentions this occurrence. Finally, because the ascension occurs forty days after the resurrection, its commemoration always lands on a Thursday, leaving it prone to be forgotten between the sixth and seventh Sundays of Easter. For all of these reasons (and perhaps many more), it is good to examine the lectionary texts appointed for this occasion. Read more

Shown, Not Told

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11


“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

-often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but of uncertain origin

The late New Testament scholar, John Pilch, noted that Jesus, as rendered in the Gospel of John, “tends to get a bit long-winded.” All those extended discourses, repetitions, and interlocking phrases stand in stark contrast to Mark’s rustic efficiency, to be sure, and if it seems like Jesus has been saying goodbye to the disciples for weeks now, you’d be right. This is the fourth week in a row in which the lectionary’s gospel reading comes from John – unless you’re celebrating the Ascension this Sunday, in which case you get a synoptic reprieve. And yes, this is the third consecutive week culled from John’s multi-chapter Farewell Discourse.

Those lost in the Johannine word-cloud might be forgiven for missing the clues in today’s gospel that Jesus has stopped talking to the disciples and is now directly addressing the Father. In other words, Jesus is praying, not preaching. Or is that a misleading distinction?

Perhaps a more helpful terminology comes from the first principle of good writing: Show, don’t tell. In what is sometimes called “The Great Intercessory Prayer,” Jesus stops telling his clueless disciples how to serve, love, and live peacefully with one another. He stops telling them that the Father and Son are one in the unity of the Holy Spirit. He stops telling them they must turn from the world’s ways in order to experience true joy. He stops telling them these things, not because the disciples already know and understand – their behavior over the next several days will destroy that illusion – nor does he stop because the lessons no longer apply. He stops telling them in order to show them. Read more

Gospel Sequel

Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

While last month’s headline grabbing prediction of Jesus’ return, the rescue of believers from the earth to heaven, and the onset of tribulation for an unbelieving world (now revised to October) belongs to an extremist Camp(ing), the basic eschatological question underlies much of American Christianity.

The apostles’ question sounds contemporary two millennia later as believers gaze heavenward and count down until the end of the world, while others with a less definite timetable still await a rapture.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, scoffing at such expectations is easy, especially after announced deadlines pass. Jesus’ own response resounds as an all-too-obvious rebuke to Rapture-enraptured Christians: “It is not for you to know the times that the Father has set by his own authority.” Read more

Preparing for Departure

This week’s lectionary reading leads us into the farewell discourse (John 13.31-17.26) as Jesus prepares the disciples for his departure.  It can seem a little disorienting to follow up a month’s worth of post-resurrection appearances with Jesus preparing his disciples for his looming death on the cross. After all, for the last several weeks we have celebrate that Jesus is alive and on the loose, appearing in locked rooms, in gardens and on the road to Emmaus.  However, the day of Ascension is fast approaching and the lectionary readings of the next two weeks use the farewell discourse to prepare us for the Ascension of the resurrected Christ. Read more

Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

St. Augustine considered the Feast of the Ascension the crown of all Christian festivals. Today we may give it an obligatory nod as we make our way liturgically from Easter to Pentecost, but we’re often not quite sure what to do with it exegetically, theologically, pastorally. The clunky literalism routinely inspired by the Luke-Acts vision of the ascension—Jesus rocketing upward into space—is not a little perplexing.

Whatever historical event lies behind the Luke-Acts narratives of Jesus’ ascension into heaven—and the fact that the two accounts differ in important ways might be a clue that a surface-literal reading is not what the author had in mind—a couple of things stand out: the centrality of worship and the reimagining of “all rule and authority and power and dominion.”
Tom Wright points out that Luke’s gospel ends, as it began, in the Temple at Jerusalem. “Worship of the living God,” Wright says, “is at the heart of Luke’s vision of the Christian life.” Jesus’ ascension into heaven, then, is not “beam me up, Scotty” science fiction, but rather that which makes possible the Church’s existence. Because Jesus is not here, the Church can be, must be—the Church is constituted as and empowered to be his worshiping, witnessing body here and now. (Douglas Farrow makes this point by insisting that the Church exists “by its mysterious union with one whose life, though lived for the world, involves a genuine break with it.”) Read more