May 31, 2011

Gospel Sequel

by Doug Lee
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.”

But what if the apostles’ question wasn’t as screwy as we might assume? What if Jesus was only rejecting their need to know and not the underlying question about the kingdom?

True, their question refers to an earthly kingdom for Israel and not a heavenly destination. But in either case, the imminent unfolding of cataclysmic events leaves little rationale for the Church.

If Jesus’ answer is an outright “no”, as we prone to hear it, then we are left on our own to figure out what in the world Jesus is doing. If now is not the time, then where is Jesus and what is he doing post-Resurrection? We don’t know the proper ending to the Easter story. Our impatience with a lack of easy answers so often leads us to assume that, if there is no clear timetable, it is our responsibility to take matters into our own hands and bring about the kingdom. Human efforts, including violence, and the crushing burden of human failure are our lot.

But Luke offers us a third option. Unlike the other gospel writers who end their narratives with varied accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, Luke writes a sequel.

Most modern sequels represent an unfortunate lack of creativity. They bring back popular characters, put them into new situations, and try to recapture the chemistry of the original. Rarely do they live up to their predecessors because they lack any compelling reason for their existence (other than wringing more cash out of audiences).

But Luke, who launches his second volume with the apostles’ (supposed) bad question and Jesus’ (assumed) rejection, authors a worthy sequel of epic proportions. And, curiously, Luke is also the only gospel writer to depict the ascension, not once but twice, as if to underscore its importance.

More than a heavenly lift-off foreshadowing how believers will be snatched up to heaven, the ascension for Luke signals the reign of Christ begun now, in the middle of history, and not merely reserved for some future time. The Church has rationale in the present.

The ascension heralds the exaltation of Jesus in the middle of a story that begins in the realm of King Herod (Luke 1) and ends under Caesar’s nose (Acts 28). The Church is a political entity, as the members of a new polity.

The ascension gives time, space, and rationale for the Church to be the Church.

Everywhere the believers go they are accused of turning the world upside down because they announce the reign of another king named Jesus (Acts 17:6-7).

But it is not the story of the Church bringing the kingdom to fruition or reforming society. It is a story of the Church gasping for breath as she runs to catch up to what the Spirit of Jesus is doing in the world. The apostles appoint a twelfth to fill the slot abandoned by Judas, but the Spirit is less interested in maintaining structures than in deluging the Church with power. Dozing Peter requires a thrice-repeated vision to wake up to the fact that Gentiles are now part of the family of God. The Spirit of Jesus redirects Paul from evangelizing Asia and gives him a vision of a man from Macedonia, who, just to keep Paul on his toes, turns out to be a woman named Lydia!

This second volume begins with a word about “all that Jesus began to do and teach”. A sequel is necessary because the story’s hero has still many more acts remaining to accomplish. After Easter, what compels Luke is still Jesus. Even post-Resurrection, the central character in this drama is still Jesus. Even if he is for the most part unseen, Jesus is not far away but is somewhere just off-stage directing the action. Luke’s sequel is not Acts of the Apostles but Acts of the Ascended Jesus.

Christ the King has work for the Church to do, and supplies power from heaven for this work. The way of the Kingdom has been fully vindicated. In the ascension, the Church sees Christ enthroned above—still enfleshed and authorizing fleshly obedience to way of the Kingdom, the way of suffering love that announces good news to the poor and release for the captives.

Luke writes a gospel sequel because Jesus is still acting and teaching. The question is not when Jesus is returning but whether we will learn to catch up to what he is doing now and to look outward instead of heavenward. Luke’s sequel narrates a story that the Spirit of Jesus beckons us to join as He completes our conversion and our witness.

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