May 19, 2009

Ascension Politics

by Debra Dean Murphy
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53 (The Feast of the Ascension)

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 theologically, pastorally, exegetically. The clunky literalism routinely inspired by the Luke-Acts vision of the ascension—Jesus rocketing upward into outer space—is not a little embarrassing.

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. (In his book, Ascension and Ecclesia, 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.”)

In this week’s Epistle reading, the writer prays that the Ephesian Christians might be given “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” as they come to know the resurrected and exalted Christ whose name “is above every name” and whose fullness “fills all in all.” Christ’s resurrection from the dead and ascension to the right hand of God have now “made him the head over all things for the church.” Here, again, Christ and the Church exist in mysterious union; how could the head be separate from the body?

For many, this claim about “the immeasurable greatness” of Christ’s power (and thus the immeasurable greatness of the Church’s power) stirs fears of triumphalism. It evokes uneasy memories of the Church’s exercise of power in ways that have oppressed and tyrannized. (A desire to hold at bay such fears and anxieties may be one reason that the feast of the Ascension is no longer considered the crown of all Christian festivals).

While not triumphalist, this claim is ultimately a political one, for the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God transforms how we understand “all rule and authority and power and dominion.” The Ascension creates a body politic—the Church. Yet we know that the politics of the risen and ascended Jesus, and necessarily the politics of his Church, are not the politics of this world—they are not the politics of division, of one-upmanship, of scarcity and despair, of fear and death.

In order to better grasp the biblical vision of Ascension politics, it’s instructive to heed Luke’s subtle suggestion in this last chapter to go back to where his gospel began. When the risen Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” we can’t help recalling the first time Jesus opened the scrolls in his hometown synagogue at the start of his public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is what the politics of Jesus looks like and Jesus, now ascended, entrusts this work to us.

Soon enough we will celebrate the Spirit of the Lord as it descended on the people at Pentecost. For now, though, the ascended Jesus bids us, as his body alive and present here and now, to be about the Spirit’s ongoing work so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us—a hope made tangible in a world without hope.

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