Making the Down Payment -- Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Day
Making the Down Payment
Most people know what it means to make a down payment – whether on a car or house. It’s a promissory payment suggesting that a purchaser intends to fulfill their obligation to pay off the debt incurred. The housing crisis, which we’ve been enduring for several years, is a reminder that we must be careful about what we purchase. The promised benefits may not be worth the price. Indeed, forces of temptation may be present that draw us into unwise investments. When it comes to the down payment that God makes with us, we can be assured, based on our understanding of God’s character, that God is able and willing to fulfill the promise made to us. In this case the Holy Spirit is God’s down payment on the promised inheritance, which is our ultimate destiny of sharing fully in the glory of God.
The down payment that God makes with us is lifted up in the story of Jesus’ ascension into the heavens, where he shares the fullness of God’s glory, while we receive the Holy Spirit as the down payment of our ultimate destiny – sharing together with Jesus in that glorious presence.
The texts before us celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. We may, in our churches observe this event on the 40th Day after Easter (May 17, 2012), or on the Sunday following (my usage). As we celebrate this day, we focus on Jesus’ leave taking, his commissioning of the disciples, and this promise of empowerment to a church that faces a future without Jesus’ physical presence. The Feast of Ascension doesn’t get the attention of Pentecost, but it is a pivotal moment in the gospel story. Without it, there is no Pentecost. As we approach this event, we can get caught up in debates and discussions about the archaic language and world views present in the text. We know better, we think, about this heavenly place that lies above us in the clouds. Yes, we know that the three-storied universe is discredited, but the imagery remains powerful. It is a reminder that there is a separation between God and us. This language of transcendence reminds us that God lies beyond our control. We can’t manipulate God with our rituals and our words. But, God can and will empower us, through the Spirit, to carry good news to the ends of the earth.
So leaving aside the scientific questions, let us attend to the word that these texts bring to us. There is both a departure and a return promised. There is also the promise of empowerment and the promise of an inheritance. Two of the texts share a common story and a common author, but the story is told somewhat differently. The other speaks of our spiritual inheritance that is to be found in fully experiencing the body of Christ. As we progress in this particular meditation, the focus will be on the role of the Holy Spirit in the story. It is not that Jesus is eclipsed, but that Jesus’ ministry is extended through the work of the Spirit in the lives of those who hear and respond to the call of God.
Although the Gospel reading and the reading from Acts share a common author and plot line, there is a slightly different focus. In the Gospel Reading, Luke begins in the middle of an episode that takes place in a room somewhere in Jerusalem. The disciples have gathered and are wondering about their future. We’re not told when this takes place, but Jesus appears among them, and begins to instruct them. In this moment of instruction, Jesus reminds them that what has happened to this point fulfills the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – in other words the three sections of the Hebrew Bible. This has happened as it must. They needn’t concern themselves about the past, what might have been done differently. Instead, knowing that it was foretold that the Christ would suffer and die and rise from the dead, they can attend to their future ministry of preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to the ends of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem. This too is part of the plan. As they attend to this mission, they will do so empowered by the Spirit. Jesus may not be with them in physical sense, but they won’t be alone. They simply must wait in Jerusalem until the proper moment -- when the heavenly power will be poured out on them. Then they can begin.
It’s at this point, as the time of teaching comes to an end, that Jesus takes them to Bethany, where he lifts his hands and blesses them. Then, in this moment of blessings, he takes leave of them and is taken up into heaven. It’s a fairly simple account. There’s no drama, no angels, no staring into the heavens. But, even though their beloved master, the one who died and rose again from the dead, is gone from their midst, they’re full of joy. They worship and praise God. Yes, they worship him as he ascends, and they return to Jerusalem “overwhelmed with joy.”
We need to stop and take notice of this reference to their worshipping (proskynesantes) Jesus. The references to the worship of Jesus are few, but they’re present and the demand our attention. This is one of those references that elicit a sense that in the early Christian experience, it was understood that while Jesus shares full humanity, there is more to him that this. There is something demanding our worship and our praise. There isn’t space here for a discussion of this question, so I’ll refer the reader to James D.G. Dunn’s book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?
The phrase I want to focus on in this passage concerns the way they returned home from this leave-taking. Luke writes that they were “overwhelmed with joy” (CEB) – I like this better than the NRSV’s suggestion that they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” They say the same thing, but the imagery of being overwhelmed stands out to me. Consider for a moment that they’ve watched Jesus leave them, but instead of being overwhelmed with sadness, as one would expect, it is joy that overwhelms them. It flows over them, so that they can daily enjoy Temple worship – and the Spirit has yet to fall on them. What a powerful statement this is. At a moment when they could have given up, they’re ready to go (even if they still must wait a little longer). May this be true of us as well.
In the reading Acts, Luke picks up the same event, but takes it in a slightly different direction. The Book of Acts opens by connecting the gospel story with this continuing story of the church. The gospel story ends with the Ascension, while this one begins with the Ascension. In telling the Ascension story we’re given the time frame -- forty days – that marks our observance. The number forty, of course, has great symbolism. Moses is in the wilderness for forty years, Israel experiences forty years in the same wilderness. Jesus faces temptation in the wilderness for forty days. Now, we have forty days of appearances on the part of Jesus – is this also a moment of wilderness wandering for Jesus? As he appears to them, he teaches them about the realm of God. On this, the fortieth day, Jesus not only teaches, but shares a final meal. As he does so, he tells them not to leave Jerusalem, until they receive the promised Holy Spirit. Yes, even as John baptized with the water of repentance, they will now be immersed (baptized) with the Spirit, empowering them to fulfill their calling. The disciples still aren’t clear about the nature of this kingdom Jesus entrusting to their care. They want to know when and where it will appear. They remain caught up in the idea of land, but Jesus broadens their vision. The realm of God transcends place and even time. So focus on this: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 CEB).
Then, having given them this commission, Jesus departs into the heavens, leaving behind a stunned group of disciples who stare into the heavens. Clearly, in this telling, they’re ready to let go – would you? At this moment two messengers dressed in white robes appear by their side, and ask them “Galileans, why are you standing here looking toward heaven?” There is in this moment a reminder that we can’t just stay put. There is a job to do – we must bear witness to the coming of the realm of God into our midst, and we must take this message to the ends of the earth.
Something to note – how did we get from this moment of eating to this moment of departure? Unlike the Gospel reading there’s no movement from the room to Bethany. Perhaps the meal was picnic on a hillside outside Jerusalem. In any case, the story moves on, and it invites us to join in the work of God.
In Ephesians 1 our author speaks of our inheritance n Christ, which is our salvation. The Holy Spirit, with which we’ve been sealed (through baptism?) when we believed in Christ (entrusted our lives and our futures to Christ), serves as a down payment on that inheritance. What we experience now in relationship to God is not the complete inheritance. Although we might be infused with the Spirit, there is more to come. There is joy, but this is only in part.
Living in this in-between time, the time between the leave-taking of Jesus and his return in glory (the eschatological promise), we may not have the entire experience of God’s glory, but we have enough to push us forward to that end goal. As we share in this down payment, we’re provided with wisdom and revelation, “which makes God known to you” (vs. 17). Sometimes when I think about my faith and my relationship with God I’m tempted to ask – is this all there is? What am I missing? Oh, there are moments of ecstasy (at least moments where the encounters with the spiritual realm overwhelm me with joy), but I know I’ve not tasted the fullness of God’s presence. But, I’ve experienced enough of this down payment to know that awaits us is even more wondrous. Is it an opiate that keeps me docile in a world of suffering? It can be, but the Spirit is not just a provision of ecstasy. The Spirit provides empowerment to bear witness in both word and deed of God’s presence and purpose in the world. We see this power present in Jesus’ resurrection. We also see it – even if at a distance, through a dim mirror – in Jesus’ placement at the Right Hand of God. This word about the Right Hand isn’t really about placement, but power. The one who sits at the right hand of the monarch, is the one most trusted by that monarch, to accomplish what’s needed to be done. Indeed, everything has been placed under Christ feet, and he is head over the body of Christ, which is the church, the fullness of Christ.
A down payment has been made. We are filled with the Spirit. We have a commission – a task – and the power to fulfill it. We do so in anticipation that we will experience the fullness that is God, a fullness that is revealed in Jesus, who according to Ephesians sits at the right hand of God, wielding a power that heals rather than destroys.