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No Obstacles to Salvation Here - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4B (2 Corinthians 6)

  Paul - Rembrandt 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 New Revised Standard Version 6  As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.  2  For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you,     and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!  3  We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,  4  but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,  5  beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;  6  by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,  7  truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;  8  in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;  9  as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and

Seated In Power -- An Ascension Day Reflection



15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
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                Today is the Day of Ascension. It’s been forty days since we celebrated Easter (even if this year that celebration was truncated). According to the Book of Acts, Jesus spent forty days walking with his followers, teaching them about the realm of God, while promising to send the Spirit to empower them for their upcoming mission (Acts 1:1-11). Pentecost is now only ten days away. Most churches, mine included, will at least acknowledge the Ascension on Sunday, but today is the fortieth day. It’s time to watch Jesus depart so that the Spirit might arrive. While there are few true references to the Ascension of Christ, the fullest being in Acts 1, it remains an important event in the life of the church, even if it is often passed over as we move from Easter to Pentecost. Nevertheless, if Pentecost is to occur, then Jesus must depart in bodily form.

         The Ascension forms an important part of the declaration of faith in Jesus found in the Apostles' Creed. Though I am part of a non-creedal denomination, I grew up with the Creed in the Episcopal Church and find it a worthy statement of faith. It doesn't cover everything, but it is a foundation that most Christians affirm. So before I get to my reflection, let me share the part of the creed that refers to Jesus.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

        With this foundation laid, I now turn to my reflection, drawing in part from Karl Barth. Recently I’ve had reason to ponder the teachings of theologian Barth. Barth has proven influential in my journey, though I’m not a pure Barthian by any measure. Nevertheless, I find him to be compelling, especially when it comes to matters like the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus. Regarding the latter, Barth writes in the Dogmatics in Outline: “The Ascension does not mean that Christ has passed over into that other realm of the creaturely world, into the realm of what is inconceivable to us. ‘On the right hand of God’ means not only the transition from the conceivable to the inconceivable in the created world. Jesus is removed in the direction of the mystery of divine space, which is utterly concealed from man.” [Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline (SCM Classics) (p. 125). Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition.] Yes, with his ascension, Jesus moved into the “mystery of divine space,” and yet, while this may be concealed from us, that doesn’t mean the divine is not present.  

                The second reading for the Day of Ascension comes from the Ephesian letter. This passage comes in the form of a prayer or at least the description of a prayer, in which the author (Paul?), prays that his readers might receive the spirit of wisdom and revelation. As the reading moves along, he speaks of the glorious inheritance they will receive, as well as the power that will be expended on their behalf. That leads to a doxology, a word of praise and thanksgiving for the one whom God raised from the dead and sat at the right hand in the heavenly places. Yes, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:20-23)

                This is a declaration that should cause us to stand and sing “All hail the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall; bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all” (Edward Perronet, 1779). The doctrines of resurrection and ascension are challenging, at least for those of us who represent a more “liberal” theological perspective. It’s easy to dismiss the ascension as simply myth, but we need to be careful. The world we live in has been de-enchanted. There is value to this, at least to a degree. I value science. I reject superstition. When it comes to the resurrection, Karl Barth noted in his lectures on Ephesians, that for Paul the resurrection is “an event that takes place precisely at the boundary between what is possible and what is impossible, what is historical and what is unhistorical, time and eternity” [Barth, The Epistle to the Ephesians, pp. 132-133]. We live at this boundary, and while it requires that we step back into a more enchanted worldview to receive this word, can we do anything other than this, if we’re to receive the promise of God’s Spirit that comes with Pentecost?

                The reference to the right hand of God is a reference to divine power. It is through the resurrection, and indeed, the ascension, that Jesus moves from death to power. From there, God appoints Christ as head of the church. As Barth writes: “The extraordinary distinguishing mark of the Christian existence as believers is that the one who is risen and seated at God’s right hand is their head.” [Barth, Ephesians, p. 137]. We are the body of Christ, and Christ alone is the head of this body. The God who transcends all things is present through Christ and Christ’s body. This is the message of the Day of Ascension. Jesus may no longer be with us in bodily form, and yet by the Spirit, we become the body of the one who “fills all in all.”

                I invite you the reader to step into the message of the Ascension. Consider the possibility that the risen Christ is present in power through the Holy Spirit. Consider that the ascension is not the end of the story for Jesus, who, as revealed in Acts 1:11, will return in the same way he was taken up. While this may be metaphor, it is not without its ultimate realities. Ascension is, therefore, an eschatological event. It presages the coming of the Lord, who fills all in all. With that, “with yonder sacred throng we at his feet may fall! We’ll join the everlasting song, and crown him Lord of all” (Edward Perronet).    


Image attribution: JESUS MAFA. The Ascension, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57474 [retrieved May 20, 2020]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

Comments

Unknown said…
Thanks for this insightful message, Bob. It's especially good to see you refer to resurrection as on the boundary between the possible and the impossible. We Disciples especially need to be reminded of the mysterious in relation to God's existence with us. --Robert Stauffer, APC

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