May 12, 2013
I doubt that many Protestant churches pull out all the liturgical stops for Ascension Day. In fact, for we progressive Christians, this day may be another of those embarrassing times when we shout at our more conservative brothers and sisters, "Well, we just cannot accept this stuff as historical, but it does speak to us still in important ways." I cannot tell you how often I have uttered words just like this in my long career, trying to establish my liberal bona fides while insisting that I am still a biblical Christian. Of course, this problem is a direct result of the belief among many, perhaps most, post-enlightenment Christians that only things historical and scientific can finally be judged true. This poverty-stricken view of "truth" plagues us even in 2013.
Is Hamlet true? If the great and enigmatic play speaks to my 21st-century indecisiveness, my loud claims to act coupled with my inability to act at all, then Hamlet is surely true. Yet, I need not go to Castle Elsinore to prove this truth; I need only gaze honestly into my own heart and life. When we read first-century Luke, we need desperately to keep the various possible definitions of truth in mind. I do not need to find an ancient DVR recording of a rapidly rising Jesus to discover crucial facets of Luke's account of the Ascension that can speak loudly to my own struggle for a rich faith. Can we not look at these texts with fresh eyes, asking questions that can lead us to fuller insight, rather than squabble about whether or not they "happened," and just how a dead man can rise twice—once from the tomb and then on a cloud to heaven? I admit to a heavy weariness with such so-called discussions. Why not listen again to what Luke actually says, rather than impose upon him a 19th-century burden of proof?
Luke very cleverly and with a wonderful verbal economy transitions his story from Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and promises to his followers to his new story of Jesus' gift of the Spirit that will enable the apostles to do what he has done, namely, speak of the Good News of God and form the early Christian communities. He quickly summarizes his first volume in Acts 1:3-5. In fact, fully eight of the crucial events of the Gospel story are found in these three verses: the teachings and actions of Jesus; the choice of the apostles; Jesus' suffering; the resurrection appearances; his eating with the disciples; his commission of them as witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth; the promise of the Spirit; Jesus' ascent into heaven. This summary is hardly designed to prove historically what has occurred; the real subject of the recital is transformation and empowerment for ministry, not some vapid argument about so-called "facts."
Luke goes out of his way to connect the actions of Jesus with two great figures of the Israelite past, Moses and Elijah. The more obvious connection is with the prophet Elijah, who at 2 Kings 2:9-22 "ascends to heaven in a whirlwind" in the sight of his successor, Elisha. In Jewish tradition it was Elijah who is expected to return prior to the coming of the Messiah; that is why a place is always set for Elijah at every Passover meal even today. Elijah is the quintessential representative of God's call for justice, as his rebuke of the evil Ahab in the matter of Naboth's vineyard at 1 Kings 21 makes clear. But for Christians, Messiah has come in the person of Jesus. And though the Bible does not speak of Moses' ascent to heaven, the commentator Philo in his Life of Moses depicts Moses ascending to God and continuing to prophesy as he does so.
In both the stories of Moses and Elijah, it is emphasized that they must be taken up before their successors can by chosen and act in the ways of their masters. After Moses' death, Joshua assumes control of the forces of Israel and leads them into the land of promise. And after Elisha asks his master for "a double portion of the spirit," he witnesses Elijah's dramatic ascent and receives what he has asked. In the same way, Luke removes Jesus from the scene physically in order that the Holy Spirit of God may descend on the followers who will thus be empowered to carry on the work begun by the master. For Luke, this is the central reason for the prologue to the book of Acts. We witness the disappearance of the bodily Jesus in order that we may receive our spiritual marching orders to carry on his work in our world.
The poor befuddled apostles, who have just heard the summary of the Gospel they have witnessed and participated in, now have a question. "Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?" (Acts 1:6). Not a bad question, that, echoing the sad comment of one of those despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus: "We thought that he was the one to set Israel free" (Lk. 24:21). Surely, the risen Christ is about to do something to make Israel great once again. Jesus first replies that only God has knowledge of such things, and they "are not yours to know" (Acts 1:7). I often wish that those who too regularly crowd our TV screens with the assurance of the knowledge of what God is about to do would read Acts 1:7 more carefully and more regularly.