Note: Edgy Exegesis is glad to offer this week the reflections of a guest columnist, the Rev. Dr. Blair R. Monie.
June 1, 2014
They say that the first sentence of a novel is the hardest to write. The first thing is to avoid the hackneyed start: It was a dark and stormy night…" But endings are even more difficult. The question is, how to end a long story? George Orwell ended 1984 ominously: "He loved Big Brother." Virginia Woolf ended her novel, To the Lighthouse, with "Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision." Perhaps the most suggestive ending for today is the last line of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable: "…you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."
For Luke, the ascension is the last line of the Jesus story, for it is where his gospel ends. It occurs to me that, in over four decades of preaching, I have preached very few sermons on the ascension. I suppose that is because I have always seen this strange account of Jesus' rapture into heaven as strangely otherworldly—especially for the normally worldly Luke. Was the ascension a literal event, or was it the only way Luke could imagine Jesus' departure? After all, you couldn't have the Christ riding into the sunset, Lone Ranger style, with the bystanders asking, "Who was that masked man?" You couldn't have Jesus die at the end of the story, for he had already died once and defeated death. And so Jesus floats upward, presumably toward heaven.
Moreover, it is an uncomfortably strange text, and that's probably why I've shied away from it. Even biblical scholar William Barclay, thinking of all the strange artistic depictions of the ascension, wrote, "No one has ever succeeded in painting a picture of the Ascension which was anything other than grotesque and ridiculous." The ascension is hard to depict in art, let alone in sermon.
Actually, although Luke treats the ascension as the end of the gospel story, a second telling actually begins his next book, the book of Acts. His chronology is even different; in Luke the ascension takes place on Easter afternoon, just after the encounter on the road to Emmaus. But in the first chapter of Acts it takes place forty days after Easter. Be that as it may, perhaps Luke is telling us something important about Jesus' departure: that it is both an ending and a beginning.
The ascension is, of course, an ending. I think of Salvador Dali's stark portrayal, in which all you see of Jesus is his feet, from the perspective of the onlookers. Those feet that walked the dusty roads of Palestine will not walk the earth again. The feet so lovingly anointed just before the crucifixion will no longer carry him to the sites of miracles and healings. This is goodbye. The Jesus story in Luke's gospel comes to an end.
And yet…turn to Acts, and the same scene, with albeit different timing, is the beginning of another story—the story of the church. Now Luke seems to take a different tack, turning worldly again. Now the emphasis is on what to do now. In both scenes, Jesus "opens the scriptures," just as he had done for the two followers on the road to Emmaus, giving final instructions. But in Acts, when his disciples ask about the schedule of future events, Jesus reminds them "It is not for you to know the times…" The implication is that the business of the fledgling church will not be to indulge in speculation about the eschaton (as too many religious groups still do), but to get about the continuing work of the kingdom.
It's notable that after Jesus is "taken up" in a cloud and the Acts onlookers stare at those ascending feet, two men in white appear (I wonder if they are the same men who showed up in Luke's version of the resurrection with their question, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"), and say, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" These angels ask hard questions! The implication is, Don't just stand there, do something! And so the story of the church begins.
So the ending is also the beginning. The rapture of Jesus is, like Pentecost, a birthing of a very worldly church, which is called not to simply stand there, looking up, but to get about the work that Jesus began. The Spirit-empowered church is to be the continuing presence of the Christ in the world.
Endings and beginnings—life is full of both. A month from retirement, I feel this keenly. I am about to end a full career of ministry, which is bittersweet. But I also see that this ending is a beginning, a birthing of a new sense of call. I think of that poignant hymn:
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity,
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.