Ascension Day (or Ascension Sunday), 10 May (or 13 May) 2018

May 10, 2018 | by Nathan Mattox

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Acts 1: 1-11 Psalm 47 or 93 Ephesians 1: 15-23 Luke 24: 44-53

Ascension Day

Whether this be a special day of worship on Ascension Day (May 10), or a substitute focus on the Sunday following Ascension Day (May 13), the theme is a particularly rich one, especially in a season marked by departure or preparation for departure, in the forms of graduations, pastoral changes, moves, vacations, and the like. Though the pattern of many churches is to order the Gospel reading last, in this case it might make more sense to have the Gospel read first if the preacher plans to use the Gospel and the Acts text, since we hear from Luke’s Gospel and then the passage immediately following it in the sequel.

Psalm 47 or 93

The RCL gives us the choice between Psalm 47 and 93, and I see some more springboard for Process Theology in the 93rd Psalm. Connecting the Psalm to the other texts, we also see the general exaltation and mysterious beauty of the Ascension. The opening line speaking of  “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved “ reminds the hearer, or sets the tone, for visualizing both the charge of Jesus to “stay here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,” and the two men who appear in white robes beside the disciples while they are gazing up into the sky after Jesus.” There is certainly some interplay between the images of these robes, “robed in majesty,” and being “clothed with power” at the instruction of Jesus.

The “springboard for a process interpretation” that I see in this scripture is the use of the word “everlasting” to describe God’s presence, “Your throne is from of old, you are from everlasting,” (v.2), and “Your decrees are very sure, holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore.”  The first reference in verse two is from the Hebrew word מע ָלם , moulm, which means “from eons,” and the second reference to “forever more” is from the Hebrew word, ָיִמים ְלֹאֶר, l-ark imim, which means “for length of days.”

Though it might be somewhat technical for a congregation (I’m not sure), it might be worth mentioning that Process Theology picks up on a more scriptural theme to refer to God and God’s kingdom as “everlasting” instead of “eternal.”  Cobb and Griffin write in Process Theology; An Introductory Exposition, “The divine life is neither eternal, in the sense of timeless, nor temporal, in the sense of perpetual perishing. Instead, it is everlasting, constantly receiving from the world but retaining what in the world is past in the immediacy of its everlasting present….The everlasting reality is the kingdom of heaven.”  (122)

In our view, time, and events in time, matter to the Divine reality. God is not “above it” or “beyond it” all. Instead God is majestically robed in it. God’s throne is from everlasting.

Ephesians 1: 15-23

This scripture is likely included because of the concluding statement attributing power and authority to Christ,  “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, 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. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (20-23) The scripture is fitting, and especially if we, like Salvador Dali’s depiction of the Ascension, are focused on what is underneath Jesus’ feet. (see more in Acts commentary)

In this beautiful salutation, though, there is one phrase that has always shone for me, and perhaps for other Process Preachers, “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, 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, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (17-18)  If you have the misfortune of being acquainted with contemporary Christian music, you might hear this phrase in a familiar tune “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, Open the eyes of my heart. I want to see you…to see you high and lifted up, shining in the light of your glory, pour out your power and love, as we sing ‘Holy, Holy, holy.’” But, even so, if that is your thing, it would make a good Ascension “praise and worship” song.

The phrase is one of my favorites, as it speaks so eloquently of the experience of wisdom and revelation. I see several Alex Grey mystical/anatomical paintings in my mind’s eye when I contemplate the phrase, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened.” Though the supernatural narrative of Ascension Sunday may be too much of a stretch for members of our congregation with a bent toward strict rationalism, we might encourage our people to envision the story of the Ascension of the Christ “with the eyes of our hearts enlightened” as they listen. That way, the hope of Christ transcending the limitations of the world around us might better lure our people toward a richer experiences of life.

Luke 24: 44-53

We move from the author of Ephesians’ hope that we might “receive the spirit of wisdom and revelation…with the eyes of our hearts enlightened” to the notion of Jesus “opening their minds to understand the scriptures” in the first couple sentences of the Luke passage. In my own experience of living with the scriptures, I have come to find great power in the notion that we might read a scripture as Joseph Campbell taught we should approach the myths, namely that “it is something true, that may have actually happened.” As a preacher and a person of faith, my own appreciation for the scriptures has grown as I have come to understand the scriptures in this way. Gone is the tension of reconciling supernatural accounts with my own rationality. Gone is the sense that the Bible must be a primitive text that is simply uninformed by modern scientific understanding. Instead, the Bible, and particular accounts such as this one, that speaks of something quite startling and strange, becomes richer and more meaningful. I’ve told my congregation in Bible studies that I actually think those who insist on a literal interpretation of the scriptures are missing out on the depth and breadth of the story that contains so much. And so, if we approach this scripture with the “eyes of our hearts enlightened” instead of “with critical, rationalistic skepticism,” we might stand to be informed by a story of a resurrected man flying up into the sky that has a chronology that disagrees with Luke’s own later account in Acts (the narrative here occurring on Easter day, and Acts stating that Jesus stayed with the disciples for 40 days after the resurrection before he ascended. These details are things of the modern mind informed by the rationalistic revolution of the Great Awakening, and quite unimportant to the storyteller and theologian Luke.

It is interesting that Jesus draws his disciples out of the city “as far as Bethany” (50) to depart in such a dramatic way. This is the town, the suburbs, where his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live. It is also noteworthy that this story follows his careful instruction, “stay here in Jerusalem until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Clearly, Luke isn’t interested in a chronological account. Does Jesus choose Bethany for any particular reason. This town held significant displays of power (raising of Lazarus) and affection (anointing by Mary), and was Jesus’ “home base” during his ministry in Jerusalem. Could it be that a familiar place is the most potent setting for something so startling and unfamiliar as the ascension? Is this even an account of the ascension? Scholars who are interested in harmonizing the timeline between Luke and Acts are more apt to say this is simply a “departure,” not THE departure.

Acts 1: 1-11

This is a story of transition. It is the transition of a loved one taking his leave. It is a transition from the leadership of Jesus to the leadership of Spirit-led apostles. It is the transition from a movement to an organization. In terms of concrescence, it is the transition, (or wouldn’t we say “process?”) to the church becoming the church.

Luke wastes no time introducing us to the main instigator of the book of Acts—“In the first book, O Theophilus, (lover of God,) I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” (1-2) So, that book was about Jesus, but he gave commandment through the Holy Spirit, and now the Holy Spirit is about to move in here and shake things up. What was that “commandment through the Holy Spirit?” If we look to John 15, which we might have preached on last week, we see that commandment is a “simple” one: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Surely the Holy Spirit was in that.

A closer look at our scriptural tradition shows us that it is customary for God’s most important prophets to be lifted up from the Earth rather than perish and placed in the ground. Elijah and Enoch are said to have ascended into heaven. Elijah was carried away on a fiery chariot. The famous Rabbi of Alexandria, Philo, who was a contemporary of the Gospel writers and a favorite theologian among early Christians, wrote that Moses also ascended. John’s gospel speaks of Jesus being “lifted up,” as an implication of Christ’s death on the cross, lifted up in agony, an implication of Christ’s resurrection, lifted up in mystery, and Christ’s ascension—lifted up in glory. There is clearly more to this story than what is literally written.

The cloud that takes Jesus away is an allusion to the Shekinah—the presence of God formed in a cloud that can be found in the story of Moses receiving the law, and the presence of God in the tabernacle en route to the promised land, among others.

In fact, Luke’s own gospel reports the descent of a cloud that covered the mountain at the Transfiguration of Jesus. And at this event, Moses and Elijah—both of whom ascended according to Jewish legend, are speaking with Jesus at that moment about what? Luke 9:30 tells us that they were speaking of “his departure, that would soon occur in Jerusalem.” All of these elements are linked together by the symbols chosen by Luke to report this story.

I often find a lot of meaning and commentary on the scriptures in fine art. My favorite portrayal of the Ascension was painted by Salvador Dali. The picture is dominated by the bottoms of Jesus’ feet as he rises up into heaven. The Shekinah has the female face of Dali’s wife, and a dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit is circling down. Christ’s fingers are powerfully outstretched in a gesture of connection and blessing. It reminds me of the end of Ephesians in which the author describes the power of Christ by saying “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:23) I think the painting is a beautiful companion to the text because it celebrates the humanity of Jesus in the context of such a supernatural account. “Why are you standing there staring up into heaven?” Such a question holds enormous potential for the Process teacher to discuss the centrality of God’s immanency in Process theology, but in the case of the painting, one might answer, “well, angels, just look at those feet. I want to savor this moment and remember all the places those feet have been, and how I might better follow in their tracks.”

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four chidren, a dog and a cat.