May 9, 2016

Where is Jesus?

Copley, John Singleton, 1738-1815. The Ascension, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

            I began by simply asking the location of the Risen Christ.  Christian theology has done a better job dealing with time than space.  As students of the Bible we are rather shackled to the biblical cosmology with its “heaven is up and hell is down” structure.
Their answers demonstrated theological sensitivity and curiosity, honed from years of faithful reflection. They affirmed that Jesus, the Risen Christ, is with God; Jesus is with us when we gather; Jesus is in our hearts; Jesus meets us in the breaking of bread; and, Jesus is throughout creation, working where he is not acknowledged as Lord.  Pretty good answers, indeed.

Ascension, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

            Then we examined the ending of Luke and the beginning of Acts to try to understand what ascension can possibly mean in a post-Galileo, post-Faraday, post-Einstein, and post-Hubble cosmos.  Luke’s story of Jesus being “taken up” does not mean he is the first astronaut, looking for God in the long inter-galactic voyage toward heaven.  It may be that heaven and earth are not so far apart after all.
            There is theological heft in this narrative, which is often overlooked because we have not attended to what is really going on as Luke concludes the gospel and sets us up for the stunning action of Acts.  What is the meaning of the departure of the incarnate one as a bridge to the outpouring of the Spirit? Presence and absence are intertwined as we observe the cessation of resurrection appearances and the coming of the Spirit in power.
            The ending texts of Luke and the opening of Acts repeat the scene of Jesus departing.  These are scenes of blessing, and his ascension ensures that resurrection has actually occurred.  No searching for the body need occur.  Jesus has entered into God’s eternal realm.
            I find the words “taken up” (see Luke 24: 51; see also Acts 1:9) particularly important.  The cloud, a shimmering metaphor for the presence of God, is actively moving Jesus from the existence of earthly life to resurrected life.  Ascension completes the resurrection, and we recall that John’s Gospel combines resurrection and exaltation, also a dimension of ascension.
            It is common to hear people claim that Jesus is “going back home.” Actually, this world is his home.  The word has become flesh.  The eschatological return of Christ will really be his homegoing.  Of course, Jesus is from the Sovereign One, but incarnation is a truly earthy phenomenon.  That the Risen Christ dwells both in the presence of God and with the gathered community, his body, tells of the enduring significance of embodiment.
            The ascension also offers a clue to our own hope of life beyond death.  Jesus’ departure has opened a new a living way, and we live with confidence that he marks out the pathway.

            Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares learners to be reliable theological guides for the church.

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