Pastor Frank C. Senn
Goodbyes are never easy. I’m coming up to the fourth anniversary of my retirement from active pastoral ministry and resignation of the pastoral office at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston. I wanted to give the congregation time to digest the fact that I would no longer be their pastor and give the parish leadership time to prepare for the transition to an interim situation. So I announced my retirement at the annual meeting of the congregation in January, and set the official date as of the end of June. Then over the next five months we had the last this and the last that. Finally, we had the really last day, and since Mary and I were not moving away from Evanston I took off to Singapore to teach in a seminary there to completely get out of their sight.
I think the story Luke tells at the beginning of the sequel to his Gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, served the same purpose. It was a dramatic way for Jesus to impress on his disciples that he would no longer be among them in the way they were used to relating to him. This story of Jesus’ ascension belongs to Luke. You won’t find it in the gospels. It’s entirely Luke’s story, and the church built a festival on it, just as we built a festival on Luke’s story of the Nativity of Jesus.
I think a case can be made that Jesus’ ascension---his return to the Father in heaven---took place on the day of his resurrection. In the resurrection narrative in John’s Gospel Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, once she recognizes him, not to cling to him because he has not yet ascended. And then he commissions her to go the disciples and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Note: Jesus didn’t tell Mary Magdalene to tell the others that he had risen from the dead but that he has ascended to God.
So in John’s Gospel the resurrection and ascension seem to occur on the same day. Yet we know that Jesus appeared to the apostles that evening and again eight days later when so-called “doubting” Thomas was with them and again along the seashore in Galilee where he has breakfast waiting for the fishermen disciples. So where had Jesus been when he’s not appearing to disciples? Presumably in heaven, which I think we may imagine as another dimension rather than some place up in the sky.
I think we see the same thing in Luke’s Gospel, the end of which we heard proclaimed today. The myrrh-bearing women go to the tomb early on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion to prepare his body for a proper burial. They find the tomb empty. Two men in dazzling clothes tell them that he has risen. Then that afternoon Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, explains about himself as prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, and is finally recognized at the supper table when he breaks bread and says the blessing. Those two immediately run back to Jerusalem and tell the others. But suddenly Jesus appears among them all in the room and eats in their presence to prove he wasn’t a ghost.
At this point our Gospel reading for today begins. Jesus explains that everything he has done has been to fulfill the Scriptures and he commissions these disciples to be his witnesses to the nations. But they are to wait in the city until they are clothed with power from on high---the Holy Spirit. Then he leads them out as far as Bethany, blesses them, and withdraws into heaven. If we didn’t have the sequel to this Gospel, we would think, as in John’s Gospel, that Jesus’ ascension occurred on that event-filled day of resurrection.
But we do have the sequel. Luke tells Theophilus and his other readers that Jesus appeared to the disciples “during forty days” (a good biblical number) “speaking about the kingdom of God.” Then, while they’re still thinking that it’s about the restored kingdom of Israel (even this late they don’t seem to “get it”), Jesus departs from them. And they stand there with their mouths open gazing up at the sky. Is that it? Is Jesus finally gone? Is that what this story is about: showing the disciples that they shouldn’t expect to see him any more the way they were used to seeing him?
When I left Immanuel and went to Singapore, was I gone for good from Immanuel? Not quite, because I was invited back to the congregation’s 125th anniversary banquet in the fall. Was Jesus totally gone from the disciples and from the earth? Not quite, because in the 9th chapter of Acts he appeared to Saul the Pharisee and converted him into Paul the Apostle to the gentiles. Well, he needed to have someone who would get his gospel to the nations.
So we wonder: why does Luke tell us this ascension story at all? Leave-takings can be rather depressing if you think you won’t see that person again. Last Sunday I attended the monthly Bach Cantata Vespers at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, where I am technically a member. It was an observance of the Ascension of our Lord, which was actually this past Thursday in the liturgical calendar---forty days after Easter Day, according to Luke’s chronology. The choir sang a stirring setting of Psalm 47 by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Psalm 47, which we sang this morning, is a royal enthronement psalm and it has been applied spiritually to Jesus ascending to the throne of God. Vaughn Williams’ setting of the words “God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet” with choir, organ, brass, and timpani would have shaken the roof of Westminster Abbey as it did at Grace Lutheran. Then came Bach’s Ascension Oratorio after the Gospel reading, also with full orchestra including brass and timpani, and it was something of a let-down. Because while there were brassy praise choruses sung by the choir, right in the midst of the biblical story Bach had the alto singing (in German),
Ah, remain still, my dearest life,
Ah, do not flee so soon from me!
Your departure and your early leaving
Bring me the greatest suffering.
Ah, do then remain still here;
Otherwise I shall be quite beset by grief.
With these pietistic words Bach brings in the human reaction to Jesus’ departure. He sees in the ascension story a narrative that has become very familiar in our modern age: the one about a God who is deliberately distant from those who need him, and who seems to have abandoned his people to their own inner resources, as if no Holy Spirit has been sent, as if we each of us must now invent our own spirituality, our own morality, our own religious practices, as if there’s nothing set down in the gospels and two millennia of tradition to draw upon?
I think it’s important to recognize the legitimacy of the experience from which this lament arises. Many people do feel that Christ has indeed left the stage. A Catholic friend once told me that she had stopped going to church because of the abuse of children by the priests. She couldn’t understand how a Church full of the Spirit of Christ could allow such a thing. For her, any residual sense of Christ’s presence in the world has now disappeared. And who can blame her, or any of the victims of abuse, for seeing things that way?
Yet, this morning I would bear witness to another way of reading the Ascension story, another way of understanding why Jesus departed from his disciples and from the earth. For there is a bigger story here in Luke’s account, and I believe that if we can only allow ourselves this enlarged vista, then even the very real “fact” and “experience” of divine abandonment will turn out to be something other than what it appears to be.
And it is this: yes, by virtue of his Ascension into heaven, Christ is indeed no longer present as a particular human being who occupies and is limited by a particular place and time. But he is nevertheless, also by virtue of the Ascension, more abundantly present and active than he had ever been before. And this not as some kind of ghostly presence who hangs in the air but never takes form. No, Christ remains present in a material body: in the Eucharist.
In Jesus the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, God has a body. And that body shares in Christ’s divine nature, which includes omnipresence. God still relates to us body to body in the body of Christ. And that body of Christ is present wherever the words of Christ are proclaimed: “This is my body.” This is me.
In the bread and the wine we receive the body and blood of Christ according to his word. In a kind of spiritual biochemistry we take his body and blood into our bodies. This can be a more intimate and a more saturating presence than we experience with another human being occupying a space next to us.
Robert Orsi, professor of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, has chronicled case studies of victims of priestly abuse in his recently-published book, History and Presence. He calls what happened to these victims “events of abundant evil.” Yet many of these victims continue to come to church and receive the Host, the sacramental body of Christ, from the hand of a priest, even though they may have suffered abuse at the hands of a priest. Believing that this bread is the body of Christ, perhaps they have a sense that ingesting the body of Christ gives honor to their dishonored bodies. This was a feeling I had when I was a young adolescent receiving first Communion at a time in my life when I had all sorts of young adolescent body issues. I wasn’t feeling very good about my body when I was thirteen going on fourteen, but I had been catechized to believe that Christ’s body and blood is really present in the bread and wine and if his holy body was coming into my body, then my body was honored by his presence.
Moreover, we share the same spiritual biochemistry with all others who receive the body and blood of Christ from the same bread and cup. If we receive this sacrament we are bodily in union with Christ and with one another. The church becomes the interpersonal body of Christ. Working through the means of grace, the word and the sacraments, the Spirit whose coming we celebrate next Sunday makes the Church the body of Christ in the world, so infusing and shaping its life and work that the mission of Jesus continues in the Church as a real and tangible Christ-presence for the whole world.
And in the meantime, it’s good for us who have to live in the meantime to know that Christ has indeed taken his place at God’s right hand – the position of clout, we would say --, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” God has made Christ “the head over all things for the church, which is his body.” Eastern Orthodox worshipers are reminded of this every time they enter their church building and see the icon of Christ the Pantocrator, the ruler of all things, in the apse or in the dome overhead gathering all his people under his rule.
Christ abides with us in the bread broken and the wine poured out for the life of the world; in the Scriptures read and preached; and in the stranger, the widow and the orphan we are called to meet in our ministries of care. Christ has indeed ascended to the Father…so that he can be present everywhere and to everyone now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Pastor Frank C. Senn