Ascension Sunday

May 24, 2009

bible / theology

Today, in liturgical churches at least, was Ascension Sunday, the day that celebrates the return of Jesus into heaven. I’ve never been able to connect with God through liturgical services or calendars, but occasionally something strikes me about a certain holiday of the church.

N. T. Wright has written about the ascension, and in doing so he continues his efforts to get it through our heads that biblical eschatology, from the resurrection to heaven, is not what most of us have been taught. In light of that, I think it is worth using the topic of the ascension, as Wright does, to cast a little more light on the subject.

Interestingly, I often tend to use N. T. Wright together with Peter Rollins, and this is no exception. Peter writes:

Eschatology is a theological term that is often used within Christianity to refer to events that are to come. Christianity is thus thought to have an eschatological dimension insomuch as it looks forward to a kingdom that is not yet here, a beautiful realm of love, forgiveness, and mercy that we yearn for, long for, pray for, and prepare for. Here the eschatological kingdom of God is located in the not-yet of the future. However, within the Bible we find a much more radical view of the eschatological kingdom, not as the absence of something that is to come, but rather as the absence of a kingdom that is already here.

The Fidelity of Betrayal – excerpt here

In Pete’s words, as well as, I think, in N. T. Wright’s words, the kingdom of God is a bizarre thing – something for which we yearn when we have experienced the Other, cutting into our world to show us what we desire.

The ascension reminds us of this. Jesus has not gone to some different place, in outer space or in some disembodied realm as most popular theology would have us believe. He is among us, in ways that bring the Other into our world. N. T. Wright says:

Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church – when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him – only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand – when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’ continuting human work in the present – are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present…

Surprised by Hope

I want to spend a few posts in the next week or so looking at the issues of the ascension, and Pentecost. I have been gripped, recently, by the thought that both of these have something important to say to me, and to us in Emergent, and the broader emerging church.