Easter 7B

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


Lectionary

  • Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 & Psalm 1
  • 1John 5:9-13
  • John 17:6-19




Introduction

This coming Sunday concludes the Great Fifty Day of Easter, and in places such as Australia the ten days between Feast Ascension and Pentecost are observed as a time of special prayer for Christian unity. The Gospel reading from John 17 is especially suited for such a theme.

With changes in church attendance, and especially with the decline in attendance on holy days that occur during the working week, it is common the feast of the Ascension to the observed in churches on the Seventh Sunday of Easter.


Risen and ascended

The traditions that are celebrated in the Feast of the Ascension have ancient roots that reach back into the earliest Christian traditions, but the familiar ascension legend has a rather more limited provenance.

Its place as a distinct festival in the Christian liturgical year may owe as much to Luke's penchant for turning metaphors into tangible events, perhaps a natural extension of the Johannine affirmation of the physicality of the Christ in response to docetic claims that Jesus was really a spiritual phantom, incapable of suffering, who appeared to be in human form but always remained otherworldly.

We catch a glimpse of the debate around the beginning of the second century in this passage from 1John, part of the Christian document in which we first encounter the term "antichrist/s":

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. [1John 4:1-3]

In response to the docetists, the Johannine Christians denounced their opponents as false prophets, liars and agents of the Antichrist. While Luke was less shrill, he seems to have adopted a practice of making the physical character of the Christian mysteries beyond debate. One example of this is seen in his account of the baptism of Jesus, where Mark's description of the Spirit descending and alighting on Jesus like a dove ("And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him." - Mark 1:10) is adapted to read: "and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove" (Luke 3:22).

While—as we shall see—other early Christian writers seem to have celebrated the exaltation of Jesus to the heavenly spheres after his death, it is Luke (and Luke alone) who tells us a story about the moment when Jesus physically ascended into the clouds.


The exalted Lord in Paul

A brief survey of the authentic Pauline letters, beginning with 1 Thessalonians (the earliest of all existing Christian texts) makes it very clear that—from the very beginning of Christianity—the followers of Jesus believed that he was safely with God in the heavens and would return to earth at the appointed time.

For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. [1Thess 1:9-10]

The close link between the risen one and God the Father is seen in Paul's regular invocation ("God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ") as well as in statements like the following:

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. [1Thess 3:11-13]

The classic text that describes Jesus coming from heaven as judge and saviour is the parousia passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. [1Thess 4:13-5:11]

This motif continues throughout the Pauline letters, with another significant example being the "Christ Hymn" in Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father. [Phil 2:5-11]


The exalted Lord in other NT texts

A brief scan of the post-Pauline traditions in the NT indicates that the theme of Jesus as the one raised to God's presence and returning from the heavens as the eschatological judge is widely-attested. The evidence will be considered in its approximate chronological sequence, even though it is possible that the extant writings may preserve older traditions.

Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark is typically dated in the period after the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 CE. Whether it was composed in the immediate aftermath or after an interval of some years is not clear. Ted Weeden (2003) has argued for a later date for the composition of Mark; suggesting that Mark was dependent on Josephus, Wars of the Jews. If Weeden is correct, this would push the earliest date for Mark back to around 90 CE, and have consequences for the dating of Matthew and Luke; both of which seem to have used Mark.

The following material in Mark seem relevant to the theme of Jesus' exaltation to heaven after his death:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” [Mark 15:61-62]

Deutero-Pauline texts

These writings include Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. The continuation of the exaltation theme from the authentic Pauline letters is to be expected and indeed is readily apparent.

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. [Ephesians 1:20-23]
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. [Ephesians 2:4-7]
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) [Ephesians 4:7-10]
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. [Colossians 3:1-4]
Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:

He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,

taken up in glory. [1 Timothy 3:6]
In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. [1 Timothy 6:13-16]
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. [2 Timothy 4:1-2]
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. [Titus 2:11-14]

Hebrews

The opening words of Hebrews will be sufficient to demonstrate the importance of this theme in this part of the NT:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. [Hebrews 1:1-4]


The Apocalypse

The status of Jesus as the risen and exalted one is a major theme in the Book of Revelation, but a couple of extracts will serve to illustrate this point:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. [Revelation 1:4b-5]
Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. [Revelation 1:12-18]


Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew has no tradition of the ascension, but it does conclude with a great christophany in which the Risen One appears (from heaven?) and proclaims that he has "all power in heaven and on earth":

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:16-20]


Gospel of John

Like Matthew, the Gospel of John lacks anything like an ascension tradition and yet there is no doubt that the Risen One is now alive in/with God, and commissions the disciples on Easter night; at which time he gives them the Holy Spirit (which Luke-Acts will withhold until the Feast of Pentecost).

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” [John 20:19-23]

Throughout the gospel we find casual references to Jesus as the one who has come from and will return to the Father, including ascension language; but without any need for an event such as Luke-Acts describes:

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. [John 3:13]
Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? [John 6:62]
Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” [John 20:17]


The exalted Lord in Luke-Acts

As noted above, it is Luke alone who tells a story about a specific event during which Jesus leaves the earth and ascends to heaven. There are two slightly different versions, one at the end of Luke and the other at the beginning of Acts:

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; [Luke 24:50-52]
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” [Acts 1:9-11]

Despite the differences in these two accounts, it is generally agreed that Luke intended them to be understood as the same event.

Embedded in the sermons and speeches that Luke puts on the lips of key characters, we find the earlier Christian theme of Jesus as the Saviour raised to God and waiting in heaven until the designated time for his return to earth:

But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. ... This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. [Acts 2:24,32-33]
Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. [Acts 3:19-21]
But filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” [Acts 7:5-56]
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. [Acts 10:39b-42]

Jesus Database

  • 480 Ascension of Jesus - (1a) Luke 24:50-52, (1b) Acts 1:9-11.
  • 002 Jesus Apocalyptic Return - (1) 1 Thess 4:13-18; (2) Did. 16:6-8; (3) Matt 24:30a; (4) Mark 13:24-27 = Matt 24:29,30b-31 = Luke 21:25-28; (5a) Rev 1:7; (5b) Rev 1:13; (5c) Rev 14:14; (6) John 19:37.
  • 017 Resurrection of Jesus - (1) 1 Cor 15:4b; (2) Gos. Pet. 9:35-10:40; (3) Barn.15:9; (4a) Ign. Mag. 11:1c; (4b) Ign. Trall. 9:2a; (4c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2b.




Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site

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Music Suggestions

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