The Power of the Ascended Lord

Human_headed_winged_bull_facingAscension Day is a feel-good celebration of Jesus seated at God’s “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.” If Christ is reigning like that and we are reigning with Him and sharing in Christ’s power, then we too are over everybody else just as Jesus is over everybody else. Sounds like a good deal. Or is it? Let’s take a closer look at what this power of Christ is all about.

Getting a sense of how power and especially omnipotence applies to God is tricky. After all, we dream of being omnipotent and invulnerable so we assume that the Master of the Universe wishes the same thing. Not a good assumption.

René Girard noted that power is attributed to the primordial victims of collective violence. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God) That is, the victim was powerful enough to be the cause of the social meltdown and also powerful enough to be the solution to the violence. (The reality, of course, is that such victims were normal humans with no supernatural powers.) The Gospels reveal Jesus as a vulnerable human being who clearly did not cause the social crises of first-century Jerusalem and whose death brought about no solution to it. Whatever power Jesus has, it isn’t this power. The illusion of the power of the victim should make us suspicious about how we attribute power to God.

A second and more common image of power is the imperial structure. In the days of Isaiah and other prophets, Assyria was such an image. The statues and friezes of winged bulls are symbols of this kind of power. This is the kind of power the apostles seem to have been thinking of when they asked Jesus: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) Jesus’ ascension right after hearing this question was a firm No.

When Paul says that Jesus is 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,” he is saying that Jesus is far above and beyond all cultures that rely on sacrificial violence and the Assyrian-Roman impositions of power. That is, the power of Christ is to bring us out from these cultural practices. But are we being brought out of the world to escape these cultural entanglements? Sorry if you were hoping for that.

crosswButterfliesPaul concludes this section of Ephesians with powerful irony: “God has put all things under [Jesus’] 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.” Paul is using the common image of military victim where the victor lays his foot on the head of the vanquished, making the loser his footstool. But under Jesus’ foot is not the head of the vanquished but Jesus’ own Body, the Church. This is the Body of the crucified one who was raised from the dead and returned as the forgiving victim. Jesus’ reigning in Heaven at the right hand of the Father is coterminous with Jesus living with us here on earth, sharing our vulnerability to the imperial structures of power who continue to act like the Assyrians and the Romans.

If we are the Body of the forgiving victim, then forgiveness, not rulership, is what reigning with Christ is all about. This power to forgive was the gift the risen Christ breathed into the disciples (Jn. 20:23)  In John, Jesus says that it is this “Spirit of truth” who abides in us. When we keep Jesus’ words, he and the Father and the Spirit will come and dwell within us to empower us with their love for one another and for us and for all those whose sins (including our own!) need forgiving.

 

Jesus’ Escape to the Kingdom

crosswButterfliesThe Ascension is among the most puzzling festivals in the church calendar. The contradictory accounts of the event are a puzzle but one thing the accounts by Luke and John’s Gospel share is to connect Jesus’ departure with his sending the Holy Spirit. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come to lead them into the truth. What truth did the disciples need that they hadn’t learned already from their teacher? Did Jesus have to leave before the disciples could hear the Holy Spirit?

During his ministry, Jesus warned his disciples three times that “he would be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” These warnings came precisely at the times the disciples thought that a Maccabean-like revolution against the Romans was just around the corner: when Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, right after the Transfiguration, and when James and John asked if they will sit at Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom.

After his Resurrection, Jesus tried again to get across to the disciples what his kingdom was really all about. When Clopas glumly said that he and his companion had hoped that Jesus “was the one who was to redeem Israel,” Jesus, not yet recognized by them, rebuked them for their slowness of heart in believing what “the prophets have declared.” Then he “interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Later, Jesus appeared to the twelve and explained that everything written about him in “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. “Since the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” was used to refer to the whole Hebrew Bible, the special mention of the psalms is significant. The psalms include many laments over persecution from the standpoint of the victim. Jesus went on to say that when the scriptures say that the Messiah was “to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,” it means that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed” in Jesus’ name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Proclaiming repentance and forgiveness is a very different proposition from starting a revolt to restore the kingdom to Israel.

When, in spite of hearing this teaching for forty days, the disciples asked their Risen Lord: “Is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus must have banged his head against the nearest tree and cried out: “I’m out of here!” This repeated question may have convinced Jesus that the disciples were never going to stop asking him to restore kingdom of Israel as long as he was walking on the earth with them. Maybe Jesus was planning all along to leave after forty days; maybe he planned to stick around indefinitely but this question was the last straw.

Jesus’s Ascension put paid to any notion of his leading a second Maccabean-type revolution. The disciples were left with no choice but to try doing what Jesus told them to do when he breathed on them and said: “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.” Jesus’ kingdom is to preach repentance and forgiveness to the whole world until everybody has repented, been forgiven, and has forgiven everybody.