"Who's In Charge?" Bible Study on Luke 24:44-53
May 21, 2020, 12:36 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

Aside the fact that we're one day away from Happy Friday, do you know what is special about today?  No?  Then I'll tell you.  It's Ascension Day, the fortieth day after Easter when the Church throughout the world remembers and celebrates the ascending of the Risen Christ into heaven.  So I'm going to use today's Gospel Reading as the text for my message for this Sunday, May 24th.

I invite you to read the following passage from Luke 24:44-53 (Common English Bible translation).

44 Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”

50 He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. 53 And they were continuously in the temple praising God.

After reading the above Gospel text, here's my question: What on earth could this weird story mean for us here and now?

Only Luke among the gospel writers narrates the Ascension of the Risen Christ in Luke 24:51.  This is a summary of a more extended account, which is found in Luke's second volume, Acts 1:6-11.  The ascension of Jesus into heaven is a way of stressing the transcendence of Jesus.  In moving from earth to heaven, Jesus moves from one sphere of reality to another.  Now Jesus can be ubiquitous, omnipresent, that is, seeming to be present everywhere at the same time.  God has raised Christ with power to become sovereign in God's Realm, which has no end.  And that's just a fancy theological way of saying that the Risen Christ now reigns or lives in our hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Spirit, which we were freely given in our baptism.  Ephesians 4:8 describes Jesus ascending "to the heights" while Colossians 3:1-2 associates Christ with "things that are above" which are constrasted with "things on earth."  When Luke narrates a longer account of the Ascension of Jesus, the Gospel writer says that the disciples stood there, "looking toward heaven" (Acts1:10-11).  Indeed, Jesus is moving from one sphere to another.

In his ascending, the Risen Christ is now fully in the Realm of God.  Ephesians 4:10 speaks of the One who descended having now ascended, "above all the heavens, so that he might fill everything."  Everything includes all of creation, us, and the universe.  Wow!!!  Awesome thought!!!

With the ascension, Luke is making a strong theological claim.  The Crucified One is now the Risen One and is now fully exalted and vindicated.  The Divine identity and power of Jesus is fully revealed.  As 1 Thimothy 3:16 says, Christ was "taken up in glory."  Christ is now honored by being at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3)  Seated at the right hand of God, the Risen Christ is "far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future" (Ephesians 1:21).  And that sure gives me hope that Someone greater than any of our world leaders is in control of the ultimate fate of humanity.

The images related to the ascension are unashamedly monarchial.  Like an all-powerful King, "God put everything under Christ's feet and made him head of everything in the Church" (Ephesians 1:22).  Luke depicts the ascension in mythical, spatial, and dramatic terms.  Yet his account rests on solid theological ground.  The Crucified and Risen Christ is the ascended One.  We haven't told the whole story of Jesus until we have confronted the story of the ascension.

In a sense, for Luke, and in the theology of the Church, the Ascension of Christ brings to fruition the significance of the resurrection of Jesus.  In the stories of the resurrection, or more accurately the stories of the appearance of the Risen Christ after his resurrection, Jesus seems to have a very strange sort of body.  It is a resurrected body that can do things that our physical bodies normally can't do.  And yet, it was undeniably a body, even though it was a body that could slip through locked doors, serve breakfast on the beach, and disappear in a moment.

When people think about the resurrection, most of the time they think that resurrection means, "life after after death' or "when we go to heaven."  N.T. Wright, the New Testament scholar, has done a good job helping us to see that in the Jewish world of the first century, resurrection did not simply mean life, but rather it meant embodied life in a new, radically changed world.  As Wright often puts it, resurrection means "life after life after death" (read Surprised by Hope [Harper Collins, 2009].  This new embodied life is not identical with the previous embodied life.  God will give a new life that is no longer subject to death.  In Jesus' case, this happened on Easter.  In our case, our bodies decay, our bones may well be burned, but there will be a new act of creation by God.  That is resurrection.  Who's ultimately in charge of what happens to each of us after death?  God is!

This is behind the Apostle Paul's long discussion of resurrected embodiment in 1 Corinthians 15.  Read 1 Corinthians 15:42-50.  Revelation 21's canonical coda is that heaven and earth will at last be joined together into one.  No longer will earth be disjoined from heaven, as if God is forced to shuttle back and forth between the two, but at last God will get what God wanted in creation -- heaven and earth fused together.

For now, what are we to be doing, as we await the full fusion of earth and heaven?  This Sunday's Gospel Reading, Luke's account of the Ascension, tells us.  We are to be active in mission.  Everything we do for the good and well-being of others demonstrates that Jesus reigns through our words and actions.  Jesus now rules in our hearts and minds, and Christ's Spirit, the Holy Spirit, produces the fruit of the Spirit: "Love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).

Luke's Gospel ends as it began -- with worship in the Temple at Jerusalem (Luke 24:53).  Even here and now on earth, we continue to worship Jesus as God's Son, the fullness of God.

Hallelujah & Blessings,

Pastor Greg Rupright

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