by Daniel Harrell
Thursday was Ascension Day on the Christian liturgical calendar. We celebrated Ascension at my house on Thursday with self-rising biscuits. Descension Day is next Sunday: The Holy Spirit comes down for Pentecost. We’re also going to honor our graduating seniors and ordain Marie Wonders and Carter Sample as our ministers—a lot of Holy Spirit happening on Pentecost. As for the Ascension, it gets much less attention. It warrants a couple of lines in the Apostle’s Creed, and it must have been remarkable to see. But among the gospel writers, only Luke mentions it―albeit twice—once in his Gospel and once here in Acts. Mark has an ascension add-on in that late part of his gospel he never wrote. John implies it. Matthew is silent. Here in Acts, the disciples watch Jesus fly into the sky, only to have two angels appear and ask what they’re staring at. It’s like the two angels who asked Easter morning why they were looking for the living among the dead. Are you kidding? The disciples had seen Jesus die and now they just saw him fly! Who does that!? I think this was the angels’ point.
From this point forward, to speak of God is to speak of Christ. One “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Scripture insists equality with God was never a power grab on Jesus’ part. Rather he humbled himself, to the depths of humiliated flesh, crucified, dead and buried, all for love’s sake. “Therefore,” we famously read in Philippians, “God exalted him to the highest place” (here’s the Ascension) and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess—(here’s the Pentecost connection)—every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This familiar passage from St. Paul does come later, after Pentecost and the Holy Spirit and once the disciples understood the angels’ point for themselves. Here in Acts, the risen Jesus, back from the dead and visible scars, spends forty days with his disciples, walking and talking about kingdom power, the Holy Spirit and global takeover, no small thing coming from a man who’d spent two days dead in a tomb. Convinced of Jesus’ kingdom might, the disciples wondered whether now was when the Lord was finally going to make Israel great again. Jesus said this was none of their business. Besides, he’d told them already what greatness looked like in God’s kingdom: love, servanthood, carrying crosses, sacrifice. Only the crucified get crowned. Jesus compared the kingdom to the smallest seed planted in the dirt. Too little to see except by its fruit.
By way of example, though poor and scandalized, Jesus displayed some fantastic fruit. He walked on water, glowed in the dark, fed a fanatic five thousand with a single box lunch—and here he was having conversations after his funeral. But those five thousand fed were long fed up and gone. Only eleven of the original twelve disciples remained, and their loyalty was still up in the air, so to speak. Jesus promised them power. They’ll be his witnesses, eyewitness testimony to the truth, emboldened to say what they’ve seen instead of denying it and running away. The truth will set people free to the ends of the earth. And then he takes off into the clouds—“higher than all the heavens,” St. Paul writes, “so to fill the whole universe.
Clouds are Bible code for theophany—a fancy seminary term signaling a visible manifestation of God. Clouds surrounded Moses on Mt. Sinai. Clouds accompanied Elijah’s own ascension to heaven. In Daniel’s prophecy, clouds escorted to earth a “son of man… to whom is given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups worship him.” A preview of Jesus and the reason he called himself Son of Man.
Clouds are plainly visible and evident, but just try to grab one. Stand in the middle of one and it’s as if it’s not even there. Fly through the middle of one and you’re practically thrown out of your airplane seat. Clouds filled the Jerusalem Temple whenever God was in town—here’s the foundation, the Wailing Wall is all that remains.
Since the glory of God outshines the sun, another purpose of clouds was to shield worshipping eyes. The Old Testament warned that to see God meant certain death. For added protection, the Jerusalem Temple hung a shroud-as-cloud curtain to keep prying eyes from peeking into the inner sanctum, that Holy of Holies, a replica of heaven where sat the earthly throne of the Lord. The throne was known as the Mercy Seat, carved out of gold with an angel on each side. (Two angels again.) Tours were available just once a year, on the merciful Day of Atonement, but only the high priest could go in, and only then after a severe ritual of purification for his own sin and the sins of the people. And just in case, the high priest also carried incense, makeshift clouds to obscure God’s glory because a direct encounter with the Holy was too intense for any human to handle. All you could do was surrender and worship.
Such formidable glory is missing from most churches these. Comfortably seated in cushioned pews, stadium seats or padded chairs, we prefer our encounters with Christ to be more familiar and affirming. This is not a bad thing. God became human in Jesus so we could approach without fear or sunscreen. And yet those two angels did say Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Turn to the book of Revelation and Jesus returns riding on clouds, some of them with some fairly ferocious thunder. As theologian Deanna Thompson preached last Sunday, “the God of the Bible is irreducibly compassionate and wrathful… As liberation theologians have taught us, a God without wrath does not plan to do much liberating. That God’s anger is kindled when harm is done to the least among us not only gives us hope that earthly injustices don’t have the last word but also hope that God’s compassionate nature will seek us out when we’re suffering.”
Years ago I attended this Anglican church back in Boston, one of the few that held an Ascension Day service on Ascension Day Thursdays. The sanctuary was imposing with huge vaulted ceilings, a formidable fortress of worship with dozens of candles which gave an intentional ethereal, otherworldly feel, enhanced by a stately organ and pitch perfect choir, bells and adornments and vestments and color and clouds and clouds of incense—so much that the smell lingered long after the worship was over. It was designed to be its own replica of heaven on earth.
The Anglican priest was my spiritual director whose help I had sought once I became a preacher myself. At the congregational church I served, we were turning a tired old evening service into a rock and roll extravaganza intended to attract the Ally McBeal young adult crowd that swarmed Boston back in those days. My spiritual director, the priest, said any preaching about God was impossible without prayer and a regular encounter with God, so every Wednesday I’d steal away to this Anglican church for a nightly mass, where with a few other souls, we’d ring bells and burn clouds and be reminded of God’s fearsome glory in all its vastness and lastness—realities intended to keep me humble.
That stale evening service exploded into a power-laden gathering almost 2000 strong, with young adults from all over the city pouring into our church week after week. I made the news and became an expert in church turnarounds, sought after by congregations all over the country. We were on the cover of magazines and newspapers, on TV and NPR, and even online once the internet took hold (this was a long time ago). We did gospel work in our city and sent groups to Bolivia and Kenya to do gospel work there. We promoted the arts and started small groups and hosted congregations from all over the country eager to light their own churches with our fire. Increasingly confident, occasionally haughty, I felt like I had things under control. Me and God were good. So I stopped going to that Anglican church. I didn’t need clouds anymore.
Deanna reminded us last Sunday how the only human on record not needing clouds was Moses, a leader without peer, “whom the Lord knew face to face.” Moses’ story ends with the disturbing reality that he never enters the Promised Land on earth. Who did I think I was? Deanna linked Moses’ disturbing reality to the incurable Stage 4 cancer she suffers. She writes about her oncologist being “cautiously optimistic that we can keep the cancer at bay—perhaps for a while longer. In an ideal world, there’d be no qualifier for the optimism. But we don’t live in an ideal world; we live in a world where optimism is almost always qualified…”
For me, my disturbing reality was leading an amazing church turnaround while losing a marriage. My wife at the time left me for another and my church leadership decided it best to bench me, both for my sake and the congregation’s. It was a severe mercy. We preachers are better at telling people to take up crosses than we are at having to carry them ourselves. Convinced and confirmed of our calling, take it away and we’re not sure who we are anymore. I found my way back to the Anglican church, humbled and terrified. I sat in the pew, knelt on cue with the liturgy, prayed and partook of the eucharist, hid in the incense and hoped for more. And Deanna reminded, we do “live in a world where optimism is almost always qualified, where we’re often left with realism met with hope—hope for more of the beauty (and pain) that is this life we are given.”
Hope shows its strength through suffering and sacrifice, through grace and forgiveness in ways that don’t always make sense, but that access a depth of joy simple happiness cannot touch. Lose your life and you find your life, go last and be least to finally experience greatness, suffering reveals genuine beauty. These are mysterious, thick and cloud-laden realities central to God’s own divine character. Whatever we think we know of God must always be mitigated by our own error and limits. Knowing all there is to know about God still leaves infinitely more to discover. The Lord surpasses all we can ever imagine or conceive. God abides in inscrutable mystery, accessible by faith and by hope. His ways are not our own; we submit to an incomprehensibility that while maddening at times is completely appropriate. Jesus ascended into heaven and now abides in your heart. But having Jesus in your heart does not mean you’ve got God in your pocket. Life is not under your control.
As the Anglican priest was still my spiritual director, he was aware of all that was happening, even more than I was. With a bit of defiance toward my Congregational church leadership, he asked me to preach the Ascension Day homily, since what do Congregationalists care about Ascension anyway? Like the prodigal son’s father, he dressed me in an elaborately resplendent robe, paraded me in the festooned procession toward a high pulpit, the smoke of incense wafting around me as the organ cranked and the choir played their angelic part. It was a rehearsal for resurrection. Another kind of mercy.
I still have that sermon. “We need to celebrate Ascension Day,” I preached. “We need the palpable appetizers of Ascension’s glorious promises. In Ephesians chapter 2, St. Paul writes that not only has God raised Christ and seated Him by his side in heaven, but God has raised us up and seated us too. By faith in Christ our seat in heaven is already saved. But even more than that, at least as far as God is concerned, we’re already sitting in it! Our future is that certain. The crucified Christ who got up and went up beckons you to see that nothing can separate us from his love… Faith is hard when what you want is control. And we do want control. But if real control of your life is what you want, the good news of Ascension Day is that trusting Christ is the only sure way to get it. Trust Christ and you will rise above your troubles. It may not happen with the speed, manner or means you prefer, but you will rise. Trust Christ and will get to that place your heart desires. Indeed, trust Christ and you’re already there.”
Nothing changed reality wise. My marriage was still over and I remained on preaching parole. I was ashamed of my failures, embarrassed at being a cuckold, angry at thinking I could control everything. I was lost and afraid, which all drew me to prayer in ways that good times don’t. My realism was met with hope for more. The book of Hebrews describes Christ’s ascension as his going behind the cloudy veil to the true heaven where everything is fully and finally redeemed. We have only to wait for our experience to catch up to that reality. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” In the meantime, by the Holy Spirit, he’s already here. Hope that does not disappoint provides power enough to endure. I am a witness to this, and a better person for it. (Even if I’m not a better preacher.)
That big Sunday night service in Boston had a good run, but show up tonight and almost nobody’s there. I’m told they’ll likely shut it down soon. The pastors who replaced me are transitioning. Seasons change. In Boston, not many young adults attend church anymore, the rise of the nones and all that. The Ally McBeals having given way to the Ally Millennials, the rise of the nones we hear so much about. Those who do attend church tend to gather at the numerous small congregations which have sprung up around the city, young people preferring the intimacy of tight communities over the flash of big productions. The same is true here in Minneapolis. Last Wednesday night I attended a university gathering where students described a longing for liturgy and order and mystery and even a little smoke. “The grass withers and the flowers fade,” we read in Isaiah, “but the word of our God endures forever.” Hope that does not disappoint provides power enough to endure. Trundle down to that Anglican Church in Boston this morning and you’ll still smell the smoke of Jesus’ presence—a defiant colony of heaven still rehearsing for resurrection.