Acts 1:1-12; Heb 9:11-14, 24-28

I have come across the phrase “story arc” more and more as weekly television or cable shows have become more complex.  The increased use of such language reflects the increasing sophistication of some shows, where there are plots that are laid and find resolution within any single episode, but there are also plots that are laid in season one and continue to develop through many episodes, going through their own twists and complications until season four, or even until the final season.  Today, we focus in on a critical episode in Jesus’ story arc – an episode that is in many ways a satisfying conclusion to his story.

If we were to read the Gospels of Luke or Matthew, we would begin with the birth of a child who is somehow not merely of this world, but has come into this world from the divine realm.  If we were to read John’s Gospel, this is laid out all the more clearly: the Son of God, the eternal Word, descends into our world and into our story to accomplish some grand mission.  We follow the complications of the conflicts that arise as he pursues this mission, with his adversaries ironically facilitating the Son’s accomplishment of his ultimate goal for his mission, namely his offering of himself upon a cross and God’s glorious vindication of him in his resurrection.  On this, the Sunday of the Ascension, we celebrate his return, in a kind of aftermath of the “real” action of his story, to the divine realm.

This is precisely the way that Luke ends his Gospel, a nice season one finale: “Jesus led them out as far as Bethany and, raising his hands, he blessed them.  And while he was blessing them, he departed from them and was borne aloft into heaven.  And as they were worshiping him, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they continued to bless God in the Temple.”  Cue end title music and credits.

Acts is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel.  It’s the second season, as it were.  And it opens in what has become a time-honored way for a second season to open – by stepping back and replaying the season one finale, but this time with an important twist.  The disciples are left as we were at the end of the first season, staring up into heaven with a sense that Jesus’ story arc is completed with his return whence he came, his ascension back to the realm of God whence he descended.  One can almost hear their thoughts: “We’re sure going to miss him.  It was great having him around, even if that resurrection body was a little spooky – with him just disappearing on us in Emmaus or his just showing up inside our room with its doors still bolted.” We watch them gazing into heaven and we wonder: Is this the end of Jesus’ story arc?  Has our favorite character been cut from the show?  An angel appears to announce, “no!”  The story goes on – not just the disciples’ story as they return to the city to await the promised Holy Spirit, but Jesus’ story as well: “this same Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The ascension is the event that inaugurates a second story arc for Jesus.  The one who came down from heaven to take on our humanity has returned to heaven, still bearing our humanity; the one who ascended to heaven will return again at the unforgettable and not-to-be-missed series finale.  Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews echoes this: “Christ, having been offered once for all in order to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time – not for sins but for the salvation of those who eagerly long for him” (9:28).  Jesus’ story isn’t yet completed.  And we are living as part of this second arc, which encompasses the whole life of the Church.

I suddenly came to understand “ordinary time” in the Christian Year, that long, yawning stretch between Pentecost and Christ the King Sunday, which celebrates the consummated lordship of Christ over all things, when indeed at last “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and this to the glory of the Father” (Phil 2:10-11), just before the next Advent.  “Ordinary time” is our time; it represents the long season of the Church’s activity and work in the world, performed nonetheless in connection with and directed by the Christ who is the Head of the Body, the Church.

But Jesus, once enthroned as Lord and Anointed One, also has a story arc throughout this long season (by which I mean these 1984 years so far, not just the season of the “ordinary time” of June through November).  Jesus’ departure at the ascension turns out not to mean Jesus’ absence from the life of his people on earth. He keeps showing up in the second season.  Stephen, the first to die as a result of his witness to Jesus, glimpses Jesus in glory at God’s right hand.  The glorified Jesus intersects with and dramatically changes the story arc of Saul of Tarsus, turning him around from persecutor to preacher of the risen Lord.  We see the glorified Jesus again alongside John the Seer on Patmos at the far end of the Christian canon, still speaking words of instruction and warning to his congregations. 

It is, mysteriously, this very ascension, this very departure from his followers in terms of physical presence, that makes possible Jesus’ availability to all his followers by means of the Holy Spirit – and thus make possible Jesus’ continuing presence in every episode of the Church’s story, for as many seasons as this run extends.  At the outset of season one, God the Son had willingly limited himself to a body – first to the physical body of his incarnation, then to the spiritual body of his resurrection.  It was indeed essential for him to ascend, to “return to the Father” in the divine realm, if he was to transcend that bodily restriction.  He accomplished this, as he had promised, in the sending of his Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God that is also the Spirit of his Son – upon his disciples in every age, connecting the Son as the Head to the ever-growing Body of his followers, who are the means by which the Son enacts his reign during this long interim.  Many of us, hopefully all of us, know from personal experience how Jesus can be present with us, even while physically absent.  When we sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” we’re not confessing an absent mediator, but one who is very much present to us as we sing, indeed, as we “carry everything to God in prayer” sheltered by our “precious Savior, still our refuge,” day after day, year after year. 

Some of the richest reflections within the New Testament on the significance of Jesus’ ascension for us are to be found in the Letter to the Hebrews.  We have to reckon here with a basic fact: Jesus and his activities ceased to be observable to eyewitnesses when that cloud removed the ascending Lord from his disciples’ sight.  How is it, then, that the author of Hebrews goes on to speak of what Jesus did after he “crossed through the heavens” to enter “heaven itself,” the eternal realm of God’s dwelling?  The answer is to be found in his reading of the Old Testament.  As for so many early Christian teachers reflecting on the significance of Jesus and his work, so for the author of Hebrews the Old Testament provides the map for the journey that Christ ultimately undertakes.  It stood to reason for them that, since those ancient oracles of God lined up so well in hindsight with what they could see in his ministry, his miracles, his suffering, his death, and his resurrection from the dead, they would also line up well with those parts of Jesus’ story that they could not see (such as the Son’s activity prior to his incarnation or his activity beyond his ascension) or did not yet see (such as his return to judge the living and the dead).

The author of Hebrews looks particularly to Leviticus 16 for one particular map that illumines Jesus’ journey – both his journey outside the city to the cross and his journey into heaven itself.  Leviticus 16 outlines the ritual for the Day of Atonement, the solemn offerings that Israel’s high priest would undertake once per year in order to cleanse the people and the holy of holies from the accumulated pollution of a year’s worth of sin.  The relevant parts here center on the fate of the two goats that were involved in the ritual.  The first goat, over whose head the high priest would recite, and thereby transfer, the sins of the whole people, would be sent outside the camp and into the desert, removing the people’s sins from them.  The second goat would be slaughtered, and the high priest would take a basin of its blood into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple where the presence of God burned brightest, to cleanse it of the defilement caused by the people’s sin, removing the memory of their sins from God’s presence in the Temple.

The author of Hebrews presents Jesus as our great high priest.  He is the priest of whom all the priests of the line of Aaron were but prototypes.  And Jesus’ death and ascension effected a cosmic Day of Atonement rite, universal in terms of scope, definitive in terms of accomplishment, in contrast to the sacrifices ongoingly and endlessly performed under the old covenant.  He was a high priest who offered himself, going willingly outside the gate of the city – outside the camp – “in order to sanctify the people by means of his own blood” (Heb 13:12); he was the high priest who brought the evidence of his own death into the very presence of God to cleanse God’s memory and God’s presence of the defilement our sins produced:

Christ, having become a high priest of the good things that were coming about, entered once for all through the better and more perfect tabernacle that was not made with hands (that is, that is not in this realm of created things) into the Holy Places, having established eternal redemption – and this not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood…. Christ didn’t enter into hand-crafted holy spaces, which were merely the model of the genuine ones, but into heaven itself, now to appear before God’s presence on our behalf. (Heb 9:11-12, 24)

Having completed this universal and decisive priestly act, Jesus sat down at the right hand of God – an event not seen by the author, but discerned from the “map” of Psalm 110, a text to which Jesus himself drew attention during his ministry as relevant to his story: “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool under your feet” (Ps 110:1). 

We must not imagine the author to be expressing the view that Jesus is merely sitting on his resurrected posterior for eternity.  Rather, this is an expression of the completion and the completeness of his one great high priestly act of atonement:

Every priest [on earth] must remain standing about performing the daily religious service and offering again and again the same sacrifices that aren’t able to take away sins, but this one, after offering a single sacrifice for sins, sat down at God’s right hand… For by a single offering he has decisively perfected those who are being cleansed. (Heb 10:11-12, 14).

It is also an expression of his nearness to the God with whom he continues to intercede on our behalf, that very proximity assuring us that God will always receive us favorably, since our great high priest is right there at God’s side.  (This does not mean, of course, that he will always grant the particular help we request, but it does mean that he will always help.)

Jesus’ sitting at God’s right hand is also an expression of his reigning now, his participation in God’s reign over the cosmos as a whole and over the earth and its people in particular.  He is seated beside God “waiting until his enemies shall be set as a footstool under his feet” (Heb 10:13; Ps 110:1), and his call goes out now to all people to live in willing submission to his reign now, rather than in unwilling subjection to his reign (or worse) then at his coming again. The events of Ascension and Pentecost bring us back to the texts and themes I held before you on Christ the King Sunday in late November: Christ’s reign is real and visible in the world to the extent that it is real and visible in our own obedience to his commands as the guiding force in our lives; Christ’s lordship and the benefits to us of owning him our lord are only real for us to the same extent.

Jesus’ ascension has ultimate implications for our story arc as well, as the author of Hebrews makes clear at several points.  Jesus has entered into heaven itself as a forerunner for us (Heb 6:19-20); the Son who has entered into glory is also “leading many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10).  An ancient prayer of the Church makes this petition: “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP, 220).  The ascension of Jesus provides firm assurance and even strong incentive to follow indeed in the way of the Crucified Messiah who has now taken the place of highest honor in the cosmos. 

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