Escape or Transcend?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, May 13, 2021

Today the church celebrates the fourth great festival that marks the arc of Jesus’ life. The first three are well-known to us – his birth, his death, and his resurrection. They are touchstones of our faith and worship. But his ascension? It is barely on our radar.

One reason we pay scant attention to Ascension Day is that it occurs on Thursday, a day few of us gather for worship. But perhaps something more is going on, since we highly regard Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, even though they also fall on weekdays.

As much as virgin conception and bodily resurrection defy all human experience, at least they deal with life’s passages of birth and death with which we are familiar. But ascension? Who ever heard of people being taken alive into the heavens, apart from science fiction? What could it possibly have to do with life as we know it?

Ascension to God’s presence is not merely Jesus’ destiny – it is the dwelling place of all who follow him. Ascension means more than assurance of blessedness beyond this life. It is not about escape from this world but about transcending it, a this-worldly challenge.

This world seeks to marginalize the stranger; ascension people declare that all are invited to the heavenly banquet table, and demonstrate that hospitality in the way they live, here and now.

This world tries to silence the historically disenfranchised; ascension people declare that everyone’s voice, dignity, and welfare have equal standing, and demonstrate that in how they order their life together.

This world seeks to protect self-interests; ascension people declare that setting aside self-protection is more blessed than buttressing it, and demonstrate that by unfailing generosity to each other and to their neighbors.

Margaret was a lifelong church educator who had long since retired when I became pastor of the congregation she had served. She told me one of her favorite children’s sermon stories: “I told the children about Jesus leaving his disciples behind as he ascended to be with his Father. One of the children raised her hand, and with a troubled look said that sounds fine, but she wondered why Jesus would sit on God’s hand.” Margaret’s eyes danced as she laughed out loud over the recollection.

“Sitting at the right hand” is a metaphor for sharing power. It’s what James and John asked Jesus to grant them, angering the other ten disciples. It is precisely from his place at God’s right hand that Jesus is given authority over all “angels, authorities, and powers.”

According to one of Paul’s most remarkable declarations, we have been raised up with Jesus in his ascension, and with him are seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1-4) This is not merely something future; it is who and where we are today.

Paul goes on to contend that if that is who and where we are in Christ, we ought to live accordingly. Because we are now dead to sin, we need to put sin to death. Life is our school and lab for becoming what we already are, if we belong to Christ.

Because of ascension, we are called to transcend the world’s ways, rather than be conformed to them. (Compare also Romans 12:1-2) Paul enumerates in detail the nature of this-worldly ascension life in the ensuing passage from Colossians.  It includes freedom from enslavement to harmful physical appetites. It also includes freedom from malice, slander, and abusive language. It especially lifts up lying – and, I would add, toleration of lying – as incompatible with our life with the ascended Christ.

Among ascension people, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all in all!” Everyone stands on the same level in the community of the ascension.

In that ascension community, Paul continues, we must bear with one another, forgive one another, and sustain one another through dwelling together in the Word as we worship God with one another. If we had nothing more than Colossians 3 to shape the life of the church, we’d have a sufficient blueprint for shaping it as an ascension community.

That blueprint begins with the affirmation of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God. And, true to his promise, Jesus has taken us there to dwell with him. The power that comes with that position is the power to transcend all that is broken in our disordered world, to live as a transformed community amid – not apart from – a world riven by fear, hostility, degradation, and competing self-interests.

Ascension people know that the God with whom we are seated owns everything, therefore we need seize or hoard or protect nothing. They embody generosity to others in all they say and do. Especially to those different from them. They build bridges to share their abundance, rather than walls to protect it.

Let those with ears hear the word of the Spirit to our church today.

Yours in Christ,

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