Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Ascension Changes Everything


Ascension Day, forty days into the Easter season, was a long time ago, but this Sunday, in John 6:56-69, Jesus reminds us that his ascension into heaven changes everything. After laying out the difficult teaching that his flesh is true food and that those who eat his flesh will live forever, some of Jesus' disciples begin to desert him. They asked about it, hoping Jesus would explain the metaphor or acknowledge the hyperbole, but Jesus, in effect, doubled down yet again, saying, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"

In yesterday's post, I wrote that these words were an intensification of his teaching. Instead of backing down, he went further. The crowd of disciples wanted him to cut them some slack, but Jesus intensified the problematic teaching. "You think that's hard?" he asked. "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending [into heaven]?" The implied answer is, "Then I guess we'd have to take the Son of Man at his word." It is that moment when you're joking with your boss and take it a little too far and your boss clears her throat and asks, "Do you remember which office I work in?"

But today I want to focus on hope. I want to get to that place where Peter and the twelve end up. Instead of running away, they come to Jesus and say, "Where else will we go? You're the one who has the words that lead to eternal life. Your teaching may be difficult, but truth is truth." And to get there I think we need to go back to Jesus' prediction of his ascension and hear it with a different tone. Instead of hearing it as a throat-clearing reality-check, I think we need to hear it as a reassuring promise of "wait and see."

As I wrote yesterday, the ascension into heaven is the ultimate confirmation of the divine approval given to the prophet. Although not based in scripture, the extra-canonical tradition has Moses ascending into heaven. Elijah ascends into heaven. Enoch (whoever that is) ascends into heaven. And Jesus, of course, ascends into heaven. His ascension follows his bodily resurrection, which changes the nature of his ascension from that of "welcome home" to that of divine glorification. Still, the point is the same. When the Son of Man ascends into heaven and his disciples see it, it means that everything he has declared must be true. So, when Jesus says, "Does this offend you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"he is saying, "Would it help if you witnessed God's ultimate vindication of my teaching? What would you do then?"

The struggle for us isn't making sense of Jesus' strange and challenging "eat me" message. It's following Jesus and accepting him at his word. Because of Jesus' resurrection and ascension, it doesn't matter what part of Jesus' teaching we don't like or would rather leave aside. As the disciples saw Jesus ascending into heaven, they witnessed on our behalf God saying yet again. "This is my Son; listen to him!" Does that make the teaching any easier? No. But it does make the teaching right, which is what it has been all the time. We may not understand it, but we have to follow it, and follow it we do every time we stick out our hands (or our tongue) and receive the body of Christ, the flesh given for the life of the world, in Holy Communion. That we still do that every week is a reminder that we follow the one whom God has vindicated--not because we like his teaching or because we understand it but because he is God's anointed one whose words lead to eternal life.

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