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MAY 20, 2007: The Ascension of Jesus


Acts 1:1-11
Ephesians 1:17-23
Luke 24:46-53

One drawback of celebrating Jesus' ascension on the Seventh Sunday of Easter is that every three years we don't hear one of the most important readings in the Christian Scriptures: the Acts narrative of Stephen's death. Many Lucan scholars believe this passage contains the first biblical mention of the belief that when Christians die they instantly find themselves in the risen Jesus' presence. Before Luke's break-through theological insight, most followers of Jesus seem to have bought into Paul's I Thessalonians belief that they would have to wait until Jesus' Parousia before they'd have such a heavenly experience.



In our first catechism classes, many of us learned the detailed sequence of events which will take place after we die. Heaven, hell and purgatory were included in our exams. The difference between a general and particular judgment was embedded in our memory bank.

Yet, as we realize when we contrast Paul and Luke's idea about an immediate afterlife, there's no one consistent teaching on the subject running throughout our Christian Scriptures. What we learned in our catechism classes was simply a hodgepodge of ideas brought together and propounded by later theologians.

Our biblical writers weren't even consistent about the sequence of events after Jesus' resurrection. Is he still here among us, as Mark, Matthew and John teach? Or did he definitively ascend into heaven, as Luke in Acts claims? Even when we hear about an ascension, as we do in today's first and third readings, there seems to be contradictions.

In our gospel pericope, Luke appears to say Jesus ascends immediately after his Easter Sunday appearance to his disciples. But then he begins his second volume by telling us in our first reading that Jesus "presented himself alive (to his disciples) during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God." Quite a difference.

Some scholars point out we make a mistake when we presume every mention of an ascension is a definitive change of zip code. In John 20, for instance, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene he's ascending to the Father, yet returns later that evening for an upper room commissioning of his disciples. Perhaps Luke closes today's gospel by describing one of those "temporary" ascensions.

Maybe the best way to make sense out of such biblical contradictions is not to worry about them. In today's second reading, Paul, without mentioning the word "ascend," speaks about God "raising (Jesus) from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens . . . ." Yet the most important concept in this passage is the effect the risen Jesus is having in the lives of those in Paul's Ephesian community.

"May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call . . . the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe . . . ."

Is it possible through the years that Christians began to ignore the effect of the risen Jesus in their daily lives? The prerequisites for recognizing that presence were so demanding that it was easier just to adhere to a handful of rules and regulations and zero in on the rewards of the afterlife.

Those who experience Jesus working in their lives don't have to worry about what'll exactly happen in the future. They can even tolerate contradictions in their post-resurrection theologies. If Jesus is a source of life for them while they're alive, won't he also be a source of life after they die - no matter what form that life takes?