Feast of the Ascension 2021: N.T. Wright on the Ascension of Jesus

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messengers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism.

Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church—when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him—only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand—when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present—are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

— N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.

Feast of the Ascension 2021: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (2)

There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.

—Understanding the Bible, 103.

Feast of the Ascension 2021: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (1)

It is a pity that we call it ‘Ascension Day’, for the Bible speaks more of Christ’s exaltation than of his ascension. This is an interesting avenue to explore. The four great events in the saving career of Jesus are described in the Bible both actively and passively, as deeds done both by Jesus and to Jesus. Thus, we are told with reference to his birth both that he came and that he was sent; with reference to his death both that he gave himself and that he was offered; with reference to his resurrection both that he rose and that he was raised; with reference to his ascension both that he ascended and that he was exalted. If we look more closely, we shall find that in the first two cases, the active phrase is commoner: he came and died, as a deliberate, self-determined choice. But in the last two cases, the passive phrase is more common: he was raised from the tomb and he was exalted to the throne. It was the Father’s act.

—The Exaltation of Jesus (sermon on Phil. 2:9-11)

Holy Week 2021: Good Friday: Jesus Remember Me

One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”

But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23.39-43).

NLT

Today is Good Friday, the most sacred day of the year and the turning point in history. Yet here we are in the midst of plague and it certainly doesn’t feel like today is the turning point of anything. Why is it the turning point? Because God himself has moved to redeem us from our slavery to the power of Sin. Our sin got us booted from paradise as our first ancestors arrogantly sought to be equal to God. Today the Son of God makes our reentrance into paradise possible. He does so in complete agreement and perfect obedience to God the Father’s will, and by giving up his equality with God in utter humility so that we might be saved.

On the cross, Jesus, God become human, is giving himself for us in self-sacrificial love to end our alienation from God and deal a decisive blow to the dark powers. This has always been enigmatic and paradoxical to us. It doesn’t look like Jesus is reigning as king from the cross. It doesn’t look like the evil powers have been defeated. It looks just the opposite! And it often looks that way in our lives and the world in which we live. With the powers of Evil so active, how can our Christian faith proclaim the defeat of these dark powers? We aren’t told how it all works, just that the powers of Evil have been defeated. Listen to St. Paul:

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins.  He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Colossians 2.13-15).

NLT

St. Paul wrote these words while he was languishing in a prison dungeon because he was an apostle for Christ! He of all people knew the evil and suffering the dark powers could inflict on the saints of God. Yet he still maintained that on the cross our slavery to Sin had been broken. Certainly not completely during this mortal life as we all can attest, but we believe that despite the darkness around us and within us, we are truly free because we believe that the cross of Christ is the power of God, the only power that can free us from our slavery. Reality isn’t always perceived by our senses and the world’s wisdom is foolishness to God. May God be gracious to us and give us the wisdom and humility to have ears to hear and hearts/minds believe this astonishing truth.

At the foot of the cross, we also find God’s forgiveness for the evil and folly we have committed in our lives. Like the repentant criminal dying next to Jesus, we believe that in Christ’s death we see the love of God being poured out for us so that we are spared God’s perfect justice and judgment on our sins, and we dare cry out to our Lord, asking him to remember us. Remember me, Jesus. Because if you don’t, my mortal life will be over before I know it and I will return to dust, desolate and bereft in my grave, and unremembered after only a few short years, perhaps a fate as awful as your judgment on my sins.

We cry to our merciful Lord to save us and remember us even though we don’t deserve such love and grace because we believe in the love of God shown us today. Like the repentant criminal, we dare believe that we will hear Christ’s promise to us that on the day of our death we will be with him in paradise to await our new bodies to live in God’s new world. St. Paul boldly proclaims this above. St. Luke tells us this in the exchange between Jesus and the repentant criminal and in the larger story of Christ’s passion. Earlier he tells us that Pilate had released Barabbas, a known terrorist, instead of Jesus. The innocent is condemned and the guilty go free. That sounds about right, but in telling us this, St. Luke reminds us that even in the darkness, God’s saving power is at work. Christ has stepped into the breach to die for us so that we can live. We may not be terrorists like Barabbas was, but none of us on our own merits is able to live in the perfect holiness of God’s presence—until today, until Christ’s death, thanks be to God!

During this time of pestilence, this is worthy of our best contemplation, our deepest mourning, and our most joyful and profound thanks to God the Father, whose great love for us in Christ surpasses our own poor expectations, hopes, and fears. This is why we call this particular Friday “Good.”

Holy Week 2021: Maundy Thursday

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go to prepare the Passover meal for you?”

So Jesus sent two of them into Jerusalem with these instructions: “As you go into the city, a man carrying a pitcher of water will meet you. Follow him. At the house he enters, say to the owner, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?’ He will take you upstairs to a large room that is already set up. That is where you should prepare our meal.”So the two disciples went into the city and found everything just as Jesus had said, and they prepared the Passover meal there.

In the evening Jesus arrived with the Twelve. As they were at the table eating, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, one of you eating with me here will betray me.”

Greatly distressed, each one asked in turn, “Am I the one?”

He replied, “It is one of you twelve who is eating from this bowl with me. For the Son of Man must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But how terrible it will be for the one who betrays him. It would be far better for that man if he had never been born!”

As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take it, for this is my body.”

And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them, “This is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice for many. I tell you the truth, I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.”

Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.

St. Mark 14.12-26 (NLT)

On the Sunday of the Passion we looked at the reasons the cross of Christ matters. The crucified Son of God is the living embodiment that demonstrates God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have life forever (John 3.16). Christ is our one and only hope.

Tonight we will observe Maundy Thursday. Maundy is derived from the Latin word, mandatum, meaning to mandate. What is our Lord mandating us to do? First, he gave us a supper, the bread and the wine, to teach us the meaning of his impending death. There is a reason Jesus chose Passover to die. Enigmatically his death buys our freedom from our slavery to the power of Sin, even as our freedom remains only partial in this mortal life.

Christ is also going to the cross to bear the sins of the entire world, your sin and mine, to spare us from God’s awful judgment on our evil. When we come to the table to receive Christ’s body and blood by faith, we have a living reminder that Christ is with us, both in the bread and wine we consume, and in his promise to us that we are participants in his eternal kingdom, not after we die, but right now. So we have a mandate to feed on Christ’s body and blood.

And as participants in his kingdom, how are we to be good citizens? By following his example of sacrificial love for all. We have the mandate to deny our selfish desires, take up our cross in suffering love, and follow our Lord wherever and however he calls us. We are to embody his crucified love for others, difficult as that can be at times. Christ showed us this when he washed his disciples’ feet that night in the Upper Room. Doing so was another tangible sign that we are made clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and we are therefore to serve others to bring Christ’s love to them.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. Bring your hurts, your fears, your sorrows, your disappointments, and your deep longing to be loved and have life to the table tonight. Feed on our Lord’s body and blood by faith with thanksgiving that you are loved and claimed by God the Father whose love is simply not fathomable, but whose love for you is real nevertheless. You have Christ’s holy meal that points you to the cross as the Father’s living testimony about his great and undeserved love for you. Give thanks for that love, even in the midst of this terrible plague that besets us. Christ is our peace. God forbid we fail to take the gift offered us.

Your sins cost God dearly. But God in Christ shows you that you are worth reclaiming, despite your rebellion and stubbornness and pride. Come to the Table with a thankful heart for the gift of life God gives you in Christ and find your reconciliation with the Author of all life as well as his peace. Then prepare yourself to kneel at the foot of the cross on Good Friday with sorrow and gratitude. See your Lord give his life so that you can live and find the healing we all need. Doing so anticipates the great Easter feast.

Maundy Thursday 2021: St. Thomas Offers a Reflection on the Eucharist

The happy commemoration of today’s feast with its immense concourse of people invites us to prolong fervently our praises of the Most Holy Body of Christ. What could be sweeter, what more pleasing to the heart of the faithful than to exalt the abyss of his divine charity, and to glorify the overflowing torrent of his love! At the table of the new grace the hand of the priest distributes ceaselessly his Flesh as food and his precious Blood as drink, to those who are his children and heirs of the kingdom promised by God to those who love him.

O endless Emanation of the goodness of God and of his immense love for us, admirable and worthy of all praise! In this sacrament, where all former sacrifices are done away with, he remains with us to the end of the world; he feeds the children of adoption with the bread of angels and inebriates them with filial love.

This is the food and drink for the elect, living bread and spiritual nourishment, remedy for daily weaknesses! It is the table which Christ has prepared for his friends and guests, like the one the father prepared for his son on the day of his return, to replace the symbolic lamb. This is the Passover in which the victim immolated is Christ; 0 Christ our Passover, you want us too to pass over from vice to virtue; as once you delivered the Jews, so now you set us free in spirit. You are the food that satisfies all but the most hardened; food that is eaten by faith, tasted by fervor, assimilated by charity. 0 viaticum of our pilgrimage, you lead travelers to the height of virtue. Confirm my heart in good, assure it in the paths of life, give joy to my soul, purify my thoughts.

The Eucharist is bread, real bread; we eat it without consuming or dividing it; it converts butitself is not changed; it gives strength without ever losing it; it gives perfection and suffices for salvation; it gives life, it confers grace, it remits sins. It is the food of souls, a food which enlightens the intelligence of the faithful, inflames their hearts, purifies them from their shortcomings, elevates their desires.

O chalice that holy souls love to drink of, chalice of fervor, chalice changed into the Blood of Christ, to seal the new Alliance, withdraw us the old leaven, fill our souls with yourself, that we may become a new paste and that we may go to the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. For the Lamb without spot, who knows no touch or stain of any sin, ought to be eaten with unleavened bread. We should not approach without being cleansed by confession, without having a solid foundation of faith, without being in charity.

Come to the Lord’s supper, if you wish to come to the nuptials of the Lamb; there, we shall be inebriated with the riches of the house of God we shall see the King of glory and the God of hosts in all his beauty, shall eat this bread in the kingdom of the Father.

Thomas Aquinas, Lectionary and Martyrology, 288-289

Advent 2020: Bonhoeffer on Advent

A prison cell like [the one I’m in] is a good analogy for Advent. One waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, letter from Tegel Prison, November 21, 1943

What did Bonhoeffer, who ultimately lost his life to the evil of Nazism, mean by this? We wait in the darkness of our world and personal lives for the darkness of Evil, Sin, and Death to be finally and fully overcome. We are powerless to bring about this victory. Only the power of God is capable of such a mighty feat. That is our Advent hope as Christians. It is a hope based on the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and his promise to return to consummate his initial victory won on the cross and in his resurrection. Such a hope requires faith as we await the Master’s return—the focus of Advent. But It is the only hope that can fully satisfy because it is the only hope that addresses the evil of Death in bringing about God’s perfect justice. Is this your hope? If not, why are you wasting your time on a lesser, false hope that must ultimately fail you?

All Saints’ Day 2020: St. Augustine Muses on the Saints of God

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”— Matthew 19.25-26

The saints are those who are moved by God’s grace to do whatever good they do. Some are married and have intercourse with their spouse sometimes for the sake of having a child and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. They get angry and desire revenge when they are injured, but are ready to forgive when asked. They are very attached to their property but will freely give at least a modest amount to the poor. They will not steal from you but are quick to take you to court if you try to steal from them. They are realistic enough to know that God should get the main credit for the good that they do. They are humble enough to admit that they are the sources of their own evil acts. In this life God loves them for their good acts and gives forgiveness for their evil, and in the next life they will join the ranks of those who will reign with Christ forever.

—Augustine of Hippo, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14

One of the reasons I love Augustine is that he was never afraid to be real. As you read his description of the saints, you cannot help but wonder how these folks can be enjoying their rest with their Lord. I mean, look at their flaws Augustine is pointing out!

Here’s the answer. They have died with Christ and so are raised with him (Romans 6.8) They were buried with Christ in the waters of baptism so that they might rise with him in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). And when they were alive in this mortal life, this treasure of life eternal was hidden with Christ (Colossians 3.3-4), i.e., this hope and promise of resurrection and eternal life is based on their relationship with the risen Christ, who remains hidden from us in this mortal life from his abode in heaven, God’s space.

For you see, it is not about the saints or our worthiness. None of us is worthy to stand before God in God’s perfect holiness! Rather, it is about what God has done for us in Jesus so that through his death we might enjoy real peace and reconciliation with God (Romans 5.1, 11). In Jesus, God condemned sin in the flesh so that we might be equipped to live with God forever, both here on earth in the power of the Spirit and in God’s promised new creation (Romans 8.3-4, 18-25, Revelation 21.1-7). This is what Jesus reminds us of in the passage above from St.Matthew and that’s why we have hope for the Christian dead and ourselves on All Saints’ Day. Jesus is Lord, even over death!

Is this your hope or are you clinging to something less which is bound to fail? On this All Saints’ Day may God grant you the grace, wisdom, and courage to embrace the hope offered to you in Jesus. Come celebrate our victory over death in Christ this Sunday as we celebrate the communion of saints!

Feast of the Ascension 2020: N.T. Wright on the Ascension of Jesus

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messengers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism.

Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church—when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him—only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand—when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present—are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

— N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.

Feast of the Ascension 2020: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (2)

There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.

—Understanding the Bible, 103.

Feast of the Ascension 2020: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (1)

It is a pity that we call it ‘Ascension Day’, for the Bible speaks more of Christ’s exaltation than of his ascension. This is an interesting avenue to explore. The four great events in the saving career of Jesus are described in the Bible both actively and passively, as deeds done both by Jesus and to Jesus. Thus, we are told with reference to his birth both that he came and that he was sent; with reference to his death both that he gave himself and that he was offered; with reference to his resurrection both that he rose and that he was raised; with reference to his ascension both that he ascended and that he was exalted. If we look more closely, we shall find that in the first two cases, the active phrase is commoner: he came and died, as a deliberate, self-determined choice. But in the last two cases, the passive phrase is more common: he was raised from the tomb and he was exalted to the throne. It was the Father’s act.

—The Exaltation of Jesus (sermon on Phil. 2:9-11)