Ascension of Our Lord

If the assigned reading is to provide any clues, then an important aspect of the marking of the festival of the Ascension of our Lord is thanksgiving and awe. 

Ascendit Christus
"Ascendit Christus," Capitoline Museum in Rome. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

May 29, 2014

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

If the assigned reading is to provide any clues, then an important aspect of the marking of the festival of the Ascension of our Lord is thanksgiving and awe. 

Thanksgiving for what God has done in Jesus our Lord, and awe at the amazing power that God has bestowed on our Lord, all for the sake of the church — and we are that church!

Whether the writing is to be ascribed to Paul or not, the words of this reading from the opening chapter of the letter to the Ephesians follow upon one of the most beautiful and amazing doxologies in the New Testament. Strung together in what is in the original only one long breath-taking sentence (1:3-13), we hear the mind-boggling sweep of the story of salvation, punctuated on three occasions with interjected praises of God’s glory (6, 12, 14) and culminating in the good news of salvation and the redemption of God’s people. It is the fulfillment of God’s promises and all in accord with God’s will to gather up everything in the universe in Jesus Christ.

Launched by this grand salvo, the author now directs attention to the marvelous status of those who have heard and responded to this good news of salvation. Again, whether or not from Paul himself, the opening words imitate almost verbatim his thanksgiving in his letter to Philemon (cf. 1.15-17 with Philemon 5-6). With beautiful rhetorical flourish, the author expresses his ongoing thanks, doubly focused by the key attributes of faith and love: thanks for the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thanks for the expressions of love directed toward the community of believers.

This unceasing thanksgiving is paired with an equally unceasing attitude of prayer on behalf the hearers. Along the way we are given a fascinating and profound clue as to the identity of the God to whom this prayer is addressed: this God is 1) the God of our Lord Jesus Christ and 2) the Father of glory. That Jesus is “our” Lord invites us to acknowledge our standing alongside this Jesus, through whom God’s salvation has been worked. Finally, that this God is the “God of glory” picks up a theme that has been sounded frequently in this opening chapter. God’s “glory” is to be seen in this: the grace by which God fulfills God’s promises in accordance with God’s will (see 1.6, 12, 14, 17, 18).

In addition to establishing the important identity of God, the prayer’s addressee, the author lets us in on the content of his ongoing prayers on behalf of the hearers. Fulfillment of the prayer will be seen in ones who have “the eyes of their heart enlightened.” The image of hearts with eyes is at once creative and provocative in its blending of multiple senses of both “seeing” and “the heart.” Just what would it look like to be people who see not just through the physical gift of sight, but can “see” into the deeper implications of God’s ways of salvation in Jesus Christ, implications visible only to those whose hearts are open to the working of God’s glory and grace in their individual stories.

Such a gift of seeing with the heart contains a kind of wisdom that runs deeply and holds specific content that is at least three-fold. This wisdom is given to know 1) the hope that belongs to those who have been called by God in Christ Jesus; 2) the magnificently rich inheritance that belongs to all those whom God has called; and 3) the immeasurable greatness of God’s power at work in those who believe in Christ Jesus — each of these refrains escalating in their sense of greatness and power (1:17-19). They culminate finally in the reference to that power which God has “energized” (“put to work” NRSV) in Christ when he raised him from the dead and then “made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (1:19-20).

Ascension, then, is ultimately about awesome power. With the reference to Christ’s being seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places the author initiates a veritable whirlwind of agents and positions of power which now belong to Christ. His ascension to power is simply an extension of the work of salvation which has been accomplished in God’s raising Jesus from the dead.

Resurrection and ascension belong together as aspects of the same salvation story. The author strains to name and characterize the majestic nature of this power — it is not just “above” but “far above” (1.21; in the original, not just ano, but hyper-ano); it transcends all measures of space, identity, and time (“above every rule, authority, power, and dominion; above every name that could be named; and not only in this present age, but also in the ages to come”).

One could imagine that the author has just about said it all, has grasped about as much as could be said about the power and majesty couched in the ascension to power of our resurrected Lord. We could be forgiven if about now we might say, enough, already; just give me a chance to catch a breath and take it all in, should that even be possible.

But one last salvo remains, at first glance simply a summation and repetition of all that has been said to this point: “he has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things.” And then comes an unanticipated surprise; if our attention were to falter, or the eyes of our heart were to become glazed over with the majesty of it all, we could almost miss it.

Both in the original Greek and in the NRSV the surprise comes in that one last word of verse 22 — it is “for the church.” All of this glory and majesty, all of this power that belongs to the Christ in his Ascension to God’s right hand, has from the beginning had only one purpose and goal in God’s wondrous exercise of glory — it is for the church; it is for you. Suddenly all of God, all of God in Christ, and all of salvation is handed over and placed in your lap. For you are the church; and it’s about you.

And “the church is his body.” Is this Paul, or another who writes? At least one thing is clear. Here in the image of the church as Christ’s body we are either venturing upon a fantastic new thought or a completely new departure from the image of the “body” as introduced in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 12).

There the body consists of “many members” whose diverse gifts are unified in care and support for one another. Here the “body” is an extension of the Lord, and, in a completely mystifying concluding phrase, described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:23). The doublet of both “fullness” and “all” is like taking “fullness” and “all” and pressing them to the nth degree by multiplying them by themselves.

It is perhaps an ancient way of imagining infinity, the biggest number, the most magnificent reality that can be imagined, and then ascribing it to the church into which now all the glory of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been poured. Are the “eyes of your heart” ready to even try to imagine what that might mean?