Thursday, May 17, 2007

    Up, Up, and Away!

    I have the thankless task of trying to make some sort of sense out of the Ascension in my sermon for Sunday morning worship services. I met with the other pastors briefly this week and the topic came up in our discussion. Needless to say, they were glad it was me and not them that had to tackle this particular passage of scripture. What to do with a story of a Jesus floating up into the air, like some first century Superman? Taking the story literally is not a theological option for me personally, nor would it go over particularly well with the congregation.

    A couple of years ago, one of my professors from seminary, Stephen Patterson, wrote a book entitled Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. One focus in the text, which was news to me, concerned the mythic story of the descending/ascending redeemer, which existed prior to and outside of Jewish and Christian writings. His contention (as well as others, including Rudolph Bultmann) is that early followers of Jesus, in an attempt to make sense of their "Jesus experience," grafted this well-known mythical archetype onto the story of Christ. It was a way of helping others, perhaps those who had not encountered Jesus, to understand why he had such a profound effect on his followers. For them, he represented this mythical archetype they had heard spoken of so often. He came from God, redeemed the people, was destroyed by worldly powers, and then returned to God.

    When studying Patterson's book a few years back with members of my congregation, there was some resistance to this notion that early followers of Christ, or perhaps the gospel writers, superimposed this mythical story onto the pre-existing Jesus story. To them, such an understanding removes some of Jesus' uniqueness. "What's the point," they would argue, "depicting Jesus ascending to heaven, if they believed others had already done it before him?" (They, perhaps, had forgotten the story of Elijah!).

    Then a woman in the group, a literature professor, spoke up and said, "It is your modern worldview that values uniqueness. You think Jesus is important because you believe him to be unique. But in the ancient world, exactly the opposite would be true. To them, value was to be found in those things or people that in some way represented or lived out already cherished myths and truths. Jesus' value was to be found precisely in the fact that he represented not something new but rather was the embodiment of truths already known in the scriptures and in the myths and stories of their culture." All well and good, but will it preach? I would argue that it does to the extent that it encourages us to get past a literalism of the Ascension and to ask the really important question: "What does it mean? What did it mean for ancient Christians to tell this story? What does it mean for us today? "


    Dan said...

    Yes, this is a good thing to struggle with. The lit prof in the group is exactly right. Jesus being mistaken at times for Moses, Elijah, or one of the other prophets was not a slight on him, but rather a compliment. Being seen as someone who could fill their shoes was huge validation of his ministry, which is exactly what the ancient writers would have wanted their readers to see, but it also was an enormous responsibility.

    Does it preach? Yes it does.
    Jesus' ministry was validated because he was seen fitting into the mold of those holy ones before him. Are our ministries being validated in the same way? I mean, are we being seen as those who could fill Jesus' shoes, as those who could continue on in the mold he created? Jesus becomes the model to the Christian faith that Moses, Elijah, and the prophets were to the Jews.

    David said...

    Why is the concept of the accension so difficult to grasp theologically? I am asking not critically but out of a sincere need to understand your point of view. I struggle with this because I feel that a part of my Christian identity is based in believing the miracles of the Bible but I am constantly presented with ideas such as yours that challenge that thiniking. I find the power of God in such images but others do not. Why? Couldn't looking at it literally still force us to ask the question what did that mean then and today? Just curious!

    Brian said...

    Thanks so much for the feedback. This is helpful as I struggle today to craft this sermon. I also note that part two of the Gospel of Luke picks up in the book of Acts with the disciples being challenged to take on Christ's mission. As you say, "to fill Jesus' shoes."

    Brian said...

    You raise a great question. My point of view is that we should be free to look at biblical texts either way -- I have no corner on understanding scripture. My studies strongly suggest to me that ancient peoples understood these stories mythically -- as embodied truths rather than reported events. The followers of Jesus witness in scripture that they experienced "the power of God" in his presence and I think these miracle stories were their way of trying to explain or capture that transcendent experience with limited human language.

    However, I think you are exactly right -- we can look at the story either way (literally or figuratively), and where we meet in the middle is when we stand together and ask "What does this mean for us and our mission as followers of Christ?" Thanks for sharing your point of view.

    Rachel Rev said...

    Brian, check out new north's posting with nearly the exact same title, Up and Away.

    I am not sure ti will help much for this Sunday's sermon, but she has a great description there of flying, and I think it works as a metaphor for the church.

    As always, I am enjoying your blog.

    Brian said...

    Thanks for the link, Rachel. It was helpful...and at 11:00 on a Friday, I'll take all the help I can get crafting a sermon for Sunday. This happens to be a weekend when both of the other pastor's have left town, leaving me to cover a wedding, youth group, and both worship services! Monday can't come too soon!

    newnorth said...

    I can't really say anything to help but...good luck with the sermon! :D

    Matt said...

    Interpreting the Bible literally or figuratively is a false dichotomy. We need to interpret the Bible theologically. The lit/fig dichotomy is born out of the modern era, and both sides have been unhelpful since their inception.