The Body We Can See from Here

Ted Smith, preaching for the 2009 Conference

Acts 1:1-11

One of the deepest themes I have heard over these last few days is the need for a faith that can tell the truth about the presence of God in the church without slipping into triumphalism, a faith that can tell the truth about the violence of the church Smith_Ted_2009without slipping into cynicism or despair. Another theme, more contested, is the potential of traditional language of the church to help us make sense of our lives. With these themes in mind, I want to think with you towards this kind of hope … by means of some reflections on the Ascension.

1. If there’s one thing we know about Jesus, it is this: he is gone. Gone. Scripture, confessions and cynics all agree. Jesus is gone. Our lesson from Acts gives details: “a cloud took him out oftheir sight” and “two men in white robes” – might as well call them angels – attend the scene (1:9-11). Luke 24 gives the plain version: “he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (v. 51). The Gospel of John doesn’t say much about Jesus’ departure, but it remembers him talking about it all the time. “Do not hold me,” Jesus says to Mary in the garden (20:17). I’m going to “go away,” Jesus tells the disciples (14:28). Different books tell the story in different ways, but everyone agrees: Jesus is gone. [1]

The confessions of the church follow the witness of Scripture. In Kenda Dean’s workshop she had us recite the Apostles’ Creed: “He ascended into heaven,” we said. He’s gone.

Here is one place where the creeds and the cynics agree. “He’s gone. Well isn’t that a handy little doctrine? You say he rose from the dead. But where is he? He rose, but then flew up into heaven? Isn’t that convenient?” He’s gone.

2. I believe all serious talk about the church happens in the wake of the Ascension. It begins with a recognition that Jesus is gone. For if the church is the Body of Christ, as Fred Westbrook reminded us in his question during one of the plenary sessions, then the question of the church we can see from here becomes a question of the body we can see from here. And we must say: the body of Christ is gone. This is not just an abstract doctrine. It is the deep, faithful, painful recognition that our congregations and denominations are not as they should be. It is a recognition that children baptized in the church’s fonts, fed at the church’s tables, and called to ministry through the church’s preaching are then turned away because of who they love. And, as Melva Costen reminded us, this is not the first time the church has proven that the body of Christ is gone. We would not tell the truth about Scripture or our lives if we said anything else.

3. And we would not tell the truth if this was all we said. The Gospel of John, especially, reminds us that the going of Jesus is inseparable from the coming of the Holy Spirit. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says to the disciples. “I am coming to you” (14:18). He promises them the gift of Advocate, Paraclete, Comforter. Jesus ascended, Ephesians says, “so that he might fill all things” (4:10). John Calvin has these passages in mind when he writes,

Carried up into heaven, therefore, he withdrew his bodily presence from our sight, not to cease to be present with believers still on their earthly pilgrimage, but to rule heaven and earth with a more immediate power. But by his ascension he fulfilled what he had promised: that he would be with us even to the end of the world. [2]

Jesus is gone. And the Spirit of Jesus has come, to fill heaven and earth with an even more immediate and intimate power, that Jesus might be with us always, even to the end of the age.

4. Stay with me now: there’s one more move in unfolding this dialectic by which we live. Jesus is gone, the Holy Spirit has come … and still, more than ever, Jesus is gone. The persons of the Trinity are not interchangeable parts. They are not fungible goods. The Ascension is not like some cosmic change machine (put a dollar bill in, get four quarters back, and it all spends the same).

Canadian theologian Douglas Farrow says it like this: “Pentecost does not resolve the problem of the presence and the absence. It creates it, by adding a presence which discloses an absence.” [3] Without the gift of the Holy Spirit, we don’t even know what we are missing. It is the presence of God in the church that lets us see the absence of God from the church. This is what I mean: it is exactly at the communion table, when God gives Godself to us most deeply, when we taste and see that the Lord is good – it is just there that we feel the distance of the church from God most deeply. It is as we gather around the table that we feel the absence of those many thousands gone, those enslaved bodies, those transgendered bodies, those gay and lesbian bodies, those sick bodies, those criminal bodies, those poor bodies, those bodies declared illegal, that crucified body of Jesus … all those bodies we have tried to stuff under the table and into the closet, just out of reach of our memory. The presence of God reminds us of their absence. In the presence of God, they cry out – we cry out – with the souls under the altar (Rev. 6:9-11). “Pentecost does not resolve the problem of the presence and the absence. It creates it, by adding a presence which discloses an absence.”

5. Imaginations formed by the Ascension can think – can live – presence and absence together. They can say no to visions of unqualified presence. This is, I think, what Eddie Glaude was calling us to when he called us to be Saturday Christians. He called us to hold off on the rush to Sunday, the rush to Alleluia. This is a call to hold open the space for deliberation in the meantime, the in-between-time, and so to refuse the easy comforts of false fulfillment.

Imaginations formed by the Ascension also say no to unqualified absence. They refuse the cynicism that sees only power politics at work in the church. They refuse the despair that says things will never change. And they refuse the hubris that says it is all up to us. They refuse to understand Saturday as anything but the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, a day made possible by the surrendered presence of Friday and already transformed by the risen presence of Sunday. Imaginations formed by the Ascension refuse any vision of absence that forgets the presence of God.

Christians in the wake of the Ascension see both presence and absence. They sit in the dark of absence long enough that – in the phrase we learned from Howard Thurman via Gregory Bentley – the dark becomes luminous. This is the kind of faith, I think, that has sustained Melva Costen’s family through eight generations of mixed messages – and worse – from Presbyterians. It is the kind of faith that a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cannot sustain. It is the kind of faith shown by the glbt Christians who, Mark Achtemeier said, were “miraculously willing to hang in there with me.” Such faith is a miracle. It involves seeing enough of the presence of God in the life of the church that you can’t let go, but then finding yourself broken open by the depth of the absence that presence discloses … and then finding yourself, in that breaking, bound yet more tightly to the one broken for us.

This is the kind of faith, I think, to which the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity called us. To say that Christ is the peace, unity, and purity of the church is to proclaim a kind of presence. It is to say that where we see only conflict, Christ has already made peace. It is also to refuse every other source of community as false. It is to say no to peace built on agreement about how to vote, or whom to ordain, or how to interpret Scripture, or what kind of worship we prefer. Ascension faith has the courage to refuse alternatives like these. It has the tenacity to wait for the peace of Christ by the peace of Christ. Ascension faith has the capacity to yearn. It knows how to yearn for the body we can see from here.

And surely this rainbow stole I wear was knit in the luminous darkness of the Ascension. It was made, you remember, by the prayer-shawl ministry team from Fairmount Presbyterian Church. It is a prayer shawl, for comforting a body that has grown ill in the absence of Jesus. And it is a stole, a recognition of the gifts already poured out, the means of grace already passed on by a rainbow of God’s people, the living presence of the Holy Spirit. It is both prayer shawl and stole, a faithful recognition of the ways presence and absence are knit together in the life of the church.

6. At the end of today’s lesson the “men of Galilee” are left staring in to space. They have seen the body of Jesus ascend, and they are just waiting for him to come back. And the angels say, “Don’t just stand here looking at the sky, contemplating the dialectic between presence and absence. Jesus will return to you in the manner in which he left.” That is, he did not leave because you sent him away, and he will not return because you tell him to. The men of Galilee seem to get it for a change. They do not stay to gaze into the sky. They come down from the high of the conference. They go back to the work of being church, back to yearning. They go back to the upper room, back to the place the women have been all along. I like to think of them sitting together, making prayer-shawl stoles for the church we can see from here.

1 Quotations of the Bible are from the New Revised Standard Version.
2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, transl. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), II.xvi.14 (vol. 1, p. 523).
3 Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 271, n. 59.

Ted Smith
Assistant Professor of Ethics and Society
Vanderbilt Divinity School
Sermon delivered to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians
November 7, 2009

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