Monday, August 11, 2008

N. T. Wright on the Ascension

I've been reading N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope. Here are a couple of fantastic paragraphs on the ascension (112-113).

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension [or the resurrected and still embodied Jesus]? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vaccuum. 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. This indeed is what twentieth-century English liberalism always tended toward: by compromising with rationalism and trying to maintain that talk of the ascension is really talk about Jesus being with us everywhere, the church effectively presented itself (with its structures and hierarchy, its customs and quirks) instead of presenting Jesus as its Lord and itself as the world's servant, as Paul puts it. And the other side of triumphalism is of course despair. If you put all your eggs into the church-equals-Jesus basket, what are you left with when, as Paul says in the same passage, we ourselves are found to be cracked earthenware vessels?

If the church identifies its structures, its leadership, its liturgy, its buildings, or anything else with its Lord - and that's what happens if you ignore the ascension or turn it into another way of talking about the Spirit - what do you get? You get, on the one hand, what Shakespeare called "the insolence of office" and, on the other hand, the despair of late middle age, as people realize it doesn't work. (I see this all too frequently among those who bought heavily into the soggy rationalism of the 1950s and 1960s.) 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.

There is more fantastic material in the following paragraphs, but this little tidbit hit me on Saturday when I was reading it. Wright goes on to make the interesting (and necessary point) that a human being (Jesus as the divine-human person) is running the cosmos right now from heaven - that Jesus continues his human work straight into the present. You hear these things so little - how wonderful to hear them again!

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