- Reflective and Prospective Meditations
1. Ascension and the Cosmic Mission
2. The Ascension and the descent into Hell
3. The unity with the Creator and the creation
4. Transformation's possibility and the secret of the church
This text was originally presented at a seminar on "Outbursts of Occult Authoritarianism" at Skaade Efterskole, Aarhus, Denmark.
The nature of the new religions of the contemporary world is cosmological. The reality of religion is seen in relation to the cosmic reality which is interpreted for us by modern science. The nature of religion as "microcosmos" is interpreted from the nature of religion as "macrocosmos". As in the great so in the little! Soteriology (the understanding of salvation) is thus understood in relation to cosmology (the understanding of the universe).
A similar process took place when the history of Christianity began. The message of salvation in Christ had to be interpreted into the Hellenistic and the Roman world, in which cosmology was at the center. A Christian cosmology thus came into being and interpreted Christian Soteriology in cosmological terms. Thereby the Christian eschatology was developed and fulfilled. It took place with the insights and intuitions of scriptures and in their language, but the cosmic interpretation also included the deep insights of seers of the (then) modern world and used their hopes and expectations as language and perspective.
This is not least important when we take a look at the theology of Ascension, which is the theology of the fulfilled cosmology/eschatology of the young church and its missionary outreach into the world of "the nations".
The Ascension to Heaven - what is it? Is it soul flight? Exteriorization? Out of body experience? Most certainly not! "He ascended to Heaven" - what is meant by Heaven? We pray daily: Our Father who art in the Heavens. This is not meant to imply that we pray to a Father who is not present and therefore cannot hear us. Quite the opposite: We pray to a Father who is present and can hear our prayers, for He is a heavenly father!
Similarly Christ has not by His Ascension gone away from us and left us alone. The point of the Ascension is exactly that Jesus as Christ unites with God and now is one with "His Father" eternally and everywhere, participating in God's power and personhood as the "acting subject".
The text at the end of St. Luke's Gospel states that Jesus left His disciples and was taken to Heavens in order to sit at the right hand of God, His Father. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Great Commission states that the Ascension is the reason for a completely new situation, which has become the basis of the world mission of the Church. The authority to go into the whole world comes from the belief that Jesus was taken to the Heavens in order to share in God's power. The first chapter of The Acts of the Apostles then combines the Ascension and the Great Commission and thereby creates the basis for the world mission of the Church.
The conclusion of such texts of course must be that the Ascension did not at all imply that Jesus Christ left the world and His Church alone. On the contrary, the Ascension is a proclamation that Jesus Christ by leaving time and space united with God both "in Heaven and on Earth" in order to realize the Mission of God to the whole world - and to the whole universe!
Jesus took His seat at the right hand of His Father. That is what the church has confessed from the beginning as part of the message of the Resurrection. This part of the creed implies that Jesus as Christ now shares God's executive and judging power in heaven and on earth. The whole world will be judged by Jesus Christ, both the living and the dead.
To judge does not mean to condemn! To judge means to administer justice. Jesus is already bringing justice to those who have been deprived of their rights, those who have been deceived, cheated, and suppressed.
The justice of Jesus Christ therefore turns against all injustice and all terror and horror in this world and is meant to turn all "sinners" into just and liberated persons. The final goal of this mission of justice is to create "a new heaven and a new earth, where justice prevails".
When Jesus Christ is "in operation" as the judge of the universe, He has not left us behind, quite the opposite. In His Ascension Jesus left us in order to be fully united with us as well as with God, His Father. In Jesus we therefore are one with God - here and now.
God's unity with Jesus Christ was not a matter of strange manifestations and supernatural events. God's presence in Jesus Christ and Christ's presence in us is the innermost and uttermost reality of everything which is alive in this world. In Jesus Christ, God's presence is closer to us than we are to ourselves. For "in Him we live and move and have our being" as Paul puts it in Acts 17:28.
Until His Ascension Jesus was in our world on the conditions of time, space, and causality. Following the Ascension; however, He transcended all limitations of time, space and causality. Jesus Christ limited Himself in His Incarnation. In His Ascension Jesus Christ was made limitless for the sake of His universal mission.
This change took place through the transformation which we call His Transfiguration. What for a short period of time took place at the mountain of Transfiguration (Matt. 17) took place definitely and eternally in the Ascension as the final culmination of the Resurrection of Christ.
Therefore: The Ascension does not mean that Jesus Christ left the world and His Church "to do it alone". Jesus Christ left all human conditions and limitations in order to be with us always and everywhere and in order to include us in His "mission unlimited"!
Therefore: Since He is with us and loves us and includes us, we are drawn into His mission, His movement towards the whole world, the whole universe. When we are moved by what Jesus Christ does and did for us, we are thereby drawn into His movement for the sake of the world. We are in that way made partners in His world mission of compassion.
That is made possible when we participate in the same transformation, by which God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and realized His Ascension. By participation in the Divine nature of Jesus Christ we also can leave time and space and normal causality and surrender ourselves to God and thereby break away from our limitations by the power of ascension.
We cannot comprehend the Ascension if we do not comprehend the corresponding descent to Hell. Just as Jesus departed for the kingdom of the dead, He also departed for the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not obsolete or old-fashioned to talk about the world being between the kingdom of the dead and the Kingdom of Heaven. Today as well as in the past this is a concrete reality, and it makes good sense to any human being who is not afraid to see things as they really are.
You see, perdition is the most obvious fact. Right in front of us, it unfolds and no one can doubt that people are lost deliberately and rebelliously, that is without hesitation, with no remorse or admission of guilt. How is it possible for people to lose contact with reality, and to such an extent? Because they have lost contact with God. It is as simple as that.
The thing is that the significance of perdition can only be grasped when you realize that it concerns the loss of salvation. Naturally, atheists do not understand the meaning of sin and perdition because they do not understand the meaning of grace and salvation. Invariably, such is our approach to understanding. In our language, this is reflected in a very significant way: We cannot see the meaning of distrust or uncertainty if we do not see the meaning of trust and certainty. Who is to know the meaning of infidelity if one does not know the meaning of fidelity. Uncaring behavior cannot be apprehended unless one knows what caring behavior is. Indeed, even lack of knowledge does not say much unless you know knowledge. One could go on, language holds the insights that we cannot understand a negation/denial without understanding the position/affirmation. In short: We can never understand the negation if one does not know the affirmation.
Therefore, it is not possible to understand the meaning of "we renounce the Devil and all his works" if we do not understand the meaning of believing in "God and all His works" as we do in the three articles of the confession of faith.
In the confession of faith we deal first with the renunciation. The reason for that is that in the renunciation we renounce the unity with the Evil One because we have set out to confirm the unity with the Trinity, i.e. God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Renunciation is possible because of the following confession. Faith is the prerequisite/precondition of our being able to renounce the Evil One.
This faith is confirmed by Jesus' descent to Hell and to the reality of all perdition an earth. This descent did not merely take place at one time in history but in fact takes place everywhere and forever. The descent indicates that Jesus did not sit in Heaven merely witnessing the holocaust in the Nazi death camps. Quite the opposite! Jesus was present there - together with both the victims and the tormenters. He suffered with the suffering and led the singing in the grisly and gruesome scream from the camps: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. Where else would Jesus be? He who is always with the most miserable, united with their despair and one with their: Oh, God why have you deserted me?
Jesus went to the kingdom of the dead and goes to the kingdom of the dead because no man is left without the mercy and compassion of God. The will of God: that all people have the possibility of being saved was realized and is realized by Jesus who himself is among us with all His love.
Following Jesus' renunciation of the Devil and all his works and all his being in His descent to Hell, the corresponding ascent to Heaven is the necessary conclusion. Put in another way, the ascent to Heaven became the completion of the resurrection, its cosmic culmination. The meaning of the Ascension is not that Jesus left the earth, on the contrary: in that Jesus Christ is sharing God's omnipresence, it leaves no one on earth without relation to God. Therefore, it is possible for every human being "in Heaven, on Earth and under the Earth" to share in the universal service "in the name of Jesus" (Phil 2:9-11).
God is not changeless. The love of God does not change but God changes constantly so that His love can be given to us. For that reason there is a "history of salvation" which is a strange concept since in many religions salvation is against history and history is against redemption. And in other religions, God is precisely the changeless majesty who demands loyalty and acceptance from His followers even though they do not understand His will. The Christian image of God is decidedly determined by the belief that Jesus Christ united with God in the Ascension. For Jesus is seated by "the right hand of the Father" and therefore He "judges the living and the dead" in the name of God and by the authority of God. In seeing God, we see Jesus, and in seeing Jesus, we see God. That's the point.
Various authors in the New Testament have assisted us in comprehending this secret. Yet this unity remains a secret between God and Jesus. The preconditions of the Ascension is the belief that everything is created by God but in Jesus and to Him. We say that creation has Christological structures. Jesus himself expressed this by "the law of the wheat grain," the purpose of which is that the way to life is always through death. Death and Ascension are the conditions of all kinds of life.
The Ascension as the completion of the Resurrection expresses the law of the wheat grain as well. When we say that Jesus "by the right hand of God" - meaning by the power of God - shall come to judge all living and dead, it is a consequence of the belief that everything was created in Him and to Him. So, Christ is both judge and counsel for the defense for us. Jesus as the judge of all mankind is no monster to be feared; rather He is the father who puts everything right. The new life, the eternal life, however, passes through death. There is no getting round it. We must all walk the path of death as Jesus did according to "the law of the wheat grain". But we shall never walk alone. Jesus as the judge of all mankind exercises His judging power right here, right now. The medium of this is the conscience, man's discernment. This is made clear by Paul in Romans 2. Paul did not invent conscience, He discovered it as a common feature in every human being. Our conscience is God's present judgment by Jesus Christ since what man conceals, God through Jesus Christ will expose and correct.
All along and throughout all ages, conscience has acted as the inner director of mankind. In this personal discernment, we hear God's voice and can again find direction so that we do not drift along aimlessly. The Ascension as completion of the resurrection made it possible for Paul and for us to understand the connection between the guidance of the conscience in every man under God and Jesus Christ's exercising judgment and the forgiveness of sins. It fits, indeed, it makes sense and serves the purpose.
In the same way with God's Holy Spirit: It is Paul, too, who guides us in this area. In Romans 8 we are told about the Spirit who intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express [8:26]. Precisely when we cry and groan, the Spirit joins with us in our moaning and groaning and transforms it into prayer! Man's moaning has become the material for our prayer for help. Paul sees the world as a woman in labor who yells and screams in the moment of birth. Her moans, however, turn into the prayer "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison" which means: "Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy", that cry from the Earth which time and time again rises towards God.
Just as the creation has structures of Christ, the suffering world has structures of the Spirit! The suffering is not disclaimed, neither is it repressed (by others) or suppressed (by ourselves), and it is not at all concealed. Suffering is our human condition. Without suffering, one cannot become a whole person, a real human being. The Spirit, however, transforms suffering into the material for salvation. Salvation has no conditions, but it has presuppositions which come before the suppositions! The presupposition is the transformation! And that precisely is the possibility and reality of God alone. The Gospel itself is, quite simply, that transformation is possible and takes place. The transformation of resurrection happens through suffering and death. And this is possible because Jesus Christ sits by the right hand of His Father judging the living and the dead. Already here and now.
Just as Jesus "descended", He was also "lifted up" to Heaven. He "ascended" - not for His own sake but in order to "give good gifts". This is what we are told in Ephesians 4. The intention was to fill everything with the fulness of God.
It took place through the Church and its service as the mission and the diakonia of the Church. The Church is not an end in itself but it is the most important instrument in giving gifts, gifts of grace to mankind.
The exalted Lord, our Lord Jesus Christ, is now himself amongst us in all the glory of His love, as we say in the liturgy. The treasures, the gifts which are given us by the exalted Lord are the necessary precondition of the Church to effect its mission on Earth.
Hence, the Church is the only union in the world who does not exist for its own members' sake. The existence of the Church is to be a medium for the history of redemption which takes place in all creation but in a plain and clear manner in the sending and service of the Church.
God loved and cared for the world and He gave His only Son for the sake of the world, not for the sake of the Church. The Church was told to do as its master which means that it should exist for the sake of the world. This transformation is only possible because God in Jesus Christ as The Exalted gives us His gifts to be used as equipment for the necessary mission and service.
Just as Jesus was restricted to Judea and Galilee when Augustus was emperor in Rome, so the Church at that time was restricted to one region and one time. But the Ascension of Jesus liberated the Church from these restrictions. Then, and only then - following the Ascension -the word is given to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28).
Of course, the mission is incomprehensible and unacceptable to all the godless who do not understand that God wishes to give His richness and fulness to all people. Indeed, there are even Christians who intend to reserve the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ and the faith in Him to the peoples of the Western world. This is an outright un-Christian attitude. It is a kind of hideous apartheid which must be rejected as a sin against the Spirit who will never be restricted or restrained by anything or anyone.
Christianity is not reserved for the white man or for the peoples of the Western world. The Christian faith is a gift for all mankind - to every single person, without exception whatsoever.
The word of God is not restricted by anything at all - for the Spirit Himself works wherever He pleases.
The result of this is, however, that true mission cannot take its own course, it necessarily has to follow the way of the Spirit. The mission of the Church is the mission of the Ascension which follows the course it has been given and that is the course towards the end and meaning of the world.
This is, in fact, a criticism of much of what is called Christian mission. This criticism was in the sharp words Jesus directed at the mission by the Scribes and the Pharisees. In Matthew 23, He says:
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of Hell as you are."
Jesus does not deal gently with such false missionaries who feel they have to change other people in their own image. Jesus calls them blind guides, blind fools and hypocrites, even snakes and a brood of vipers.
If mission has become propaganda and proselytization and canvassing and recruitment - then all Hell is turned loose. Then mission has become blasphemy even though it may seem as if it takes place in the name of Jesus. True mission evolves from God himself and is and remains God's mission in Jesus through the Spirit. Such a mission is a free gift to mankind - for its rejection or acceptance. Such a mission does not consider itself to be God's only way to people since that is only Jesus Christ himself. And through the Spirit, Jesus has many ways to reach people apart from the way of the Church, which is not to be held in contempt.The Church, then, is not supposed "to do missionary work". It is not supposed "to convert people". It would only result in a false and useless conversion. The Church is "on a mission" and "has a mission" which is the mission of peace which is authorized to tell all people: Be reconciled with God! Let God convert you, that is the only right version!