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The ascension of the Lord: need for a ‘whole New Testament’ approach

by
22 May 2015

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From the Revd Nigel Coatsworth

Sir, - I found Canon David Bryant's sensitive reflection on the ascension interesting and moving as he explored the issue of a God who is present and yet absent (Faith, 8 May). I feel, however, that by taking St Luke's account as the basis for our celebration as well as our liturgical calendar, we miss out on the riches to be found both in Acts itself and other New Testament writers, in the Church's understanding of the ascension. (Is this why the Sunday after the Ascension has been reduced to yet another Sunday in Eastertide?)

St Paul's letters are imbued not only with Christ's being raised from death, but with him as Lord, the hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 being a case in point. Colossians 3 speaks of Christ "seated at the right hand of God", while Ephesians 1 speaks of Jesus's continuing rule "over all rule and authority and power and dominion", and Ephesians 4 speaks of the ascended Christ giving gifts of ministry to his Church. Far from being absent, Jesus is very much present, not only alive, but exercising authority and power for himself, and in and through his people.

The Letter to the Hebrews gives us another side of Jesus's continuing ministry - as our High Priest, one of our own flesh and blood, who has gone through the curtain into the very presence of God, and there continually intercedes for us. Some would interpret St Stephen's vision of Jesus at his trial "standing at the right side of God" as Luke's showing Jesus as intercessor.

St Matthew's Gospel ends with Jesus's declaration that "all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me," while the Fourth Gospel is full of that paradoxical duality of Lordship and Service, where the risen Lord is on his way "to the Father" to receive back "the glory which he had from the beginning". John 17 reads like a coronation prayer of consecration, as John sees the cross as Jesus's being lifted up and glorified to draw all people to himself.

Luke's great gift is to be able to break things down and to present theological aspects of Jesus's ministry as distinct events, but the danger is that we lose the more complex and more magnificent picture given to us by the New Testament as a whole.

It is in hymns that we find some of the finest expressions of what the ascension means to us: Charles Wesley's great hymn "Hail the day that sees him rise", William Chatterton Dix's "Alleluya, sing to Jesus", and Wendy Churchill's "Jesus is King" brilliantly express this ongoing ministry of Jesus, where the ascension is not simply a farewell, but his coronation, as he enters into his role as King, Priest, and Intercessor.

Whether it be in the quiet of "the secret place" or in some great communal celebration; whether it be in ministering God's love and healing, or in deliverance ministry, the presence of "one of our own" at the throne of him from whom all love and healing, all authority and power, flow is the source and inspiration of all that we are and do.


NIGEL COATSWORTH
Oakmere House
69 Hill Park Dudleston Heath
Ellesmere
Shropshire SY12 9LB

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