Sunday, August 26, 2012

God with Us (The Absence of the Ascension Report in Matthew) [Matthew 28.18-20] (1 May 2011)

The saying goes, “One must not lose sight of the forest for the trees.” Perhaps holds true for me, someone who likes to zoom in and analyze parts of scripture. But there are times when one must zoom out and take in and understand the big picture.

If you read the four Gospels carefully, trying to read as though this were the first time you were reading this wonderful story of Jesus, you will realize that the four Gospels are quite different from each other. In Mark, for example, Jesus’ manner of speaking is abrupt while in the other three Gospels Jesus often speaks at great length. Only John records the raising of Lazarus, surely one of the most remarkable of Jesus’ signs. Only Luke tells us that Jesus met two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Today let us consider one way in which the Gospel according to Matthew is different from the others. This is no academic exercise, but an exploration of Matthew’s purpose. So do bear with me. Mark ends his Gospel in 16.8 with no human having seen the resurrected Jesus. Luke explicitly tells us about Jesus’ ascension, while John, having dotted his Gospel with indications that Jesus would return to the Father, ends the Gospel with talk about Jesus’ coming back, which obviously implies Jesus has gone.

Matthew, however, has nothing of the sort. You can search all you want but you will not find a clear reference to the ascension. And at the end, Jesus is still speaking to the disciples.

Why? Why would Matthew miss such an important event? We Christians wait for Jesus to return, which implies he has gone. Why has Matthew not mentioned or even alluded to this remarkable event?

Those who would like to ridicule the bible would speak of contradictions in the Gospels. And even Christians sometimes try to iron out the differences. But these are not contradictions. They are differences of perspective indicating different purposes. 

Just recently a book was published about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Whatever your take on it, would you expect it to be the same as previously written books? Just suggesting that is bizarre. Every book written on any person would be different if the writing were done honestly. It is when we are dishonest with the facts that we end up regurgitating what we have seen elsewhere.

John tells us in his Gospel that he has not written everything he could have written. This is not simply a statement of fact, but recognition of the limits of the very human process of writing about another human. We cannot write everything about a person. We have to pick and choose. And we pick and choose according to our purposes, according to our agendas.

And so we understand Matthew’s Gospel better not just by paying attention to what is contains, but also by trying to answer the question, “Why did he not include this?”

So why did he not mention the ascension? Why does Matthew end with no indication that Jesus was taken up? In order to understand, let us travel back through the Gospel. We will halt briefly at key places where Matthew differs from the other Gospels, either by including something that the others exclude or vice versa.

Our first pit stop is in the upper room during the Last Supper. John’s account is so remarkably different that comparison is pointless. But Mark and Luke give accounts that are very close to the one Matthew gives. But Matthew and Mark do not say that Jesus told us to eat the bread and drink the wine as a remembrance. Did Matthew not know that Jesus said this? Unlikely! Paul’s writings, easily the earliest of the New Testament writings already tell us that Jesus mentioned remembrance. So Matthew has chosen to exclude this. Something about his purpose precluded the inclusion of the command to remember Jesus while participating at the Lord’s Table.

Our next halt is in chapter 18, where Jesus is telling his disciples about church discipline. He says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.” The other three Gospels do not include this passage on church discipline. Only Matthew has included it and we know that this passage has been misused and abused in church history by those who clamor after power. The possibility of misuse and abuse is evident even on a single reading. Despite this Matthew includes the passage that the other Gospel writers chose to omit. Something about his purpose must have indicated that this passage should been included.

Our trip back through Matthew’s Gospel takes us to Caesarea Philippi. Matthew, Mark and Luke report this incident. However, Matthew includes something that both Mark and Luke choose not to. Between Peter’s confession and the first time Jesus foretells his death, Matthew introduces the idea of the church. There Jesus says, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Matthew’s Gospel is the only one that speaks about the church directly. The two passages we just mentioned are where Matthew reports that Jesus spoke about the church. Were it not for these two passages, we would not have known that Jesus spoke about the church. The fact that Matthew has included both these passages indicates that he considered the church to be central to Jesus’ mission.

And so we must necessarily ask ourselves, “What does this word evkklhsi,a, normally translated with the word ‘church’, mean?” Why, for instance, does Luke use it 23 times in Acts but not in his Gospel? Why does this word occur 114 times in the New Testament but in the Gospels only in these two passages?

It is clear from the rest of the New Testament that the early Christians made a distinction between a Jewish gathering, which they called synagogue, and a Christian gathering, which they called evkklhsi,a. VEkklhsi,a referred to the community formed by and centered around Jesus after his crucifixion and resurrection.

There is one more stop we need to make. And here we will understand why Matthew diverges from the other Gospels as we have seen. Mathew’s Gospel is known for its scripture fulfillment passages. The first one we encounter is in the passage where the angel appears to Joseph in a dream. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ birth fulfills the Emmanuel prophecy. Jesus was to be God with us.

In the 1997 movie Air Force One is a remarkable clip that has gripped me because of the simple way in which it tells us a truth we have just touched on. So let us watch the clip.

“Liberty Two Four is changing call signs. Liberty Two Four in now Air Force One.” Did you get that? What happened? How did a simple refueling plane become the flagship? Did it suddenly become as luxurious as the original Air Force One that went down? Did it develop superior speed or range or greater maneuverability? “No”, to all of those. It remained the same in every way except one. The President had boarded the plane. And that made all the difference.

In the same way Matthew certainly knew that Jesus had ascended. However, recording the ascension would be tantamount to saying that Jesus was not with us. You see, both John and Luke, who report extensively about Jesus’ leaving the earth, can do so only because they also have reported strongly about the Holy Spirit. But Matthew does not do that. Rather, he reports that in Jesus God is with us. To now report that Jesus has ascended would upset his applecart and make his story empty. No! Matthew does not record the ascension because, in his version of the Gospel, Jesus is God with us.

And if you asked Matthew why he used evkklhsi,a in two places in his Gospel when he refers to the community formed by and centered around Jesus after his crucifixion and resurrection, he would say, “Once Jesus is in a community, it must change call signs. As soon as Jesus comes on board a simple gathering becomes the church.”

In other words, without Jesus we would be just another of millions of gatherings of humans. But with Jesus we are the church. When Jesus is with us we can no more be just a gathering or synagogue, but become an evkklhsi,a or church.

At the start of his Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus is God with us. And he punctuates his Gospel with that affirmation.

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus tells his disciple that he would build his church. Even though he says that Peter is the rock on which the church is built, it is Jesus who does the building. Only someone who is actually around can do the building! You see for Matthew Jesus is not speaking metaphorically, but is claiming that in a very real manner it is he who builds the church because he is God with us.

In chapter 18 Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” not because he is being fanciful but because for him Jesus is God with us.

At the Last Supper, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says nothing of remembering him because for Matthew Jesus is God with us. He is here now. You don’t remember someone who is in the room! And so he tells us nothing about remembrance.= because Jesus is God with us.

And Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus telling his disciples, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” And only a pathetic storyteller would ruin all this buildup by including a report about the ascension.

All of this leads us to a remarkable conclusion. For Matthew Jesus is not just God with us. Rather, for Matthew the church exists because Jesus is God with us.

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