The popularity of this image in the church may certainly be attributed to the proclamation of Jesus as ruler in the heavens, and in anticipation of the way believers hope to rise up with him in the afterlife. But perhaps it also speaks to the attempts to hold onto, to keep connected to this beloved one who is not directly present with us. I cannot help but remember our visits to my grandfather and the way, just prior to climbing in the car to travel home, the whole family would gather for photographs, the last remembrance for another year - or perhaps forever.
The letter to the Ephesians dates from a time when the new Jesus communities are making their own transitions, the time when the expected second coming of Christ is taking longer than expected and the first generation of apostles is ending with the glory still to come. This is a lonely place, prone to doubts. This reading from Ephesians is no doubt appointed for the feast of the Ascension because it speaks of Jesus ruling in in the heavenly places. But we might also read it as emphasizing the sure connection we, the living, have to this heavenly Lord.
"In Christ we have obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to his purpose..." (Eph 1:11). The first great Ephesians theme: God's got this covered. God has "a plan for the fullness of time" (1:10), God destined us for adoption as God's own children (1:5), God has created us for good works which have been ordained for us (2:10), all "in accordance with the eternal purpose" in Christ Jesus our Lord (3:11). God's will may be a mystery, but it is made known to us in Christ, "to gather up all things in him" (1:10). You may be feeling lost, you may be wondering what's next, but God's got this covered. You "were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption" (1:13-14).
That's the letter's first step, to simply proclaim that our doubt, our confusion, our fears, even our sense of loss and failures of hope all take place within a context where God has already decided the main issues. And God's decision is for us. Take courage, ‘cause God’s got this.
And then the apostle turns to the other major theme of the letter: survival strategies. Later we’ll hear much exhortation about how we are to live. Living with humility and gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love (4:2) and so on, are meant to help us cope with the world as it is and to prepare for the world that is coming into being. In these early verses, the apostle is laying the foundation for the practical advice that is to come.
So the apostle writes, at one and the same time commending his hearers for their faith, and linking it to love their fellows and prayer that their hope may be nourished, may be nurtured, may be completed in God. "I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints," and for this reason the writer is thankful, and I daresay, confident. He gives thanks, and he prays that we may receive wisdom, that we may evermore know "the hope to which God has called us."
For this whole business is about power – God’s great power at work in Christ, not simply ruling over the heavens, but active in the world. God’s power rules over all: thus demons are cast out, people and institutions are healed, the deadening yoke of oppression is being broken and replaced with the reconciling power of Christ’s peace. Our "glorious inheritance" is not that we are on the winning team, but that God’s victory for us means healing, liberation, and wholeness-peace-shalom.
All that wonderful advice, and all that wonderful ministry that's already occurred is only a part of the complete plan for God's kingdom. The glimpses we've had are pale shadows of the fullness of God's vision. Jesus, coming in glory, no painter can do it justice, it's not about clouds and thrones and radiant light, but about God breaking down the barriers of sin and death and enmity. Hold fast to that hope, for he is coming to complete the redemption of his body - you, me, everybody, the whole world filled with his glory! Hosanna!
God's hope is the great survival strategy of this age: "with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you" (1:18).
It is not easy to see him go. Perhaps we must save the snapshots which remind us of his journey on earth. Yet the fullness of his hope, which may be granted to those who "come to know him," (1:17) is a kind of reflected glory. We may do better to pray that we may know his heavenly light shining among us even now, when we share the bread of fellowship and of peace that Christ first shared with us.
"Ascension of Christ" by Garofalo, 1520.
Attribution unknown for the other two artworks.