FOR CHRIST'S SAKE
"Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight?"
The phrase "for Christ's sake" trips off the tongue of Western secular society with such regularity in conversation, movies or on TV, that it must now be one of the most often used expletives in the English-speaking world. I googled the phrase to check it out and discovered some interesting information, including a movie entitled "For Christ's Sake" and something called "For Christ's Sake Torrent." which I decided did not warrant further investigation. Otherwise there was not much more beyond the obvious and the pious. Together with "for God's sake" or "for goodness sake," "for Christ sake" has long been used to express annoyance and frustration, but now it seems it is the trendy thing to say in certain circles. Some might regard this as blasphemy, which it undoubtedly is, but I think it has just become another one of those expressions people unthinkingly use to express their gut feelings about such things as the outcome of the British election or the inept playing of the Sharks Rugby team. In any case, most Christians have long acknowledged that you do not react of blasphemy by beheading or imprisoning those guilty of it; it is both unnecessary -- for Christ does not need our defence -- and counter-productive, because he taught us to love our enemies, even those who speak ill of him.
Two weeks ago I referred to the comment made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer that the problem with the church is that Jesus too often disappears from sight. Jesus is lost in the institution or dogma so instead of the world seeing him at work in the world through the life of his followers, he is hidden from view. They might even say "for Christ's sake, why don't you Christians truly follow Jesus?!" And they would be making a good point in saying so. Like the Greeks who came to Jesus' disciples long ago and asked to see him, there are people today who might follow Jesus if it were not for the fact that Christianity and the church seem to get in the way, or so they say. For there is certainly another side to the story.
Today is Ascension Day, so those familiar with the story as told at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles might well ask "is this not what happened precisely that first Ascension Day? Do we not read in the opening chapter of Acts that while his disciples were watching, "Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight?" Yes, you could say the Ascension is all about Jesus disappearing from sight! But it is really about Jesus entering into a new dimension of reality, no less real than when he was with his disciples during his earthly life. Only now he is Jesus the Christ of faith. But who is this Christ in whom we believe?
"Christ" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah" which means "the Lord's anointed." It was a word used to refer to kings like David in ancient Israel whom God anointed to lead and guide his people. It was even used to describe the pagan ruler Cyrus who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. And it was used by the prophets in anticipating the one who would come to redeem Israel from all its enemies and bring in the reign of justice and peace. After the resurrection of Jesus his followers came to believe that he was truly this promised Messiah or Christ, the promised anointed one through whose death and resurrection God would established his reign of righteousness on earth. This was the good news they were now commissioned to preach to the world.
So Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, begins by telling us that in the gospel he previously wrote he recorded " all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven." In his second volume we call the Acts of the Apostles, he continues the story of Jesus, but now it is about all that Jesus did through his followers after his Ascension and the gift of his Spirit at Pentecost. In other words, Acts is the continuation of Jesus' story, but in a new mode of being in the world. Instead of Jesus being confined to the hills of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem, he is universally present in every time and place through his Spirit.
But the word "Christ" now has meanings it did not have before. First of all, the Christ is the One who was humiliated and who suffered to redeem the world. In other words the meaning of the word Christ is now defined by the life and passion of Jesus. To understand the Christ we have to remember the story of Jesus, all that he said and did. But then there is another shift in the understanding of who Christ truly is as depicted in the writings of Paul and John in the New Testament and soon in the icons of the Church. Paul speaks of the cosmic Christ in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell," in fact, the one through whom "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things." This is breathtaking stuff. The Jesus of Nazareth with whom the disciples had walked and talked, the Jewish Messiah, is now understood as the Lord of life, "the image of the invisible God...in whom all things hold together." He is, according to John's Gospel, "the living Word" through whom the world was made, the Word who is the light of the world.
Many thinking people have a problem with this astounding claim because they think it means that Christianity is therefore the only true religion. But that is to miss the point. In the light of the Ascension, Christianity does not have a special claim on Jesus and therefore on God. Jesus the Christ does not belong to his disciples. Jesus as the Christ is not ours, not the possession of the church. Jesus as the cosmic Christ transcends Christianity and all other religions. Through his Spirit he is at work everywhere healing and making whole, serving the poor and setting the oppressed free, working for justice, peace and reconciliation. Wherever there is hope and love, there is the cosmic Christ, the fullness of God, present through the Spirit even though he may be known by other names. Yes, there are many people who are not Christian who are doing the things Jesus even if not in his name. And they are doing so because the cosmic Christ is universally at work reconciling the world to God through his Spirit.
So on Ascension Day we declare that Jesus the Christ is the cosmic Lord and giver of life, not that he is the founder of Christianity. He is the one in and through whom we are reconciled to each other and to God, the One in and through whom we are made whole. This is the good news we proclaim for the sake of the whole world. Through his Spirit we witness through our lives and deed to what the cosmic Christ is doing in the world, and we do so "for Christ's sake."
John de Gruchy
14 May 2015 Ascension Day