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Does the ascended Lord Jesus have a job description? And if so, what is it?

The question came from an astute, theologically trained person. Her tone was jesting, but not fully. Her query raises lots of interesting possibilities in these theologically full and complex days between Ascension Day — last Thursday, Pentecost — this Sunday, and then Trinity Sunday, the next.

Traditionally we of the Reformed tribe have made much of Christ’s Ascension. Ascension Day worship was once common. Today, worship on a Thursday is an inconvenient oddity.

On Ascension Day we celebrate Christ’s coronation, Lord of all, ruler over history and culture, the arts and the sciences. This impulse is why we Reformed haven’t shied away from learning, from beauty, from inquiry. This is why we’ve started liberal arts colleges (excuse me, I mean universities).

A little jewel of the Heidelberg Catechism’s answer on the Ascension (Q&A 49) tells us “we have our own flesh in heaven.” Human flesh is now in heaven. I don’t think we take that seriously. That’s partly a failure of imagination, and partly because of our discomfort with bodies, ours and others.

I believe it was Daniel Meeter, occasional writer here, who wondered if human flesh is now in heaven then who cuts the ascended Lord’s hair? How are his nails trimmed? Are the microbes in his digestive tract now also eternal? Facetious questions? Yes and no. While the best answer might be “We don’t know” they push us to own the fleshy reality of the risen and ascended Jesus. And from there, the quite startling claim that somehow our flesh, our bodies too, will also be in heaven.

I find all of this to be inspiring. Similar is the detail in the creeds — that Jesus Christ “is seated at the right hand of the Father.” To be seated suggests at rest, work completed, in control, unflustered. The outcome is no longer in doubt. In a world of tragedy and injustice, seemingly spinning out of control, I am glad for all of these counter-messages of hope.

+ + Or Remote and Imperial? + +

But my friend’s questions caused me to wonder about other ways of looking at it. I recall great church buildings with immense golden mosaics of a reigning Jesus, a royal scepter in one hand and a sovereign’s orb in the other. Very imperial. Has the Ascension only succeeded in making Jesus as remote and humorless as so many of our understandings of the First Person of the Trinity?

If we’re being honest, we know that the Reformed persuasion has always favored this vision of Jesus. We’ve been too enthralled with the reigning Christ, too eager to be like him, too sure we can take control, too quick to install our own version of his reign.

And really, what does one do while sitting on a throne? Shout out orders. Demand homage. Ask servants for more wine and ice cream. Listen to harps and fawning accolades. Reminisce about past conquests. Is this the ascended Lord’s job description?

This impassive, enthroned Jesus doesn’t sit well with today’s visions of Jesus — co-sufferer, our companion in the trenches.

+ + Third-Shift Work + +

My friend’s questions also poked at our understanding of the Holy Trinity, one God in three Persons. We know better, but often we slip into the three-different-work-shifts account of the Trinity. According to this common misconception, the First Person of the Trinity (Creator, Father) does most of the work for a long, long time — creation, prehistory, Israel. Then the Second Person makes a very brief but intense appearance we call the Incarnation. Up to that point, the Holy Spirit has only had a few cameo appearances — brooding over the waters at creation, possibly at the dedication of the temple, maybe overshadowing Mary at the conception of Jesus. But on Pentecost, the Spirit’s time on the clock begins. The fact that Pentecost follows so closely on the heels of the Ascension only adds to the impression that one member of the Trinity picks up after the other packs up. One punches the time clock while the other heads home. The Spirit is our comforter, companion, and catalyst now. And if the Holy Spirit is doing everything, it becomes easier to misunderstand Jesus as not having much to do.

We know, of course, that this isn’t how we should understand the Trinity. But functionally, that’s often how it seems to work. And maybe that isn’t only a crude distortion of simplistic folks in the pews.

Theologians in recent years have emphasized the distinctiveness of each Person of the Trinity. The priority has been on the beautiful mutuality and perfect community within the Trinity. Perichoresis, the loving, endless waltz between the three, has been the focus. “Modalism” — seeing the three Persons merely as modes, sides or aspects of the one God — has been the foe. But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far, to what amounts to quasi tri-theism. That makes it easier to err toward the three-work-shifts model and more difficult to see all actions of Trinity as inextricably shared. Scripture, by contrast, seems to blur the lines between the three Persons. For example, sometimes it speaks of the Spirit of Jesus, in other places the Spirit of Christ, and elsewhere, the Holy Spirit.

+ + What I Meant to Say + +

My aim here has not been to disparage the Ascension, our flesh now in heaven, a seated Jesus, Pentecost, or the Trinity. I cherish them all.

I am reminded, however, that our functional theologies and our official theologies are often miles apart. The difference between what we intend to convey and what is received can be vast. Moreover, the Ascension and the Trinity are complex ideas. A tug in one direction, a small adjustment in emphasis can bring unintended effects and wrong impressions. Complexities and uncertainties tell us that modesty and mystery are important ingredients in these conversations.

We see wars, cruelty, and a pandemic, not to mention our kids, our finances, our futures and we might want to say, “Excuse me, Jesus! Would you mind getting off your. . .throne and helping out a bit down here?”

May we, with our investment portfolios and health insurance, airbags and missile defense systems, come to find that our hope, our security, our future is staked to the ascended Christ.

May we trust that the one seated on the throne is not decommissioned or luxuriating, not a standoffish sovereign, but is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, still the rough hewn, soft-hearted rabbi, the crucified and risen one.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

9 Comments

  • David Hoekema says:

    Probing, provocative, unsettling, this Ascension reflection sends us back to the Scriptures with new ears. And stops just a few feet short of irreverence. Thanks!!

  • Jane Meulink says:

    Our flesh in Heaven. Blessed assurance.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    My struggle has been that worship shapes theology. We believe within the context of how we worship, a bit scary given the dynamics of modern worship (and I lead a quasi mix of Reformed liturgy and contemporary worship, so I’m not casting stones), but nevertheless I find it exceedingly difficult to sketch the rough edges of what we believe about the Triune God let alone dive deep. This hesitancy devolves into a simple modalism among those in the pews. It seems like an oppportunity but a profoundly difficult one. Thank you, Steve for inspiring us to continue the work.

  • Excellent questions! Why don’t we consider them more often? And how about the “Christ in you” and “you in Christ” that has us seated with him in the heavenlies?

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    It would be curious to take a survey of people who faithfully come to church every week to see how many realize that in orthodox theology, the incarnation of the Son of God is permanent. Once Christ assumed flesh, he took it on for all eternity thereafter. I suspect most quietly believe in a rather incorporeal Savior at God’s right hand. I also mentioned the term “Session” to seminarians reviewing for Oral Comps a few years ago and discovered not one student had ever heard the term for Christ’s being seated at God’s right hand. They knew the doctrine but I guess Session has fallen out of parlance. But then, celebrating the Ascension has fallen on hard times too!

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      John Bolt would confirm, I believe, that A A van Ruler made the startling claim that the Lord Jesus will surrender his Incarnation in the ultimate eschaton. Few have agreed with him, but it’s worth noting.

  • Ken B says:

    Madeleine L’Engle, at least I believe it was her, once told the story of someone dying and going to heaven. They were enthralled with streets of gold and all the rest. But, asked the person, where are Jesus and all the saints? The response was that they were all in hell ministering to the damned. I’ve always been heartened by the idea that Jesus isn’t just sitting around reigning. Thanks for this piece.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    “Three-shift Trinity”! Love it. This is so helpful. I like to say that one of our theological problems these days is imagining “errand boy Jesus,” who just zips down to earth a minute to do the job and then: whew! job done and back in the throne room. (I blame Milton for this misconception, but it’s not only his fault.)

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for offering clarity in explaining the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven (or wherever) and his role and rule from God’s right hand. And thanks for clearly explaining the Trinity, which most Christians are satisfied that it is simply beyond our understanding but somehow true, if even totally unreasonable. I sometimes wonder what shape the apostle Paul, with his Jewish background, thought the reign of Christ would look like, as to his lived out experiences and expectations. I doubt that your descriptions here would fit his. Common sense, especially after reading this article, says both the Ascension and the Trinity are rather farcical. Such thinking and superstition might have fit into a first century archaic mind set, but this is the 21st century. And some Christians still believe in a six day creation, taking place some six to eight thousand years ago.

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