Thursday, May 21, 2009

Saint Augustine and Ascension Preaching

Few preachers are more ‘Lutheran’ than Saint Augustine of Hippo – though he preceded Luther himself by 1000 years. In spite of the fact that he lived the ascetic life and in some ways never overcame his neo-platonic past, His preaching nevertheless confesses Christ’s Gospel in a supremely bright and clear light. Augustine’s personal journey toward faith is somewhat paradigmatic of every Christians wandering in the desert where one encounters a barrage of attractive and deceptive ideas or philosophies, which in turn are found to be fruitless, dry, and empty. Like Augustine we all must cast of our robes of earthly wisdom and be draped in the wisdom of Christ and him crucified. Augustine’s sermon for Ascension preaches as the finest of Lutheran sermons because it is fixed on Christ’s movement in the world – from the incarnation to death and resurrection and then ascension.

“He ascended in order to protect us from heaven above. Hence, we have our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ hanging on a cross, now enthroned in heaven.”

This ascension for Augustine, establishes the continuing work of Christ for His church. The ascension means not that Christ hides himself or withholds himself, but rather that He solidifies the great victory, pouring forth all good gifts in His preaching of the bodily Word and Holy Supper. The locality of Christ’s Ascension into heaven to be at the right hand of the Father does not restrict His presence but provides it. This Ascension means that he has joyfully handed himself over to the whole church to be present in His body wherever His gospel is purely preached and sacraments rightly administered. For Augustine, the glory and kingship of Christ is revealed first and foremost in the act of crucifixion, ‘Here, we have our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ hanging on a cross.’ Though the crucifixion is a onetime event stamped into world history at a specific point in time, ‘He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,’ its significance and benefits in fact define all of history and God’s creative work in the universe. Augustine understands this and dynamically sets it forth in his preaching, “When He has collected all whom He will gather together throughout all time, He will come at the end of the world jst as it is written.” Therefore only in this cosmically determinative event of the cross may one know God as the alpha and omega – as the seed of the woman who bruises Satan’s heal (Gen. 3:15), and the one who slays the dragon and rule all nations (Rev. 12:5). This mighty act of redemptive work, however, is the incarnation and the foolishness of the cross.

Like other early church fathers, Augustine speaks of the death of Christ as a sort of cosmic trick played on the devil, “The devil was overcome by his own trophy, for the devil rejoiced when, by seducing the first man, he killed him; by killing the last Man, he lost the first from his snare.” In this way the gentle lamb squares off against the lion and is exalted in His death and the devil is overcome, “he took food, as it were, from a trap.” Augustine recognizes that the great act of redemption must be claimed in faith. The Ascension for Augustine is to be seen with the eyes of faith which looks toward the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. That the church itself is the body of Christ means that where Christ is there shall be the church, “for there are two in one flesh; this is the great mystery in Christ.” It is here where we see the Ascension as a sign of Christ’s advent as the bridegroom and the great nuptial feast. In the preaching of Augustine he views the 40 days prior to Ascension as a time of joyful eating and drinking with the disciples that mirrors the feast that the church looks toward in the courts of heaven. Augustine of course does not limit this feasting simply to an eschatological hope, but sees in the Ascension Christ’s divine condescension in the life of the holy ministry, “…but he ate and rank during the forty days after the resurrection of His body as if to say: ‘behold, I am with you…even to the consummation of the world.”

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