A few months ago I read Gerrit Scott Dawson’s book, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation. I was so encouraged and edified by Gerrit’s treatment of Christ’s Ascension (a doctrine that receives little air time in most pulpits and most Christian minds) that I decided to contact Gerrit and interview him about why he devoted 5 years of his life to researching and pondering the Ascension and Continuing Incarnation of Christ. Here’s the interview:
Gerrit, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you live? What do you do? What are a few of the books that you’ve written?
After 13 years pastoring in North Carolina, we were called to the First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2004. So, in my first year as pastor, we saw what the church was really made of as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered our state. God’s people were, and are, simply stunning in their compassion.
I’m continually trying to take people deeper into Jesus, into connecting with him in profound and transformative ways. My latest book is called Discovering Jesus: Awakening to God. It takes readers through a dozen encounters with Jesus. The whole point is to grow into deeper awareness of our union with Christ.
Jesus Ascended arose out of my passion to explore the riches of Christ, my thirst to know the deep reality of who Jesus is. I’m not one for visions or voices. One night, though, when I was awake and didn’t know why, I said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And the voice sounded inside my head: “I want you to write about my ascension.” That moment gave me the perseverance to plow through five years of research and writing.
Gerrit, in your book Jesus Ascended, you say that there’s a major “episode” of the gospel story that’s been sorely neglected by the American church, the episode/doctrine of Jesus’ Ascension. How do you think this happened?
The Ascension of Jesus has always been difficult for us as human beings. It just seems too fantastic. Did a guy really rise up in the sky and then disappear? You can almost visualize a Monty Python cartoon of Jesus waving from the clouds. We worry that the ascension was about some kind of space travel. And that seems silly. Now nobody I read from the church fathers to the present actually thought that was the case. The church has always understood that Jesus did bodily ascend up from the disciples. But he entered the shekinah cloud of glory—he was taken into God’s presence, and thus removed from our sight. He was, in a sense, translated into heaven. He is in a realm to which we cannot travel by any human means. Is your brain scrambled yet? It’s hard to think about the mechanics of the ascension, so we ignore it.
Plus, I think most Christians were like I was—we figure Jesus slipped out of his skin suit just as soon as he could. He didn’t hang on to our humanity. After his work was done, we figure he got back to being the Son of God without the drag of our human nature. It boggles our minds to consider that he is still in skin, still bearing our humanity.
What are some of the consequences you’ve seen arise from the neglect of this pivotal episode in the gospel story?
The gospel has always created the scandal of particularity. It offends our sense of autonomy and spiritual quest and even American egalitarianism to recognize that in this one particular man, Jesus, the eternal Son of God stood among us. Thus, God is like Jesus, and not another way. Jesus is Lord of all and I am not lord of my own life anymore.
Now if you want to get away from the claiming, demanding pressure of that truth, you’ve got to get rid of the particularity of Jesus. You need to spiritualize the resurrection and the ascension. Let resurrection be about a principle of new life, the continuing influence of Jesus, but not something as scandalous as one dead man who got up.
The ascension takes the scandal even further. Jesus held onto our humanity. He has taken it into heaven. The future of our humanity is bound up in what he has done with us. Where he goes is where we are meant to go. What he becomes is what we will become. All my soul quests, all my spirituality, all my wanting a god on my own terms gets blown away by the God-Man who is in heaven, still in my skin, still insisting that he is the one with whom we all have to deal.
So, we sprititualize the ascension. We make it about how the idea of Jesus got made heavenly. But that is disastrous for us! Losing the ascension cuts us off from the present work of Christ as our priest and intercessor. It cuts us off from the power of our hope—that one day our feeble bodies will be like his glorious body. It cuts us off from the downward pressure of the imminent return of Jesus—the same Jesus who ascended will return as judge and king. When I forget that, I can lose hope in the future or I can think that my actions have no ultimate consequences, or that what we do in this world or to this earth is not really important.
Gerrit, what are a few practical ways that Christians can apply the doctrine of Jesus’ Ascension and continuing Incarnation to their daily lives?
The Ascension means that Jesus has wedded himself to our humanity forever. That means he has taken what we are into his eternal relationship with his Father. As we are in Christ, we are included in the Triune love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That offers remarkable joy and assurance.
Further, as one ancient father put it, that now “dust sits on the throne of heaven.” Human being has been taken into the life of God. Jesus did not drop us. He holds us in himself. We have a future. Who we are will not be lost—we will continue as Jesus does, as embodied creatures, transformed but still continuous with who we are. We will know each other. We will be us, only perfected, into eternity. That should put a spring in your step and a smile on your face.
More, the continuing incarnation reminds us that Jesus is still going to the Father in our name and on our behalf. He knows what it is to be human, he offers the worship, the obedience, the prayer that we should, but cannot, muster. As we open ourselves to union with Christ, by the Spirit, he lives his ascended life in us more and more. That’s where the power for Christian living comes from: Christ in me, the one who is God and still man, living his resurrected, ascended life through us.
Lastly, it means we can look at this world and realize God is not done with it yet. He didn’t drop our humanity, he didn’t drop this world. This is why we can go and “waste” time caring for the least and the lost. This is why we care for creation and seek to restore, not destroy the earth—it is, and remains, the field of God’s redemptive work.
Besides your own great book, are there any other books you’d recommend to those who’d like to study up on Jesus’ Ascension?
I’d recommend going to Abebooks.com and ordering a copy of H. B Swete’s The Ascended Christ. It’s 100 years old, but still remarkably clear. You can get it fairly cheaply and it’s an excellent introduction. I’d also keep my eye out for the forthcoming Ascension Theology by Douglas Farrow, a popular version of his massive scholarly work.