Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Acts 1: 1-11
John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b. 15
Ascension. We don’t really know what to do with that. Today is the day that we mark the event of Jesus ascending into heaven, as it was described in the Acts text I read for you. The Bible dictionary I used says that Ascension is “widespread and diffuse” category of literature across the cultures of the ancient world that include visions by prophets, journeys into heaven by seers, souls rising to heaven and actual bodily liftings without the intervention of death.
When Roman Emperors died, it was believed that they ascended to heaven, and they became Gods when they got there. Jews and Christians didn’t really buy the becoming a God part, but we’ve got our own characters who have ascended to heaven in our Scripture. Elijah is the most famous one, being carried to heaven in a chariot of fire. Yes, that’s where the movie title comes from.
There are New Testament ascensions other than the one of Jesus. Paul describes one in Second Corinthians. The concept of ascension is used in Revelation and 1Thessalonians.
But most of it is about Jesus.
Luke talks about it twice, at the end of Luke and at the passage of Acts we’ve just read, and one of those additions you find at the end of Mark talk about it. In our Apostles’ Creed, we speak about Jesus ascending into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God.
So we’re talking about an event that is rarely mentioned with regard to Jesus, from one Gospel reliably and from only one other, which could have easily been written after someone had read Luke.
I guess what I am trying to outline here for you is that what we mention today, a major event in the life of the Christian Church, historically, is not one we as Protestants tend to overly honor. Ascension art, as I was looking for a Bulletin cover, is pretty limited. As the Bible dictionary entry said, “generally speaking, the New Testament writers are more concerned with Jesus’ present exalted status in heaven than with the question of how he came to be there.”
But you have to explain how a man is resurrected from the dead, and as one of the three persons of the Trinity, didn’t die again. You have to explain how Jesus is different from Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus, but did die again at a later date. Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Jesus is in heaven now, we believe. But he didn’t die to get there. He tells the Disciples that he has to leave so that they may receive what he is to give them. That gift will turn out to be the Holy Spirit.
There is a reason why Jesus had to leave. For his people to grow in faith, they had to learn how to walk for themselves. Jesus could not be everywhere, he was a flesh and blood man, and even with his being able to appear and disappear at the blink of an eye, like with the disciples at dinner in the Emmaus story, the time was coming that flesh and blood were going to be too limiting. The believers of Christ, the believers in Christ, were soon going to number too many. It’s easy to see everyone when they are all gathered in one place, not so much when you have people in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and Antioch, and Corinth, and Rome, and all the rest of the places that are the ends of the earth. So Jesus has to leave. But he has to leave in such a way that folks know he will be coming back. We don’t read in scripture that he will be raised from a grave. He has to come from another place. So we read, twice by Luke’s hand, that Jesus rises bodily into heaven.
When Luke wrote this, Heaven was understood to be a physical place above and behind the sky, and that was where God lived. We’ve now been there; poor Shuttle Atlantis can’t get home from there because of rain in Florida. And what we see isn’t a throne room, or angels floating around in clouds. What we see is the final frontier.
It’s easy to understand how people who put great trust in their intellect will have problems with the basic claims of Christianity. They can buy that Jesus existed, they can buy that Jesus taught wisely, they can even buy that Jesus is the son of God in some way that is unique and hard for us to understand. But resurrection? Ascension? Here is where they step off the train.
I understand that. The claims of the church defy understanding, and in a world where understanding is paramount, where Science is the new way of explaining the world and religion is the old way, where even Time Magazine has replaced their religion column with one on health and medicine, something that has defied explanation, understanding and repetition in a lab for two thousand years can begin to seem irrelevant.
But we still have this Biblical witness. We still have these disciples who saw what they saw, and passed it on to others, and when they started getting old and passing away, it was written down so as not to be lost. These stories are what we have inherited.
We have inherited stories that are hard to explain, but can’t be explained away either.
So, with regard to the whole Easter experience, from Resurrection to Ascension, what can we say? Do we stand with the scientists, and say that it is a whole bunch of hysterical rigamarole, unexplainable and therefore impossible? Or do we stand with the people who believe that it must have happened exactly in the way it was described, and anyone who questions the account of Luke, or asks any questions at all, betrays Christ and puts him back up on the cross all over again?
Or do we stand where we are this morning? Somewhere in the middle, unsure about what’s right, curious, but unwilling to fully accept either side?
As for me, I stand in that middle place. These stories are true. We just don’t know what the truth of them looks like. We know, though, that when it all comes clear, (and we have faith that someday it will all come clear), the stories will be true, and they will fit in exactly with the physical observable world we have learned about.
We have faith in the future, that it will all become clear. That the glass we see through now darkly will fall away. And until then, our job is not to worry about that, but to worry about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and seeking God’s will through the Holy Spirit, our other inheritance from those ancient disciples.
We have inherited two things—the witness of Scripture, which tells us our story, and the Holy Spirit, which helps us tell that story, and make our own stories, in God’s name.