Teri's Blog

Why the Ascension?

 

The Rev. Teri Daily

 

John Singleton Copley, 1775 (public domain)
John Singleton Copley, 1775 (public domain)

A sermon (with revisions) first given on June 1, 2014…

Phyllis Tickle was the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publisher’s Weekly, a writer, a scholar of religion in American, and an Episcopalian.  She was, perhaps, best known for her work on Emergence Christianity.  According to Tickle and others, every 500 years the Church has what she referred to as a great big rummage sale.  In other words, we come to a point where we have to somehow mesh our changing culture and knowledge with our religious tradition.  We rethink our beliefs; we rework our understanding of Christianity.  Each time this happens, each time we grapple with our faith and have to expand in new directions, there are some things in our tradition that we have to let go of.  At the same time, we also uncover some real treasures in our tradition that we’ve forgotten.  At the end of each “rummage sale” in the Church, exciting new forms of Christianity arise, the original form of Christianity finds itself strengthened and revitalized, and the gospel spreads.  But even though the final outcome of these “rummage sales” can be quite positive, reconciling our religious beliefs with new knowledge and new experiences can still be a very painful process.[1]

Phyllis Tickle often gave this example.  In 1492, Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.  Now to be honest, even before that people knew at some level in their psyche that the earth wasn’t flat.  They had watched ships sail over the horizon and out of sight before, and they knew these ships hadn’t fallen off the earth.  But when Columbus sailed to America, the reality that the earth wasn’t flat became public knowledge; it became a fact with which one had to reckon.

During this time, an Englishman wrote a letter describing his distress at the idea of a round earth.  Having been told his whole life that one day he would rise from the dead and be united with his Lord in heaven, a round earth was cause for despair.  Because if Jesus ascended into heaven from Jerusalem, and I were to die 1500 years later in England and one day ascend from that location, how will I ever meet back up with my Lord and Savior?  The whole issue may seem a little bit silly to us, but for people of good faith 500 years ago, people who took what the Church had taught for centuries and held it close to their heart, for such people the implications of a round earth had serious consequences for their faith.

This coming Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension–a day forty days after Easter, a day when we celebrate Jesus being taken up into heaven as the disciples stood gazing up into the sky.  To be honest, the Feast of the Ascension is a difficult feast day for us to wrap our modern minds around because it doesn’t fit with our modern cosmology, with our understanding of the way the universe is structured.

In this day when scientific knowledge reigns supreme, it’s hard to escape the obvious question:  Where did Jesus of Nazareth actually go?  Since the farthest star in our galaxy is approximately 95,000 light-years away, if Jesus were to travel at the speed of light, he would still have about 93,000 years to go before he left the Milky Way.  Now I realize the argument can be made that God (even in the person of Jesus of Nazareth) is not subject to the same speed barrier that we are.  Or that heaven is not a matter of distance from us but, instead, resides in another dimension.  But the point remains:  Our scientific mapping of the universe can make it difficult for us to conceive of an event such as the ascension.

N.T. Wright is a bishop in the Church of England and a traditional Anglican scholar, and even he has trouble seeing the ascension story as a straightforward, historical account.  He writes this explanation: “the language of ‘heaven and earth’, though it could be used to denote sky on the one hand and terra firma on the other, was regularly employed in a sophisticated theological manner, to denote the parallel and interlocking universes inhabited by the creator god on the one hand and humans on the other.”[2]     

Now, I’m not sure if the way we’ve traditionally understood what happened that day as the disciples stood there watching Jesus rise out of sight still works for all of us, but I do know that we can’t forget this feast in the Church calendar, that we can’t relegate it to the pile of old items in a rummage sale that need to be sold or even just thrown away.  The Ascension is one of our treasures, and it speaks a truth to us that we need to hear as much today as we ever have.

See, the Ascension is the culmination of the entire narrative of Jesus’ life.  From the moment Jesus is born in Bethlehem to the time he is taken up into the heavens, the incarnation speaks to us of God’s desire for us, of God’s longing for fellowship with humankind.  And the fulfillment of that desire, when played out in the shape of a human life, is the ascension.  The ascension

reveals to us the incredible truth that, through Christ, God has brought all of humankind into the very heart of God’s life.  God and creation are bound together not just for the thirty-three years that Jesus lived on this earth, but for all eternity.  As N.T. Wright observes, the universe of the creator god on one hand and that of humans on the other are not two separate universes, but are inextricably bound one to the other.

Soon we will celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.  I don’t think we can look at Pentecost apart from the Ascension, for they are two sides of the same coin.  Just as humanity is taken up into the life of God at the Ascension, the Holy Spirit comes to reside within creation at Pentecost.  Us in God, God in us.    As Jesus said in last week’s gospel reading:  “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you… On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  Us in God, God in us.

Almost two thousand years ago the disciples stood gazing up into the heavens as Jesus ascended.  Two men dressed in white appeared and said to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven?”  Maybe those same words are meant for us today.  Maybe we, too, occasionally need to be reminded to look for God not just up in heaven where we now live with God, but in the world around us where God lives with us–in the beauty of the earth, in the ordinariness of day-to-day lives, in simple elements like bread and wine, and in the faces of those Jesus came to redeem.  Maybe words like “up” and “down” melt into one when we talk about God’s love for the world, as Michael Coffey illustrates in his poem titled “Ascension”:

Where is “up” for you now
that you have slipped from our sight
but still find your way into our being

we have been above the clouds
and planted lunar footprints
and watched Voyager move beyond the heliosphere

all we saw was a vast lonely world
not a trace of your friendly face
not even that visage in the rocks of Mars

So where is “up” for you, anyway?
Is it like a hypercube that we can’t construct
in our 3D world, but only see shadows of

or is it a furtive movement within
a shifting expanse in spacetime so that you
move beyond the infinite and wormhole your way back to us

and so your up has become a down
into our bodies and minds and heres and nows
and bread and wine and thanksgiving [3]

 

[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2008).

[2] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 665, as quoted in Mikeal C. Parsons’ Commentary on Acts 1:6-14 at Working Preacher website: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2067

[3] “Ascension” by Michael Coffey, found online at http://mccoffey.blogspot.com/2012/05/ascension.html

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