May 17, 2015
My husband is obsessed with space. Maybe he can’t help it, having grown up in Houston in late 60’s, attending Alan Shepherd Elementary School and Neil Armstrong Middle School. But anyway, give him an hour to wax eloquent about Neil DeGrasse Tyson or “Star Trek” and you will know what I mean. Around our house, there are lots of conversations about the universe and our place in it.
That may be why this year I wondered things about the story of the Ascension that I’ve never wondered before. I found myself asking, “where did Jesus GO when he ascended?” Luke says Jesus ascended into heaven (or “the heavens,” depending on the translation you use). For Luke and all people at that time, that meant he was going UP, not OUT. Our faith ancestors believed that there was a flat earth on which they lived, and above it, the heavens, where God lived. They had no understanding of outer space, or of light-years, black holes, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen.
Centuries later we know that the heavens are much more vast and complex than our ancestors could have dreamed. So this time, as I read the story of the Ascension again, I thanked God—again—that we take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. I embraced the idea that Jesus’ ascension into heaven not as “beam me up, Scotty” science fiction, but as a faith story about a mystical event that makes possible the church’s existence.
Cosmologically speaking, I don’t know where Jesus went after he left the disciples. What I do know is that because Jesus is not here, the Church can be, must be. The Church is constituted as and empowered to be Christ’s worshiping, witnessing body here and now. Luke tells us that before leaving the disciples, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” I wonder if Luke is subtly trying to remind his listeners of the first time in his Gospel that he described Jesus sharing the Scriptures. Jesus was in his hometown synagogue at the start of his public ministry when he unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In today’s story, Jesus departs from the world as his disciples (and we) perceive it, but not before commanding his disciples to pass on what they learned from him in word and deed. And he assures them that they will not be abandoned. Soon enough the Holy Spirit will come to them, filling them with power. And we know that next week we will rejoice in the festival of Pentecost, when the church is visibly filled with God’s power to proclaim the Good News to all the ends of the earth.
But the disciples did not not know that. They knew nothing about the Holy Spirit. They heard Jesus talk about it, but how could they make sense of it? They were still dealing with seeing their beloved Lord Jesus executed when he began visiting them as their resurrected Savior! Then they had had to accommodate the idea of resurrection into their worldview and now, suddenly, Jesus disappears into the clouds. Imagine how disoriented the poor disciples must have been! They had to be reeling!
And then …
“While Jesus was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?'” (“Why are you looking at where God used to be, when it’s clear God is not there anymore?” they seem to ask).
In their bafflement, the disciples must have momentarily forgotten that Jesus never stayed where he was supposed to. When he was 13 and his parents couldn’t find him, he turned up teaching the grownups in the temple. As an adult he seldom worshiped in the temple because he was so busy teaching out on mountains and in fishing boats, spreading his ideas to all the wrong people. He hung out with prostitutes and thieves and liars instead of respectable religious people. He was not even in the tomb on Easter morning when he was supposed to be dead! And now, these strangers ask why they are looking for Jesus where they expect him to be.
“Why are you looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Who knows what angels meant about Jesus coming “the same way he went up”? Who knows what angels understand about astronomy or physics?
Maybe they have a better grasp than any of us, a clearer picture than the Hubble Telescope could ever capture about how our universe is held together in God’s arms. In any case, they certainly had a better understanding of what the disciples’ mission was than they seem to have at that moment. Jesus told the disciples to go bear witness to all the ends of the earth Instead, here they were, just standing around, passively observing an empty sky. Maybe the angels are also baffled by us and our behavior today. Are we out proclaiming what we have seen and heard of God’s involvement with he world God loves? Or are we staring off at where Jesus used to be, unsure of what to do now that he seems to be elsewhere?
I’m sure many of you saw the results of the Pew Research Center’s study this week, indicating that fewer Americans call themselves Christians now than ever before. And we mainline Protestants, in particular, are declining in number dramatically. Of course, you could have told this story yourself, using simply the attendance records here at Trinity as your data. But bear in mind that Jesus frequently shows up in places where he’s not supposed to be, and also fails to be where we think he should be.
For perspective, let me tell you that when I was born 1964, a staggering 93% of Americans identified themselves as Christian. At the same time, the Civil Rights movement was fighting to establish racial equality in a nation struggling with assumptions, biases, bigotry, oppression, injustice, and sheer hatred. Also, the U.S. was becoming more heavily involved in Vietnam, employing chemical weapons like Agent Orange. On the home front, from the Watts riots to the drug revolution to a series of political assassinations, it was a dangerous time. Domestic violence shelters had not yet been invented, and a person could still be imprisoned for being gay or lesbian.
The point is that when the percentage of Christians in America was near its highest—the moral state of our society was far from “Christian.” Maybe it’s true that the Church will never again look like it did in the 1960s, and that our society will never again embrace the Church as it once did. Nor will our society partner in religious teaching, like having Nativity plays in public schools. Maybe Trinity will never again have thousands of kids in Sunday school, or a championship bowling league. That does not mean that Christianity is in danger of being annihilated.
Nor does it mean that the world is without God. Jesus, Emmanuel, who came to bring good news as God-with-us would not abandon the earth. It is simply impossible that God would give up on us, the creation God made, or the church God called and gathered together. It is possible,however, that while we are standing around looking up into heaven or wherever we thought God was, God has begun doing something altogether new and different around us. I don’t think any of us know how to anticipate what comes next for the world or the Church. What we can do is trust that God will be present, as God has always been present in tumultuous times. When Jesus came to live among humans, the Law and the Prophets were not discarded. In fact, Jesus opened those Scriptures up and offered new understandings of them. He modeled and told stories about what God wanted for the world. Then, when the resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples were not left alone, bereft of God. God just opened up the universe to something new. Like a cross that stretches in all directions at once—north south east and west—in the coming of the Holy Spirit God rearranges the face of faithful communities into a whole new way of being. And the good news is, that though the disciples no longer had access to God in the person of Jesus, God turned up in all kinds of new places. God is in here, and God is out there, and God is in each of you and in all of creation.
I don’t know how it works scientifically; perhaps that will one day be revealed to us. In the meantime, no matter how bewildered we are by changes in the universe and the church, God’s steadfast love remains. God may not be where we expect, doing what we expect, or hanging out with whom we’d expect, but God is faithful and compassionate. God keeps on calling us God’s own. And God will keep on coming to us, will keep on teaching us, forgiving us, strengthening us, feeding us, and igniting us with passion.
In the transition, I invite us to pray for one another as the letter to the Ephesians describes: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that— with the eyes of your heart enlightened—you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider