“He ascended into Heaven . . .” (Part 1)

Ascension of Christ, by the Master of the Dominican CycleFeast of the Ascension

Thursday, May 25, 2017

First of all, no, this is not a sermon. It’s just some reflections on Jesus’ Ascension. So here it goes:

I remember seeing this picture (or a similar one) on the cover of a church bulletin once and got a kick out of the footprints Jesus was leaving behind. Actually, at first glance of the printing, it looked almost like Jesus was getting pulled right out of his sandals. Honestly, it looks a little silly with his feet dangling there, but it’s still pretty much like most depictions of the event.

I’m also reminded of a talk I attended by John Shelby Spong (don’t judge). At one point he said that Carl Sagan had once told him that even if Jesus had risen vertically from the earth at the speed of light, he’d still be within the Milky Way galaxy. Therefore, absurd! Well, I suppose the response would be “Duh!” The idea of Jesus zooming off into the sky is pretty silly and simplistic, and the attempts to “refute” it are actually more like a straw man argument.

Yes, we know that the earth is an atmosphere-enveloped sphere located within the vastness of space. Heaven isn’t some place above the clouds. It can be easy to just excuse it as simple people of the past not really knowing what things were really like and just making up a story. Mind you, a lot of people at the time and for quite a while after probably did hold to a cosmology placing Heaven above the dome of the sky. However, explaining it away in that manner and reducing it just to some sort of demythologized metaphor or such is also pretty simplistic and not quite fair to early Christians and all those since who have believed in Jesus’ Ascension.

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Yeah, like this but with a tad more of a sigh . . . and laser beams.

Both of those responses, in my opinion, miss the point. Do I believe that 40 days after the Resurrection Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father? I am willing to say “Yes” to it. A literal rising into the sky and sitting next to an old guy on a fancy chair? No. (And imagine me looking over my glasses like Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.)

So is “ascension” metaphorical? Yes, in the sense that human language is limited, especially when trying to make sense of God’s mysteries. However, it still represents an actual reality. And that reality is an essential aspect of the larger saving mystery of Christ from the Incarnation to his teaching and healing ministry and to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, as well as the Sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Jesus is fully human, with a flesh-and-blood body; and that body was not discarded when he rose from the dead. Neither is it discarded when returned to Heaven to take his place once again with the Father. Rather, Jesus brought not just his humanity to the divine life but ours as well. We who are baptized into His Body will one day share in that divine life at the end of the age when all things are made right in relation to God. When or how will that happen? I don’t know. It’s above my pay grade. I’m leaving it to God. For now, we exist in the tension of the absence of Jesus physically here on earth and his continuing presence with us through the Spirit.

I do have a lot more to say, but the post is getting a little long; so I will leave the rest till tomorrow later.

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Icon of the Ascension, by Andrei Rublev

Sacred Weirdness

I recently saw a post on The Living Church’s Covenant blog titled “Evangelism of the Weird.” Wow, both evangelism AND weird. At first glance, it seems like no better way to scare people off . . . well, except me. (I’m rather fond of both.) First glances, though, are not always correct.

If you really think about it, having faith and actually practicing it in our current society are pretty weird (at least in a number of areas).  (In this case, I’m specifically talking about Christian faith.) We worship a God who’s three but also one. We believe in a guy who’s both God and human and who died and then came back to life and will supposedly return at some point. And that’s not even getting into burning bushes, parting seas, multiplying loaves and fishes, etc.

Then there’s all the stuff about believing this world isn’t all there is, that we’re more than just a bunch of atoms floating about. We have an intimate link to our ultimate Creator, one who is more than a distant watchmaker but rather deeply involved in the warp and woof of our lives, albeit in often mysterious ways.

Of course, for a lot of people these days see Christianity (or at least Christians) as a different kind of weird. Many view right-wing evangelicals as the face of Christianity in this country. Increasingly, the image in their minds is one of bigotry, homophobia, hypocrisy.  One of people who care more about passing anti-abortion laws than making sure children get adequate health care or education, who believe “religious liberty” is a license to discriminate. It’s not just weird but, frankly, immoral.

With all of that, it be be hard to tell others I’m a Christian. In some places it’s actually easier to come out as gay than as Christian. However, just as coming out as an LGBT person is vital, especially in areas where it’s less accepted, coming out as Christian is also needed. As an Episcopalian, I can tell you that we can appear a little weird. We gather on Sunday mornings. We sing. We wear funny clothes and funny names for things. We consume special bread and wine that somehow represents the presence of Jesus. (Or actually contains his presence, but we can’t seem to agree on that.) For crying out loud, we even wash other people’s feet once a year!

Some want to tamp down some of that weird and focus on social justice causes. Well, the latter is good, and I do see it as a Gospel imperative. However, lots of groups work for social justices; so what makes us different? Well, I think a lot of what I mentioned above plays into that. We have a firm foundation for what we believe and what we do. We’re not just making it up as we go along but also draw on a long tradition. What we have to proclaim more effectively is that it’s a living tradition with many strands that is always evolving. It’s one that involves all of who we are — mind, body, and spirit. We have to proclaim that none of us are alone. We are connected with each other, both now and in the past, in a larger body. Can there be anything weirder in this hyperindividualistic culture-of-now? I for one embrace that weird.

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Oops, wrong kind of weird. Never mind.