Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday after Ascension Day, 24 May 2009

His Glory, Our Glory

Last Thursday was Ascension Day, when we commemorate Jesus’ ascension into heaven. In the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we read, “When Jesus had said all this, as the disciples were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” I think we would have to say that Ascension Day has become the forgotten feast day in our Church calendar. But we do say in the Creed that we believe Jesus ascended into heaven. It is surely not an event that we can forget. The ascension of Jesus reveals wonderful and hopeful and beautiful things to us. So, this morning let’s reflect on what the ascension reveals, and celebrate what the ascension reveals.

We say we believe that Jesus ascended into heaven. We also say in the Creed that we believe that Jesus came down from heaven. The disciples, like the people of their time, did think that heaven, the dwelling of God and the angels was up above the sky. The early leaders of the Church who wrote the Creeds thought the same thing. None of these people knew the science we eventually came to understand. We know that there is no sky; there is no blue vault covering the earth. We know heaven is not up there. Just as we do not believe that Jesus literally came down from heaven, we also do not believe that Jesus flew up among the clouds. That physical view of the Ascension is not what we believe, and is not what we commemorate.

First of all, we must understand that Jesus rising from the dead and Jesus ascending into heaven are one and the same event. Jesus ascension into heaven did not occur forty days after his resurrection. In his rising Jesus ascended. It happened on the same day. The ascension confirms what should be our understanding of the Resurrection. He is risen does not mean Jesus came back to the life he had known for some thirty years. Jesus is risen means he is risen into God. Jesus is risen means this man born of a woman like the rest of us began to live like God---he began to live the eternal life of God. For Mark, Matthew, John and Paul, Jesus rising from the dead into the glory of God was one and the same event. In what they wrote it was not Jesus who came out of the tomb who appeared to the disciples, and lastly to Paul. It was Jesus who came out of heaven who appeared to them. Only Luke writes as if the Resurrection and the Ascension were two separate events. To make them two events was something people could picture, and so it was something people could understand. People’s mind then, and people’s minds always, do work physically. We need pictures to get the picture. We cannot picture Jesus rising into the glory of God, and so it happened that through the centuries Christians adopted Luke’s description of the Ascension, as if it happened forty days after Jesus rose, and even though the other three Gospel writers and Paul offered the Resurrection and Ascension as one and the same event.

At this point I think we all might need to play with a bit of philosophy. Jesus, this man with a body like ours, lives the eternal life of God. We believe that. But where did he go? Where is he? Doesn’t a body, even a glorified body, have to be some place? We do not really need to go into this, but it may get us thinking about things we hadn’t thought about before. Let’s start with this. God is everywhere. God is in this church, in Orvieto, in Italy. God is on the moon, he is in the stars. God is everywhere. All things exist and move and live in God. Question? Where was God before there were galaxies and stars and planets? Where was God before the earth came to be? Where was God before anything existed? Where was God, when there was only God? We can’t say God was everywhere. Why? Because there was no “where” in which to be. Before anything other than God existed, God was nowhere. Where was God before anything other than God existed? Nowhere. God was forever and ever, before there was any space or place to be present in. We have to understand also that after creation, and after all things came to be, God is everywhere but, but, the reality of God, God’s being, is not limited to the extent of the material universe. God is. We cannot picture any of this at all. But the fact is that “to be” isn’t the same as “to be somewhere”. To be doesn’t require somewhere, to be doesn’t require being in a place. For us, to be means having to be somewhere. It’s the only way our physically working minds can think of to be. For us, to be means being somewhere, and if you’re nowhere, then you ain’t. But despite the limitations of our minds, to be and to be in a place are not the same thing.

Where did Jesus go? Where is Jesus? He is alive in God. Where is that? Everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere and nowhere. We stretch our minds to think about being without being in a place. We stretch our minds to think about being not bound by here or there. As I say, no matter how much we stretch our minds, we cannot picture it. Enough philosophy.

We believe in Jesus’ promise that where he is we shall also be, even if we cannot picture what that means. It is where that isn’t anywhere. We believe in his promise. We believe in God’s will for us, and indeed his will for all creation. We believe in humility because the reality of his promise is beyond our minds to imagine. We cannot picture Jesus rising and beginning to live the life of God. We cannot picture what it means that we will rise in his likeness. We cannot picture the new, glorified, material creation, or what it means that in Jesus all things will be made new. But this is our faith.

In awe, in wonder, in thanksgiving, in hope and expectation, we believe with Paul, when he wrote, “We speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory…what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God…and we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” Amen.