June 1, 2014: Ascension Sunday
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Gospel According to Luke 24:51-53
Happy Ascension Sunday. Today we celebrate the ascension of Jesus back to God. It’s not a concept that gets much airplay in our secular world. Not like Christmas or Easter. There are no presents or stashes of candy or ritual feasts or really any ritual at all. And yet it is the last piece of the Jesus story; the bookend to the nativity, as the Rev’d. Todd Miller reminded us in our deanery ascension service here on Thursday. But if Jesus comes in to this world like a lion, he goes out like a lamb…no divine label intended. For all the celebrating and rejoicing that we do at Christmas, the ascension could easily pass almost un noticed.
To some it must sound like Abra Cadabra Day. A marketing promotion for David Copperfield: “The Ascension”. Or maybe it’s a prequel to the prequel for Star Trek, the ancient foundation for “Beam Him Up Scotty.” Or maybe the ascension is just a misunderstanding on the part of a foolish faithful, on the order of the “earth is flat” magnitude. It might as well be. For we know not where Jesus lands after he ascends. We know only that he ascends in the midst of his disciples. So, if you don’t want to have some serious explaining to do, you might not want to mention the Ascension outside of your community of faith.
Because, let’s be honest, the ascension does not exactly resonate with our cultural sensibilities, does it? It does not make a whole lot of cosmological sense. In fact it sounds rather nonsensical in our post modern context. More like the last act of Seussical than the last piece of our most foundational story. We were talking yesterday in our vestry retreat about the difficulty of living in the realm of this mysterious paradox that is our Christian faith. How difficult it is to describe and explain to our kids these wholly inexplicable foundations of our faith: the virgin birth, the resurrection, and especially the ascension.
And it’s not just our common sense that is challenged by the ascension. Some of our most basic notions of who we are as Christians are also challenged by this sacred event. Like the notion that God is…..up there. That Jesus lives…up there. That notion seems to sort of contradict the doctrine of the living God, the one who walks with us….here and now. And it complicates our Christian mandate, the one that challenges us to see Jesus in every human face…down here and now. Literally, not figuratively.
And so as we celebrate the Ascension, some of us may well be asking: so, is the living God with us here and now, or up there….somewhere in heaven? And if Jesus has gone up there, some of us may want to know where that is, exactly.….just how far up there has ne gone? In the clouds? Beyond the clouds? And does this mean that heaven is full of bodies? Physical bodies? Heaven was so much more easily described and accepted before the physical Jesus came into the picture. A heaven full of souls is much easier to reconcile with our inquiring minds than is a heaven full of flesh and blood. We just can’t go there…..literally or with our inquiring minds.
Nevertheless, the ascension is critical, central even, to our Christian theology. For starters, the ascension is the last element of the paschal mystery, and it is the last piece of the Jesus story. Further, it is the pre-curser, the prequel, if you will, to the second coming of Christ. Christians (and I used the term doctrinally) believe that Jesus will one day come back down from heaven in the same way that he was carried up to heaven at the ascension. It says so in Luke’s Acts.
And yet, as important as this event is in our faith tradition, the ascension is only recounted by one Gospel, only in Luke in our holy scripture. No one else even mentions it. And even in Luke it gets precious little space, ever so briefly described in Luke’s Gospel, and then it is augmented with a bit more detail in Luke Acts. These two accounts must have been written several years apart. Because, although they are both thought to be written by the same author, oddly, they have some substantive differences. In the Gospel account, which we just heard, Jesus seems to have some agency in his ascension, he “withdraws” from the disciples before he is carried away, and all of this happens in the context of his blessing them. But by the time that Luke wrote the Acts, his memory had shifted and Jesus is simply yanked up in the middle of a teaching, and two robed angels descend to explain to the disciples that this Jesus will return to them, later, in this same way…..the foundation for the expectation of a second coming. But in both accounts, Jesus ascends to God….up to God. Jesus is lifted to God…up to heaven.
This notion that salvation is up, is among the most tangible differences separating traditional Christian and Jewish theology. The ascension of God versus the descension of God. It is worthy food for faithful thought, and a very reasonable question for we who grapple with our understanding of God and how God works in our lives and in our world. Is ours a God who lifts us up to God’s own divine level, as our Christian theology more than implies….. or is ours a God who comes down to join us, to partner with us in our own work in creation, as Jewish theology decries ? Was Jesus just an incarnational blip in the pan that ended with his ascension back to heaven, or is God still, here and now, among us? Is our hope to rise up out of this world, to transcend this world in the end, or is it that transcendence might descend down into our earthly lives as we live? Is salvation an escape from or an embrace of this fleshy life? Do we experience God as contracting into the realm of reality, or saving us from the realm of reality? These are the seemingly contradictory meta narratives that define the traditional theologies of Jews and Christians, the descending and ascending God, respectively.
In Hebrew, the mystery of that contraction of God, of the space that is created when God contracts down to meet humanity, is called tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is just about the opposite of ascension. It is the idea that the true home of the divine is not up there, but down here in this world. It is the understanding that our sanctuary is not in some other world, apart and separate from our mortal lives, but in the very fabric of our every day lives. And I must admit that this theology of contraction is aligned with my own experience of the way God works in this world, much more…..authentically, than does the seemingly disjointed, uncomfortably triumphalist theology that God lifts Jesus from our midst to….a heaven that is altogether beyond our reach.
And I am wondering why the resurrection was not enough. The ascension feels sort of like the fly in the theological ointment for me.
And sometimes when I think of the ascension I remember that old joke:
…about the routine police patrol parked outside of a local bar one summer night. After last call the officer notices a man leaving the bar so apparently intoxicated that he can barely walk. The man stumbles around the parking lot for a few minutes, with the officer quietly observing him. And after what seems an eternity in which he tries his keys on five different vehicles, the man manages to find his own car and he falls into it. He sits there for a few minutes as a number of other patrons leave the bar and drive off. And finally he starts the car, he switches the wipers on and off—it’s a fine, dry summer night – he flicks the blinkers on and off, he honks the horn, and finally he turns on the lights and moves the vehicle forward a few inches, reverses it a few inches, and finally, when his is just about the only car left in the parking lot, he gets the car into gear, pulls out, and slowly proceeds down the road. The police officer, having waited patiently all this time, starts up his patrol car, puts on the flashing lights, pulls the man over and administers a breathalyzer. To the officer’s amazement, the breathalyzer indicates no evidence that the man has consumed any alcohol at all! Dumbfounded, the officer says, I’m going to have to ask you to come with me down to the police station. This breathalyzer equipment seems to be malfunctioning.’ The man smiles at the officer and says: I doubt it. I am the designated decoy.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that Jesus is the designated decoy…..per say. But I am saying that sometimes what we believe to be true is more a reflection of what we expect to be true, than what may actually BE true. We have this account of Jesus being carried up to heaven. And maybe we need to hear this story with new ears. If we continue to hear this story of Jesus’ascension through ancient ears….through the world is flat ears…..through God is up in the dome ears….we will take this story to mean now, what it meant then; which is that God resides elsewhere…above us….and reaches down to pull us up to God’s divine eternity. But maybe, just maybe, as with myriad other points of scripture that no longer jive with our experience – maybe the story of Jesus’ ascension is not about the absolute of where God is and how God works, but about our own particular expectations of salvation.
The ascension as a theology that meets our own expectation of salvation. As I think about that sentence in this contemporary context, in this 21st century world in which we live, I think the word that is most out of place with our cultural sensibilities is not ascension, but salvation. Maybe the ascension has few teeth these days because salvation has little traction as a relevant concept in our modern world. The dream of salvation seems to have been replaced by the craving for connection in our modern world. We are no longer seeking to be saved from this mortal coil, but more connected to it and within it. Maybe Jesus is not assuring us of our eventual escape from this fleshy life, but the start of our connection to each other as messengers of the Gospel. Maybe the point of the ascension is not a promise for the future but a handing off of the work today. Not too will be saved, but go now and connect with each other as I have connected with you.
And, maybe the message is not that we can hope to escape this mortal coil of pain and suffering and vulnerability, but that we can be steadfastly assured that nothing can be held down when God’s expansive love is at work. Nothing could or would hold Jesus down. Not even gravity. Not any gravity. Today is the day when we remember that there is no grave-ity that cannot be overcome by God. And so up, up, up he goes….lifted in life – not ascended from here, but lifted through here, empowering us to carry on. Inspiring us to carry on. Jesus overcoming everything that ground him into….the ground…that grinds us into the ground. Everything that weighs us down. Everything that drains our energy and saps our strength and conspires to smother our radiance. Everything that keeps us from the unbearable lightness of everlasting being.
This week, Krista Tippett’s guest on the popular public radio series ON Being, is Social Psychologist Ellen Langer. Dr. Langer’s specialty is mindfulness, the ways in which we a can change our very lives by simply, and not so simply, paying attention. And she was talking about the reality of what we can and can not do in this world. And she gave the example of calling a physician friend of hers and asking how long he thought it might take to heal a broken finger with philological means. She asked, could I heal it in a week? Maybe said her physician friend. How about four days. Her friend grumbled and said, that would be pushing it, but possibly. How about three days she pushed. No. he said without question. Not three days. Impossible. Okay, she replied. How about three days and 23 hours?
You get the point. Hew question was about how we identify the line between can and can’t. Where is the boundary of our reality? There must be a point beyond which that which was previously possible, becomes impossible. And likewise, where what was previously impossible, like healing a finger, becomes possible. Where is that line?
Maybe, in our faith story, the ascension is a just that line. The moment when the training wheels come off for the first time. The moment when what was previously impossible becomes……our calling.
The moment when Jesus hands us the keys to the kingdom and says: it is your turn. Go out and build it!
But not to worry, because I will leave the light on.
© June 2014 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw