What’s a 21st century, Google Earth-savvy, texting and tweeting, thoughtful and intelligent girl to make of these 2000-year-old stories of Jesus’ being taken up into the sky on a cloud or sunbeam? What are any of us to make of them? Do we just say, “Well, they’re in the Bible, so we have to believe them?” Or, “that’s just religion. You know how crazy those religious types are.” Or, “God did things differently back then.”
How about, “What do you suppose the early followers of Jesus were trying to tell people about their experience of him with this story?” I happen to think that’s a much more fruitful question to explore, which actually has something to do with what happened here this morning, when these three young women said that they would stay open to the questions about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the church, that they believe that God is still speaking and committed themselves to continue listening.
The two passages that Inge read for us–one from the Book of Acts and the other from the Gospel of Luke–were actually both written by the same author, whom we call “Luke.” And in fact, Luke ends his gospel–Volume 1 of his 2-part account–with the story of Jesus taking the disciples out to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, and “while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Luke then begins Volume 2–the Book of Acts–with a slightly different version of the same story, this time saying that Jesus was taken up in a cloud while they were watching, and two men in white robes appeared and asked them why they were standing there, looking up in the sky.
It’s ok that these two stories are a little different. They’re not meant to be newspaper articles, reporting “the facts.” They’re meant to say something about Jesus and about how his followers experienced him after they no longer saw him. He was taken up into heaven, they said. “He ascended into heaven,” the ancient Apostles’ Creed of the Church says, “and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” It was as majestic and powerful and holy an image as they could imagine, for whenever they thought of God now, they thought of Jesus, who had been so full of God for them. Jesus is sitting on a throne in heaven–up in the sky somewhere–right next to God’s throne.
Ever since they’d known him, Jesus seemed to be full of God. He spoke of God like he really knew what he was talking about, like he really knew God. He’d go off into the hills for hours and come back like he’d been plugged into some incredible power source. He’d tell stories and ask questions that made them think and unsettled all their assumptions. He seemed to know himself thoroughly and he seemed to know them better than they knew themselves. And then, of course, there were the healings. He wasn’t afraid to touch anyone or to have anyone touch him. More often than not he’d say it was the person’s own faith that had healed them, not anything he had done. He wasn’t afraid of weird spirits either and would call them out to release their grip on minds and bodies. He was a full human being–who loved to laugh and eat and drink and sing, whose passion for justice and compassion could be expressed in anger and sarcasm. He had a particularly soft spot for people and things dismissed by others, and even death, since it fell within the care and power of God, could be met full-on.
Those early followers looked to Jesus as teacher and friend, but more than that. Peter spoke for them, confessing that Jesus was the messiah. Jesus never claimed that title for himself. If anything, he chose that odd title, “Son of Man,” or “Fully Human One.” Though they didn’t believe it, Jesus told his followers they could be “fully human” too–even doing the things he did, and more.
Then, of course, he died, crucified by the Romans, between two thieves, shaking up his followers’ ideas of who Jesus really was. We thought he was the one to save Israel. But then they did see him again, they did experience him as alive beside them, changed, of course, but still Jesus. They all experienced him differently.
Until the stories we read today, when Jesus appeared one last time to them, told them it was up to them now, that they would receive power from God to be as Jesus was in the world, only in their own way. And he was “lifted up, and a cloud took them from their sight.” He went up into heaven.
The Hubble telescope has sent back to earth remarkable, mind-blowing photographs, not only of unfathomable distances and sizes, but also of mind-bending measures of time. How do we wrap our brains around “20,000 light years away”? Just recently I heard of one picture, I’m not sure if it was from the Hubble or some other device, that scientists think is about as old a photograph as we will get, when the universe was still relatively young, relatively “shortly” after the Big Bang, that initial explosion of light and energy that set the universe into being. Yikes! I’m not sure what to do with that information other than to stand in awe at the mystery and wonder of it all.
You can understand why the ancients thought the gods lived up in the sky. Talk about your mystery and wonder! And their starry nights were far starrier than ours. Plus, storms and wind and rain and snow and sun and all kinds of weather came from “the sky.” So, when they spoke of Jesus–and others from their tradition: Enoch, Ezekiel, Elijah–being taken up into heaven, they were saying that they were going to be with God–up there; into the mystery.
“The final mystery,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is oneself. When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his [or her] own soul?” (De Profundis)
The final mystery is oneself. Modern psychology and brain research are daily discovering more and more about the mystery of the human brain and psyche. If the ancients spoke of Jesus “going up” to be with God, because God surely lived in the sky, where or how might we think about Jesus being now? What if we thought about Jesus–this model or archetype of the human being, charged with energy and full of God–going deep into God whom we experience everywhere, including within ourselves? That’s what one of my teachers, Biblical scholar Walter Wink, writes, that the ascension of Jesus is really the descension of this model or archetype of the fully human one into human consciousness.
Psychologists have discovered that we often project onto others parts of ourselves that we can’t quite deal with. You’ve no doubt experienced that there are people who drive you absolutely crazy, who seem to push all your buttons, but if you’re able to be absolutely honest with yourself, you realize that what drives you crazy in them is actually a quality in yourself that you don’t want to deal with–your perfectionism, or your judgmentalism, or your disorganization, or whatever. It works with positive qualities as well. What we admire in other people is often a quality that we have within ourselves but maybe are afraid to claim it. So we project it outside ourselves, until we are able to recognize it and own it within ourselves.
Wink suggests that that’s what happened in human evolution with Jesus. We evolve not only physically but psychically as well. Jesus embodied the full potential, the full humaneness and even divinity, in a human being, so we could see what that looked like. When he “ascended” into God, that model or archetype of the full Human Being actually entered into the human subconscious, deep within all of us, where it longs to be embodied. From “out there” to “in here.”
Up until the time we become full adults, we project all kinds of qualities onto others–first our parents, then our friends, our heroes and celebrities–where we can take a look at them, see what resonates with us. As we mature, we need to claim those qualities that we will nurture for ourselves. We need to figure out what we will believe, what we “know for sure,” as Oprah puts it, what kind of person we want to be, what purpose we think our lives have.
The disciples saw in Jesus a deep wisdom, the ability to heal and challenge, to call demons out of people, to know what authority was worth following in one’s life and what wasn’t. After he left and they no longer saw him, they discovered that they had those qualities within themselves, that calling up Jesus’ presence in their lives drew those qualities out of them and they could, as he said they would be able to, do what he had done, “and more.”
“The final mystery is oneself.” “Know thyself,” said all the sages from Buddha to Aristotle to Jesus and beyond. To know and come to love yourself, “to be true to your reality as Jesus was to his own,” as the Confirmation question asks, is, to use another of Jesus’ phrases, “the pearl of great price,” the thing worth your best time and effort. You could certainly get a very different impression about what’s most important from school or the media or others– getting good grades, being the best in your sport, getting into the right college, getting the right job, marrying the right person–that’s what’s most important. That’s what will make you happy. But all of that is still outside yourself, up there, out there.
Tal Ben-Shahar, my positive psychology teacher, asked his students at Harvard how many of them could remember the day they received their acceptance letters to Harvard. Every hand went up. And how many of you thought you’d be set, that you’d be happy? All the hands stayed up. So now that we’re into the second semester, you’ve been at Harvard for awhile, how many of you are happy today? All but one or two hands went down. Isn’t that interesting? What they thought would make them happy–”success,” by most people’s standards–actually didn’t have much to do with their happiness.
For what we know, from research, and from experience, is that the quality of our relationships is the #1 predictor of happiness, that knowing and being known and loved, having a sense of gratitude for your life, that being part of something greater than yourself is far more likely to give you a sense of well-being and meaning than success, money, fame, physical beauty, or anything else our culture holds up to us to pursue.
“And while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was taken up into heaven.” Heaven is where God is. Heaven is in our midst, beyond and inside of you. “The implications of these reflections are profound,” Walter Wink writes. “It means we are free to go on the journey that Jesus charted rather than to worship the journey of Jesus…Most important, perhaps, Jesus shows us something of what it means to become human, but not enough to keep us from having to discover our own humanity. We must weave the story, and for each of us the story will be unique.” (Engaging the Powers, p. 139)
“The final mystery is yourself,” Oscar Wilde wrote, and I would add, the real hero’s journey is to discover how God is made flesh in you and in everyone else. Stay open to the fact of God. Be true to your reality as Jesus was to his. Stay open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Be true to the community of people who are willing to offer themselves as vessels of God’s Love and Light in the world, to be the hands and feet, the heart and mind of Christ, which is the true calling of the Church. It is a journey of wonder and mystery, of laughter and tears, demanding everything you’ve got and giving you more than you ever dreamed. I am delighted and honored to be on this journey with you. Amen. And Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark