“In progressive churches like ours,” my friend Mike Piazza writes, “we don’t feel compelled to take these stories [like the Ascension of Jesus] literally, though we do try to take them seriously.” (Facebook post, 5/15/15] To take this story literally requires that we adopt the triple-deckered view of the universe of the ancient world, with heaven at the top, hell or the place of the dead at the bottom, and earth where we live our lives in the middle. There was only one “up,” because it was also a flat earth, which except for some climate change deniers and a few others, nobody much believes today.
“Of course,” Mike writes, “even a cursory glance at a globe tells us that ‘up’ for Jesus is a very different direction from ‘up’ for those of us living on the other side of the world.” If we were to be taken “up”–to “blast off” as Jesus did in this story, we’d end up in a different place than he did….which calls into question what it means to “go and be with Jesus.”
You see how silly it becomes, but this up and down language has crept into our current language and even our psyches. We talk about “the Man upstairs” or going “down there.” “The problem is that part of us knows what isn’t true,” [Piazza] which just adds to our discomfort about talking about any of this stuff, especially publicly. “Up there,” we know, are the stars and galaxies and black holes. “Down there” is a molten rock center. So where and how does God fit into all this and what do we do with this story of the Ascension of Jesus?
One commentator suggests that the Ascension is much more of a church question than it is a Jesus question. [Texts for Preaching, year A] In telling the story of Jesus, including his death and resurrection and his appearances after that to his friends and followers, what were the early followers to say when people asked, “So where did he go after he had breakfast on the beach with you?” As any good mystery writer knows, there is the challenge of addressing the question, what do we do with the body?
Neither Matthew nor John feel compelled to solve that mystery. Matthew simply has Jesus tell his followers that he will be with them always, to the end of time, and John ends his gospel with Peter and Jesus and the beloved disciple, presumably John, walking on the beach, and the writer saying that Jesus did so many more things that the whole world couldn’t contain the books telling of them. Mark’s gospel originally ended with the women running away from the tomb, terrified and telling no one, which was totally unsatisfactory to those who came after; so an additional ending was written in, which included a hasty report that after speaking to his disciples, Jesus was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.
It is only Luke who makes a big deal of the ascension, ending his gospel, part 1, with Jesus’ withdrawing and being taken up, and then beginning his gospel, part 2 [the Book of Acts] with a different story of Jesus being taken up in a cloud, out of their sight. “Men of Galilee,” the two men in white robes suddenly standing beside them ask, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Luke writes the book of Acts to make clear that following Jesus is not just a spectator sport. We don’t get to be merely “admirers of Jesus, and in our better moments inspired to imitate him,” as Eugene Peterson writes in his introduction to Acts,[The Message] The book of Acts tells the story of how Jesus’ followers–as clueless and fickle and cowardly as any of us–became so energized and filled with what only could be called the same Spirit and Power of God that was in Jesus, that they literally changed the world. We who gather here this morning are living testimony to that.
Ascension Day is sometimes celebrated with a release of balloons or a flock of doves, which is dramatic and often beautiful, but we run the risk of being like those early disciples whom the angels asked, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Whether Jesus was taken bodily up into the clouds, or whether he descended into our collective unconscious, as Walter Wink suggested, or whether he went to be “with God,” which is the point of the Ascension story, or whether he still walks the earth in an infinite variety of disguises, it is clear that all of these meanings require that we “let go” of Jesus, let go of the time- and body-bound Jesus, let go of our limited understandings of him, our presumptions that we an know all about him, let go even of thinking of thinkiong we have to be “like him.” Each of us has to live the life given to us, in our own unique fashion, though shaped and informed by the life of Jesus of Nazareth, embodying his spirit in individual and collective ways. We are still in “this world,” which God continues to love. “God loved the world so much that God sent the Son,” we remember from John 3:16, but God continues to love the world and sends us to convey and incarnate that love. “I do not ask you to take them out of this world,” Jesus prayed in that great final prayer in John’s Gospel,” but I ask you to protect them from evil.”
You may have heard of –or even read–the apocalyptic novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins entitled, “Left Behind” – all about what happens after God has “raptured” the true believers out of the world. Episcopal priest Mark Davis has entitled his weekly blog and translation of the gospel text of the week, “Left Behind…and Loving It.” We are those who, indeed, are left behind after Jesus’ first coming,–after he went to be with God– and so we are the ones now through whom God so loves the world.
But there are things we need to “leave behind” too, things we need to let go of. So many of Jesus’ stories were about letting go–selling all that you have to give to the poor, as he told the rich young ruler; finding the pearl of great price worth everything you have; leaving the oxen untried, the investment not examined, even leaving the dead to bury the dead when the invitation to the wedding feast is issued. Jesus’ death on the cross, of course, was the ultimate “letting go,” the ultimate self-emptying. “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus had said, and in this ultimate losing of life on the cross, he opened up to the ultimate finding of it in resurrection life.
“There’s really no other way to do this [writes Nancy Rockwell]: to rise into eternal life, to transcend the limits of mortality, to move forward into time, beyond time– than to let go.” [Bite in the Apple, 5/10/15] Over and over, as I have talked with folks who know they are close to the time of dying, it is not so much the letting go of the physical body that is hard–in fact, for many, that feels like a relief; but it is the letting go of the presence of loved ones that is difficult. And so, how often do we hear of someone holding on to life until all the necessary good-byes have been said, the estranged son or daughter has come to the bedside, all the grandchildren have been present one more time. Or, just as often, the letting go happens when the loved ones have given their assurances that, however difficult, they are willing to let go, they will not hold their loved one back.
The story of the Ascension of Jesus is a story of letting go–letting go of limiting the power and presence of God to one man or one way of being Church, letting go once again of our old notions of endings. They had “lost” Jesus once, those first, close friends of his thought, when he died on the cross, and then, Good God, he was alive once more in their midst, in a new way; and now another kind of ending or death, an ending of his being with them in that resurrection body. “And they know [now, as Nancy Rockwell writes] that, when an ending comes, along will come a new beginning. Nothing is final. Yet, nothing will ever be the same again, either.” [ibid.]
Jesus has gone to be with God–that unity which he experienced so clearly in life–”I and the Father are one”–that unity is even deeper now. For those first companions and followers, their experiences of the Divine took on the face and likeness of Jesus. He was still with them, but in a new way. Nothing would ever be the same again, either. So it is when a loved one dies. They too have gone to be with God, and sometimes when we experience God’s presence, it is with that loved one’s face.
“Let it go.” How interesting that that’s the song from the Disney movie “Frozen” which has been sung over and over by little kids and pre-teens until their parents can’t stand to hear it anymore… except that with some distance even adults can affirm its theme of letting go of others’ expectations that limit and hinder your own gifts and potential to spring forth. “Let it go.” What is ti that you need to let go of? An old self-image? A grudge or bitterness? A notion of what would make you happy? A past that will never come again? A prejudice or fear that keeps you from experiencing new people, new ways of being?
“In the end, only three things matter,” the Buddha said. “How much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of the things not meant for you.” Surely those words are in the same stream of wisdom as Jesus’ teaching, including “into your hands I commit my spirit…” “Let it go.” It is the stream of mercy and love that carries all of us and our loved ones and all of creation, for that matter, so that indeed, Jesus’ prayer – “that they may all be one” – will be fulfilled as we let go into God. Unclench your fists. Open your hand so that God may take you forward.
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark