South African minister Peter Woods tells this story–
When European missionaries came to South Africa, they were faced with a theological conundrum. The indigenous people…believed that ‘God’ who they named [various names, including] The Biggest One,…and The Way-opener lived in the ground. Caves and holes were sacred spaces, which is why they were adorned with lithographs, which in turn were animated by flickering fire in the caves. To this day the traditions of Africa see their beloved dead buried in the kraal (corral). When an African is facing life’s challenges, a sacred ritual is to return to the kraal at one’s home and pour the froth of traditional beer into the earth before asking advice of the ancients who are buried there amongst their cattle.
The European missionaries were creed bound [–”…he was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. On the third day, he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead…–] to teach that God lived in the sky, and also that there was a place called hell (which African cosmology had no reference or need for) deep in the earth. The way they did this ‘preaching’ was to literally turn the psyche of Africans around from the God of the deep to the God of the sky, thus creating a deep tear in the soul of Africans who were already, by their very nature, profoundly theistic people.
What the missionaries did not have the insight to examine in their time was how they, as Westerners, had come to believe in the God of the sky.”(I am listening, blog–5/11/10-“Up, up and inside!”)
They came to believe in the God of the sky because they, like so many others, thought the earth was flat, with the sky as dome over the earth, from which life-giving rain came and the stars and sun and moon moved across that dome eternally, like the gods, so “up” was the direction of the immortals. “What if,” Woods asks, “the African imagery were correct and Jesus came from God who lives in the earth and then re-descended?” Would we treat the earth more kindly and reverently?
In the Christian tradition, Jesus appeared to his followers for 40 days after being raised from the dead on Easter morning. On the 40th day, it is said, he was taken up to heaven in a cloud, i.e. he “ascended,” where he sits at the right hand of God. 10 days later the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ followers and set them on fire. That’s Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate next Sunday.
If you listened carefully, however, to our two readings this morning from Luke and Acts (both written by the same author whom we call Luke), the gospel reading says that Jesus was “taken from their sight in a cloud” on Easter evening, in Bethany. The Acts reading says it was 40 days (or a long time, or as long as was necessary) when Jesus “was lifted up and taken out of their sight on a cloud.” Same author, different accounts. Clearly this wasn’t intended to be a documentary, but rather a testimony of faith.
Jesus wasn’t the first or only person in the bible to “ascend,” of course. Early on Enoch was said to have walked with God “and then he was no more.” The prophet Elijah, you’ll recall, was taken up into heaven in a firey chariot pulled by horses, right in front of his pupil Elisha. Various other famous personages in the Roman and Greek world were said to have been taken bodily into heaven, usually accompanied by clouds. It was a way of saying that these great figures were so full of the Divine that their deaths were barely noticeable and they went immediately to “be with God” or the gods.
Ascension Day is a tough sell in the 21st century. It always takes place on a Thursday, and though some churches observe it with balloon launchings and other liturgies, you may have noticed that Thursday came and went here without much fuss about the Ascension of Christ. How far “up” would you have to send a spaceship to reach heaven, and if, say, you launched it from Australia, which way is “up”? We might do better to adopt the African scheme of things, and think of God as down, inside the earth. At least then the people of this planet would know where to locate Divinity.
But the story of the Ascension is an important story. It’s only a problem if we take it literally. It is a way of acknowledging Jesus’ very real death and, as someone has put rather crudely, it solves the problem of “what to do with the body.” But even that is probably too literal. The story of the Ascension of Jesus is a true story, whether or not it actually happened that way.
Walter Wink– great Biblical scholar, teacher, author, advocate for justice and non-violence, who died last weekend–actually wrote of the Ascension as a pivotal and crucial story. In his book, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, Wink writes about how the disciples, who had lived so closely with Jesus during his earthly ministry, not only watched him heal and deal with people, listened to him teach, and then watched how he died, but also realized that they came to experience God when they were with Jesus. They even experienced Jesus’ presence with them after he died, in what they could only describe as his “resurrection body.” “From now on,” Wink writes, “Jesus’ followers would experience God through the filter of Jesus…Jesus, it seemed to [them], had infiltrated Godhead,” (p. 152) that is, he had gone to be with God. He “ascended.”
But that didn’t mean his followers should simply stand on the ground looking up. They had a blessing and an assignment–”Be my witnesses. Do what I’ve done,” Jesus told them. “Men of Galilee,” the two men in white robes asked them, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Before he departed, Jesus told his followers to grow up, not look up. Barbara Lundblad describes a finely-etched woodcut of the Ascension she had seen, and while the disciples are looking up into the clouds, there on the spot that Jesus had just left is a set of footprints in the earth. (Day 1, 5/8/05) Jesus left footprints on the earth–you have footprints to leave as well.
Wink writes, “The disciples experienced the most essential aspects of Jesus’ presence as having remained with them after his death…[The ascension] irreversibly altered the nature of the disciples’ consciousness. They would never again be able to think of God apart from Jesus.” (153)
Wink goes even further to say that the “Ascension was an objective event, if you will, but it took place in the imaginal realm…, [way down deep in our collective unconscious], where the most fundamental changes in consciousness take place.” (Ibid.) We tend to think of “objective” events as being something you can see or measure or take a picture of, but the field of psychology has studied–and maybe you’ve had experiences with– the very real impacts and effects of “inward” events–an emotional experience, a decision, an insight, an inspiration–all these can be life-changing, if not world-altering, and for many of them, you can put a time and place as to when they happened. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur notes that the ascension confirms the belief that what is highest above human beings is what is most inward. (Cited by Wink in op cit., p. 156)
The only term that Jesus is said to have affirmed for himself is Son of Man, or, the Fully Human One, the Human Being, as Wink simply puts it. Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, he not only showed us what that Fully Human One looks like, but, as Wink would say, entered into all our consciousness so that we too might become fully human, should we desire to do so.
The evangelists, Wink notes, are careful to say that the Son of Man, or the Fully Human One, is not God, [“up there”], not the Self [not “just in here”], not the core of reality. The Human Being is only near to God, ‘at the right hand of the Power of God,’ serving to mediate the experience of God to those who desire it.” (P. 155)
Yikes! What in heaven’s name does this have to do with us? “Is the Ascension about gravity or spirituality,” asks pastor Bruce Epperly, “geography or vocation? The point of Ascension [he says] is perspective”–on the world and on our lives. We “gain a vision and mission that is larger than ourselves or our communities.” (Patheos, 5/29/11)
For Thomas Merton, the 20th. Century Trappist monk and author, any one of us can “ascend” to God in prayer and meditation. “[The Ascension] is the feast of silence and interior solitude when we go up to live in heaven with Jesus: for he takes us there, after he has lived a little while on earth among us. This is the grace of Ascension Day: to be taken up into the heaven of our own souls, the quiet peak in the darkness that surrounds God. To live there through all trials and all business with the ‘tranquil God who makes all things tranquil.’” (cited by Carl Gregg, Progressive Christianity on Ascension Sunday, 5/27/11)
You have heard it said–and have perhaps said yourself–that “Jesus died for our sins.” If sin is separation from God, then it could be said that Jesus’ entire life, death, resurrection, and ascension remove the separation. They unit human and divine, opening the way for all who choose to follow. It shows us, as Paul wrote to the church in Rome, that “nothing in all creation–neither death nor life,…not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” It means that God is not just in some far off heaven, uninterested in human affairs, unapproachable except by the appropriate and proper prayers and hymns and offerings. Not only were the followers of Jesus changed, but the story of the ascension says that God was changed, becoming incarnate in Jesus and then receiving the Fully Human One at the right hand of the power of God.
As inspiring and admirable as Jesus’ teachings and acts are, our lives are changed only when something resonates within us that moves us and rearranges us. It is at this depth dimension that the story of the “ascension” of Christ speaks and works its truth. God is powerfully present and alive in human beings who are fully alive, extraordinarily alive, if you will. “Why do you stand here looking up into heaven?” You have footprints on earth to make yourself. May we travel that journey with that Presence, with courage, with joy, with one another. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark