Monday, 13 May 2013

beam me up Scotty- Ascension


For a long time I had many mixed feelings about Jesus’ Ascension. I never quite understood why Jesus left. It was as if he was “beamed up” to the Starship Enterprise boldly going somewhere else and leaving us down here. I sometimes wonder if the Apostles felt the same way. 
It was pretty obvious that they still needed Jesus’ help. In our reading from Acts the disciples ask Jesus a question. They asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" John Calvin commented on the Apostles’ question and stated that there are almost as many errors as there are words in the question. Keep in mind that Jesus has been teaching them for fourty days after the resurrection, and that is on top of the three years they spent together.  They still had the sense that the kingdom was something that would happen suddenly. The sky would suddenly open up and the kingdom would fall on them. Jesus spoke about the kingdom being like a mustard bush- a weed that grows and spreads from a single tiny seed. They also still had the sense of nationalism that the kingdom had something to do with restoring the nation state of Israel to the Jewish people, and in the process defeating their political enemies. But the mission of God was to spread the Good News (and therefore the kingdom) across the world.
After such a question could he really leave? It would be like leaving a teenager in charge of the house when you go on a trip. You put emergency numbers on the fridge, you fill the pantry with food, and just before you walk out the door to catch a plane your teenager asks you “You don’t mind if I have a small party while you’re gone do you?” I’m sure most of us would cancel the trip convinced they aren’t ready for the responsibility yet.
But, Jesus goes. The whole group of disciples come and ask him this question, but they should know better. The question shows their ignorance. I want to yell out to Jesus at that point and tell him not to leave them at such an important time. They need more help. They need more training.       

          Sometimes I feel the same way when I look at our world. He’s left, but we need help. We have made the kind of world where factories collapse on people because we want cheap t-shirts.  At times I can feel pretty overwhelmed with the mess the world seems to be in. War. Genocide. People imprisoning people in house. School shootings. We’re destroying our environment. We’re killing each other in increasingly creative ways.  Some have much too much, while others don’t have enough to survive. We’re scared of each other.
Sadly, sometimes the church is a mess too. We’re confused. We argue over all kinds of things. There are politics and power games. It’s easy to come down on governments and factory owners and institutions like the church, but we look into our own lives and we aren’t really all that better. Very few of us really live up to our own standards of what it means to live a really good life, unless our standards are very low.  … Surely we are just as ignorant as the apostles who asked the question. … But he left. He left us in this mess. Surely he must know that we need him with us- so why would he leave?     

The good news is that I misunderstood the Ascension. It wasn’t about Jesus getting beamed up into a spaceship to boldly go where no messiah has gone before. It was not about abandoning us at all. It was about getting closer to us.
By Ascending, Jesus was enveloped in the cloud of the Glory of God. When Jesus ascended, in modern language we might say that he went into another dimension- The dimension of heaven. He entered as a full human being into the dimension of heaven. There he realized his full glory. But, this ascending isn’t about leaving us. The dimension of heaven isn’t on some far distant planet, it is a dimension that overlaps our own.
The Ascension is an enthronement. It is when Jesus entered his full Lordship. It is also he also when he took on his full Transcendence. Transcendence is a word that is used to talk about how “other” God is. God is the creator of the universe and so is beyond the physical universe. God is beyond any of our imaginings about Him. He is beyond our words about him, because He is unlike anything else. If you want to understand Transcendence, contemplate the seeming infinitude of space- The billions of Galaxies- and then think about the being that began it all.  Or think about a being that can create time, or laws of physics (like gravity). Our image of God as the man with the white beard sitting in the clouds is soon blown away.
God’s transcendence can sometimes mistakenly make us feel as if He is not close to us. This is a mistake because His Transcendence is necessary for his immanence. Immanence means that God is close to us. God is intimately near us. As St. Augustine said, “God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves”. God is so close to us he hears the beating of our heart- the blood flowing through our veins- He hears every secret whisper of our mind.
As I said, and it seems like a strange thing, but transcendence and immanence are two sides of the same coin. If Jesus were to stay with us as his resurrected self without ascending he could only be in one place at a time. That means that if he was in a locked room with his apostles, he could not at the same time be with us here at St. Timothy’s. In ascending into the dimension of heaven, Jesus gains the ability to be with us always and everywhere to the very end of the age.  He gains the ability to work simultaneously through Mother Theresa in Calcutta, and Deitrich Bonhoeffer in Germany. He has the ability to be simultaneously present in our Eucharistic meal, and also at the numerous other meals of Holy Communion throughout this city and throughout the world. And in a thousands upon thousands of other ways he is working to transform us and our world. That immanent presence and power of Jesus with us after his ascension is what we call the Holy Spirit. 

An analogy is hard to come by, but we’ll try this. I speak and my voice is limited by my volume, other competing sounds, the acoustics of the building, etc. However, if I use my cell phone, it can change my voice into an invisible reality that can then be heard and received all over the world (depending on the number I call). But for that to happen my voice has to be transformed into radio waves that we can neither hear nor see without having another cell phone to receive the signal. My voice has to ascend into a different way of being before my wife can then receive my call across the city telling her that I love her. Jesus had to ascend to be able to be with us. Though, it is a different way of being.  This was the gift of the Holy Spirit they were to wait for in Jerusalem.
The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is the flipside of the Ascension, and it is only possible because of the Ascension. The Holy Spirit present with the disciples is Jesus’ presence with the disciples. When this gift comes they receive power. This power will enable them to live and teach what he taught. They will act and speak in Jerusalem, but they won’t be limited by the geography or politics of the nation of Israel.  Eventually this teaching will spread to the ends of the earth by the Holy Spirit working through disciples- generation after generation. This is a mission we have inherited. The Holy Spirit working through Christians has brought us this message, and is now empowering us to deliver it into the world, just as the Holy Spirit has done for 2000 years.  
The Book of Acts is sometimes called the “Acts of the Apostles”, but that can be a little misleading. Others have offered to call it the “Acts of the Holy Spirit”, this can be equally misleading. The preacher John Stott suggests the lengthy title “The Continuing Words and Deeds of Jesus by his Spirit through his Apostles”. It is a bit wordy, but it is accurate. I think it would be helpful for us to think of ourselves this way as the church. The church is continuously speaking the words and deeds of Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus entered as a human being into Heaven, but he has not left us. His presence is different, but he has not left us. The Ascension is about him getting closer to us, not further away. Because of his ascension He hears every quiver of pain in our heart. And he stands as a fellow human being holding our pain and sorrow before God’s open heart. He also pours out on us healing and power through His Holy Spirit to do his work here.   

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