Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Ascension- why didn't he stay?




The cell phone is an amazing invention. I can speak or whisper into a little microphone in my cell phone and it will transform my speech into a radio wave that can be sent to my brother’s phone in Vancouver, or just about anywhere else on the planet. When my brother lived in London, England, I could speak to him as if he was standing right in front of me. But there is a strange transformation that has to happen to my voice in order for my brother to hear it. My voice, which is audible to those standing near me, has to be transformed into radio waves, which are invisible and inaudible. In fact my voice becomes completely imperceptible when it is transformed into radio waves. If you came from the past and saw me speaking into my cell phone you might think I was crazy. And I would not help them to think I was sane by explaining that my voice was being transformed into invisible radio waves and sent half-way across the planet to someone else with a little plastic rectangle who would then be able to transform it back into sound waves and hear me. If my brother in Vancouver wants to hear my voice it ironically has to be transformed into a state that can’t be heard.

I think about that when I think about the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus was visible and audible. He was with his disciples for 40 days after he was resurrected from the dead. He met with them, they touched him. They ate with him. They heard him teaching. Then we read in Acts “… as [the disciples] were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). At that point they didn’t see him, they didn’t touch him, and they didn’t hear him (at least not by way of his vocal chords). Judging by the usual human senses, Jesus was gone. I remember the first time I read about the Ascension and being really quite confused by it. I couldn’t understand why Jesus left. Why wouldn’t he stay with us? The world is such a mess, why wouldn’t he stay and help?

What I didn’t get was that the Ascension isn’t about Jesus leaving, but about him becoming much more present to us. Just as my voice is limited by my volume, so experiencing Jesus was limited by his physical presence. And as my voice is able to extend across the world when it is transformed to radio waves, so Jesus is able to be much more present when he transcends the physical world and enters the dimension of heaven. 
As Jesus enters into transcendence he becomes more immanent. “Transcendence” means out there, beyond, and other. “Immanence” means close, intimate, and experienced. When Jesus enters into heaven he becomes more “transcendent”- we can’t see him, we can’t hear the vibrations of his vocal chords, and we can’t touch him. … But, because of his “transcendence” he is now “immanent”. Before his Ascension only those physically around Jesus could experience him. If he was with his disciples in Jerusalem he wasn’t in Nazareth, or China. But after his Ascension, after entering into the dimension of heaven, he was no longer limited by time or space and so was able to be present by his Spirit to disciples in Jerusalem, Nazareth, China, or wherever. And so Jesus’ ascension was not about Jesus leaving, but about Jesus being with us in a more intimate way, and being with us no matter where we are. So if you were a disciple watching Jesus be enveloped by the cloud of God’s glory as he entered heaven you would have seen less and less of him. But, from Jesus’ point of view, as he was enveloped by heaven, he would have seen more and more of humanity.

As Jesus entered heaven, he brought something with him that he didn’t have before he was born to Mary. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, “The ascension of Jesus in this context becomes a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life”.[1] On the heavenly throne of the universe sits a human being. When Jesus entered heaven he did not cease to be human- Jesus took his human body with him. It has been said that there are five man-made things in heaven- the wounds on the body of Jesus- his hands, feet, and side. Jesus brought his physical body, scars and all, into the very heart of God. The human at the heart of God is one who understands what it is like to live as a human being- to know hunger, and sadness, grief, and loss, betrayal, and temptation. The one sitting on the throne of the universe knows our problems.

The ascension is, in a way, the flip side of the incarnation. In the incarnation God became human- He became a little baby. In the Ascension, human flesh was made divine- human flesh exists in the very heart of God. And the more you think about that the more amazing it seems. It is not just the glorification of Jesus, but the glorification of human nature. The end point of human development has been reached in Jesus. And, in a sense, God wants us to be like him. We are to become like the ascended Jesus. The 3rd century church father, Athanasius, once said, “God became man that man might become God”.[2] Certainly the statement has to be understood rightly and read in context. We are not to become God as Jesus is God, but he does mean that in the adoption of human flesh into God’s self, that the way is opened for human beings to follow him and reflect God's image more fully than before the Ascension. There is a long tradition of human beings desiring and learning to be more and more like him- a process that is often called “theosis”. “Theosis” means becoming like God, or coming into union with God. When we are baptized the goal that is spoken over us is to mature into the “fullness of Christ” this is what is meant, and so this is God’s goal for all baptized Christians.

This process of becoming like God is possible because Jesus ascended and then sent the Spirit to guide us and empower us. Through the Spirit he can guide and teach us. When you compare the Apostle Peter in the gospels to Peter in the book of Acts when he is empowered by the Spirit the transformation is obvious- they hardly seem like the same person. Peter is healing people and whereas he once denied Jesus because of fear of the authorities, now he is boldly proclaiming the message of Jesus even to those authorities. The Spirit empowered them to spread his message across the known world. Paul speaks about going to Spain, though we don’t know if he got there. We do know he made it to Rome and proclaimed the message of Jesus right in the heart of the Roman Empire. Thomas is said to have gone to India to share the gospel. Despite the danger, the disciples of Jesus were boldly going to the ends of the earth to proclaim the message of Jesus- that he is Lord and sits on the throne of the universe. The Spirit transformed the disciples from a frightened group hiding behind closed doors, to openly proclaiming Jesus as the true king of the world and performing miracles in his name. They proclaim this message despite the danger of competing with the claims of Caesar, who was also considered “Lord” and even in some way “divine”. The Ascension was the enthronement of Jesus. The disciples boldly proclaimed that Jesus was sitting on the throne of the universe, not Caesar.

That same Spirit is available and active within us. Jesus is still reigning over the universe. The Kingdom of God is still present and growing. And we are still called to be agents of Jesus, showing his love and proclaiming his reign. He engages the world often through us. His reign over situations is often expressed through us. When we see injustice we stand against it as representatives of a kingdom that is reclaiming territory against the chaos that has temporarily and destructively taken control. In taking a stand for our King and his kingdom we may endure hardship and suffering, but our king can sympathize with us and has also endured human suffering. The suffering will have an end, and the ultimate end will be a world where Christ reigns in love. In every area of our lives, we are invited to live like Jesus is on the throne of the universe, and we are empowered to mature to be more and more like our king as his kingdom is proclaimed and grows.



[1] http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/883/a-sermon-by-the-archbishop-of-canterbury-at-the-ascension-day-sung-eucharist
[2] “On the Incarnation”

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