Welcome to this Easter celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Easter is a festival that has many layers of meaning, all of them valid in their contexts. The most obvious comes from its name. The term “Easter” comes from the name of the Saxon goddess “Eostre” who presides over the spring equinox. Christianity gave new meaning to her name but retained the old meaning of the celebration of spring, the emergence of crops, new life, renewal, and the return of the Red Sox. If Easter means nothing more to you than a rite of spring, that is still a powerful meaning and worth much celebration, especially in Boston’s climate.
Another level of Easter’s meaning is that the events around the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ changed history. Christianity has become an astonishingly powerful force in history, now affecting all cultures and lands.
The cycle of seasons and the course of history relate to the passage of time in a horizontal direction, so to speak. A vertical dimension of the resurrection of Christ is also important, and surely more important from the standpoint of salvation. In our gospel text from John this morning, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene when she visited the tomb. She thought at first that he was a gardener in the cemetery. When he called her name, however, she recognized him, exclaimed a familiar title, “Rabbouni,” and reached to embrace his feet. But Jesus said “do not hold on to me.” Titian has a powerful painting of kneeling Mary stretching out toward Jesus who is bending away out of reach.
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to the brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” For John’s gospel, the resurrection was only the first step on the way to Jesus’ union with God in the ascension. Whereas Luke said that Jesus’ ascension took place forty days after the resurrection, John rushed things. John said that Jesus commissioned the disciples and breathed the Pentecost breath into them on the evening of the very day of resurrection. For John, the issue was less what would happen next, the horizontal dimension, but what was happening now to bring Jesus to God, the vertical dimension.
The salvific significance of Jesus’ ascension is that he takes us with him. Remember, earlier in John’s gospel he had told the disciples that he was going to the Father where he would make a place for them. This point is accentuated in our text for today in which Jesus says he is ascending “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus’ ascension, of which the resurrection is the first step, establishes a connection with God that we all can share.
Now, the ascension language, going up to God in heaven, is more problematic for us today than it was for Jesus’ audience who believed that God really did reside very high in the sky in or beyond the highest heaven. Most people in the ancient Mediterranean world believed that there was a stack of heavens or planes of existence above the Earth, as well as a stack of hells beneath. Each heavenly level has its own natural properties, according to that belief, with those closest to the Earth being rather physical like our plane and the higher ones more ethereal or spiritual. When a being traverses from one heaven to another it changes physical properties to fit the new heavenly layer. Paul, for instance, said that Jesus left the highest heaven with God and descended to Earth where he took on the fully human form of a slave, and then returned to God; Paul also said that in our resurrection we shall go to a high enough heaven that our mortal bodies will be immortal. Probably in John’s idea of Jesus’ resurrection, his body was already being changed so that it could not be handled easily, and he could pass through closed doors. We don’t share this worldview about levels of heavens.
What then can the ascension mean to us? It means that we must supplement our account of temporal life with an account of eternity. The vertical dimension is eternity which intersects with time at every moment on the horizontal dimension. Ordinarily we forget about the eternal dimension and concentrate on the hopes and fears of the temporal. The temporal dimension of life is fully complicated enough to occupy our whole attention. All the problems of living manifest themselves in things we should appropriate or put aside, in things to enjoy or loathe, in projects to strive to accomplish or evils to deconstruct. Taking care of family and friends, working out careers, caring for the Earth, making peace, pursuing justice, keeping our health, passing on culture, and preparing new generations are all meaningful projects. And yet by themselves, even taken all together, they do not give ultimate meaning to life. Our projects are nearly always somewhat incomplete, and ambiguous in their consequences. If we are only our projects, we are worth only what they are worth, and they pass away, most soon to be inconsequential. The religiously-motivated effort to find ultimate meaning in worldly success usually turns sour and we secretly harbor resentment that life in the long run, as Thomas Hobbes said, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Even the most successful of us fears that successes do not add up to ultimate meaning. Fear and resentment lead to alienation from the eternal God who creates our world this way. Even our religion, which employs the symbols of temporal action and success, shows itself to be a fiction if interpreted in merely temporal terms: God has not made a perfectly just world despite promises, nor brought us into a satisfying glorious history.
So, the human problem of time and eternity is that we look to time to do what only eternity can do. Then, frustrated by that failure, we alienate ourselves from eternity, blinding ourselves even to its reality. Jesus calls us back to the eternity within our midst, our eternal relation with God. He teaches that within time, we need to learn the eternal lesson to love one another, with all the social and political justice and peacemaking elements required for that love. In the dimension of eternity, which is in every time, we need to learn to love the God who gives us this ambiguous and fragmented temporal life. God is our Father, the creator of all of us together. We come to love God by appreciating how God’s love both creates us and gives us the resources to love God and one another, even when resources for other things in time are short. Most particularly, we come to love God by seeing how precious Jesus is, how lovely. He is lovely in loving us and in loving God. He is lovely in his teachings and in his ministries. He is lovely in his acceptance of the evils and frustrations of the world, accepting even crucifixion as somehow a gift of God. When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, we were in agony at the destruction of his loveliness. When he was buried we were in despair at the extinction of his beauty. When word comes of his resurrection and ascent to the Father, we look for Jesus and see the eternal God in whom we live and move and have our being. The astonishing new reality symbolized by Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to God in heaven is that we are offered the opportunity to live openly in the eternal dimension of life as well as the temporal.
Look again at the logic of Jesus ascending. It means first of all that he is leaving the temporal world. After a few appearances at the merely resurrected plane of things, Jesus will leave forever. So Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him. She could no longer be dependent on him as she had been before. And we too do not have Jesus personally with us as our temporal guide. Like Mary, we have to continue our temporal lives with all their projects, successes, failures, and ambiguities. For this, Jesus told the disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit to be our guide. The Spirit on the one hand helps us to understand Jesus’ love as the guide for our love of neighbor and God, and on the other hand helps us to keep in touch with divine eternity when historical things go bad, as Jesus said they would. See John’s gospel, chapters 14-17, where these points are spelled out. (That’s an assignment: this is a university church, you know!) The point is that we are responsible for our own lives within both time and eternity, guided by the Holy Spirit but responsible for identifying that Spirit among all the evil ones. We are no longer under tutelage to Jesus as slaves of the master: Jesus now calls us friends.
Our eternal lives to which Jesus leads us are lived in the infinite fecundity of God’s eternal life. We each have our moments from birth to death, and each of these is an intimate part of God’s creation. We do not need more moments, or different moments, because each of them is part of the infinite worth and glory of God. When we see that each and every one of our moments, with all we do and suffer, is part of the infinite glory of God, we have an ultimate meaning that cannot be compromised by anything the world can do to us, even crucify us. We will die, of course, but that does not matter in light of the eternal life we have in God, no matter how short that life is in time.
The astonishing result of this new realization of eternal life is that we can return to the projects of our temporal life with perfect freedom and absolutely full commitment. Our ultimate reality in God has nothing to lose by risking itself in the dangerous causes of justice and peace, in the struggles for excellence and creativity, or in the fragile commitments of love and friendship. With abandon we can embrace our lives and the issues peculiar to our watch in history, because our ultimate salvation and meaning is in the eternity of God’s life, not in our success or failure in history. Because Jesus, raised and ascended, has brought us to the eternal Father in love, and because we abide with him now and always in that divine eternity, we fly through time on eagles’ wings. Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!