Jesus is no longer with us in person. This fact is celebrated in the Church as the Feast of the Ascension, which is today. Luke tells the ascension story twice, once at the end of his Gospel and once at the beginning of his book, the Acts of the Apostles. These were written as connected narratives, and it is somewhat misleading that, in the customary order of our Bible, the Gospel of John is inserted between them. Our reading from Ephesians is about where Jesus has gone to, having departed from our history.
The symbolism of the Ascension is rich and connects with nearly all Christian beliefs. Yet it must be admitted that the doctrine of the Ascension serves a very practical purpose, namely what to think of the resurrected Jesus. Christians can’t quite say that Jesus was raised from the dead when a young man and lived more years to die an old man. Nor can we say that he aged and aged and aged and now has the body and mind of a 2000 year old man. Some have thought that the resurrected Jesus would just stop aging and always be a thirty-something man, or a late-forties man if you take John’s word for it; but then, Jesus would not be raised as a normal metabolizing human being. None of these possibilities for a raised but un-ascended Jesus is compatible with the Christian affirmation of resurrection to eternal life rather than just more life like Lazarus had.
The Christian symbolism of the Ascension took advantage of the first century common belief that there is a stack of different heavens above the Earth, each with its own properties for what abides there. To move to a different level is to take on the properties of that plane. As St. Paul suggested, when we go high enough our terrestrial bodies, which are mortal, become transformed to celestial bodies which do not decay. Jesus himself suggested that there are no gender differences or marriages in heaven. When Luke said that Jesus rose up into the sky to cloud level and beyond, he probably meant that rather literally.
Because we know that you find thin air and then outer space when you go up, not another layer of reality where bodies become immortal, we cannot take the ascension symbolism literally. But we do have to ask about the spiritual meanings of that symbolism. This morning I want to dwell on three important meanings of the Ascension.
First, it means that Jesus is no longer with us in the flesh and that we are left to our own responsibility. Imagine what it would have been like to have known Jesus in the flesh. Although we have only the literary representations of Jesus in the gospels, and reports of Jesus’ effects on other people, we know that he must have been a truly charismatic teacher and leader. Would it not have been wonderful to listen to his words, to ask him our questions, to receive personally his corrections and comforting touch? What a great joy it would have been to dine and party with him! (Remember the wedding at Cana!) According to the gospels accounts, however, after a few post-resurrection meals and conversations, Jesus left.
Then the disciples were thrown back on their own responsibility. They had to organize their movement, think through what it meant to be followers of Jesus, and to deal with the issues of their day. Christians have had that same responsibility down to our own time. What are our issues? First are the issues of social justice about which Christians need to speak a prophetic word and engage in committed action. Our world is bound by an economic system that is highly efficient for producing wealth and maximizing the freedom of those who have it, but that moves money from place to place in order to find the most efficient return and in doing so is mindlessly destructive of cultures and cruel to those it supports on Monday and abandons on Tuesday. How can capitalism be regulated to be fair and kind to all people? Our world’s military situation is dominated by American and European oil interests that have led to two aggressive wars and occupations, unjustifiable by any just-war arguments, and disguised as the promotion of democracy. How can we get out of that? The organization of American society, economically, politically, and educationally, increases the disparity of wealth and opportunity between the rich and the poor, and exacerbates racist attitudes toward African-Americans, Native Americans, and other minority groups. How can this be amended? A strong and sometimes vicious division exists between Americans who want a pluralistic society and those who want a society whose laws and mores reflect a particular exclusive culture. How can this be healed? These are among the main social justice issues of our watch, which are in addition to more local issues and to issues of our own personal righteousness.
Now if Jesus were around today to advise us, he would have an extraordinary authority. In Jesus’ absence, however, we have no divine authority, only the fallible authorities of our teachers. The most important thing to remember about our finite experts and authorities is that we give them the authority, and therefore we are responsible for what they do. Our political leaders rule at our sufferance. Our religious leaders, even when they claim unusual institutional authority as the Roman Catholic Pope does, are to be believed and followed only on our own responsibility for believing and following. In Jesus’ absence, responsibility, even for our religious, moral, and political authorities, rests with us.
The second meaning of the Ascension is that, although Jesus is personally absent, we have his memory. How we interpret our memories of Jesus is a matter of the Holy Spirit, in our Christian symbolism, and next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. I’ll talk about discerning true interpretations then. But now I want to emphasize that we have a very rich and complicated memory of Jesus. We have the scriptures, particularly the gospels. Of course, the gospels don’t always agree, but then our collective memories of what happened yesterday do not always agree. Some memories might be just mistaken. But usually, disagreements in memory come from people seeing the same thing from different angles. So the gospels each lift up somewhat different aspects of the memories of Jesus and we are richer for the diversity. Moreover, we have memories augmented and sharpened through nearly two thousand years of theology about Jesus. These historical memories are especially rich because they come from such different angles of vision, from the rich and the poor, from the educated and the uneducated, from Jews, Greeks, Romans, Europeans of all sorts, Africans of all sorts, Asians of all sorts, and Americans from the South and North. All of these contribute to a vast, if somewhat confusing, tradition of memories that pick up on Jesus from millions of viewpoints.
For people who have never heard of Jesus, this rich tradition might seem wholly novel and startling, a dangerous memory indeed. For those raised in the Christian faith, however, Jesus works his way into our memories in earliest childhood, in songs, stories, and visual illustrations. My deepest memories of Jesus picture him as a very English sort of chap, wearing a brown choir-robe, who likes me because I am a little child and the Bible says so. Now that pre-school memory of Jesus has been significantly augmented by much that I’ve learned since, including the prophetic side of Jesus that is not so tolerant of “anything goes”; nevertheless, deep down I know that Jesus is my friend. Most of our church music, art, prayers, sermons, and religious literature fill in memories of Jesus, so that in this sense of memory, he is still very much with us while being absent in person.
Memory is lodged in our imagination. That we remember Jesus means not only that we can think about him but that our memory of him shapes how we imagine the world. In fact, this is how we know one another in present time. In our interactions, we develop imaginative pictures of one another. The physical stimuli of sight and sound are rarely if ever pure. They are always received in some imaginative frame. Our interactions serve to correct the imaginative pictures we have of one another as the expectations we imagine are either confirmed or contradicted. Another way of putting this is that we respond to one another in terms of the imaginative pictures we have in our own minds, and these are continually modified by our interactions. This is exactly the way Jesus’ disciples responded to him—in terms of what they could imagine him to mean. Time and again he said they got him wrong, and corrected their ways of objectifying him in their mind’s eye. The difference between Jesus’ first century contemporaries and us is that they could get very quick feedback, with Jesus anxious to correct them. We don’t get feedback from a present living Jesus, but we do get feedback more slowly from the scriptural and traditional memories of Jesus. In this sense, just as the objective picture of Jesus lived in the imaginations of Peter, James, and John, with quick corrective feedback, so the objective picture of Jesus lives in us, however slower the feedback. One meaning of Jesus’ continuing life with us is that we continue to objectify him in our imagination, wonder whether our imaginative objectifications are valid, and imagine how he would advise us, touch us, comfort us, in our own issues. So the Ascension means that the Jesus with personal subjectivity has left us, but the Jesus who lives in the objectified imaginations of those who remember him and look to him as a present companion has remained with us. This Jesus is our friend.
The third meaning of the Ascension is that the subjective Jesus has left historical temporal life and entered into eternal life. Moreover, we shall do that too. Eternal life is hard to comprehend from the perspective of temporal life. It always seems like a phantom double of temporal life running alongside on a different plane. This is how we commonly imagine heaven, a place like this one, contemporary with ours, but without pain, decay, or conflict. Eternal life looks like that we because we try to translate it into the ideas of temporality. But eternal life itself is the far richer concrete reality. It is our portions of the eternal act of God’s creation in which time and space themselves are created. Within time alone, each date of our lives starts as future, comes to be, and passes away. In eternity, all the dates of our lives, from birth to death, are eternally future. All those same dates are eternally in the past. And all those same dates are eternally happening as present. Future, present, and past are all together in God, not in time, of course, but as constituting time’s flow. The temporal life we think we know is merely the abstract part of each moment being lived out as present, one after another. Our eternal identity is in God’s creative act which embraces all times together. And because we are together with one another in that act, and with all the places we have been, our true concrete reality is to be connected portions of the eternal living God, not merely the abstract, merely temporal, rather isolated selves we think we are in time. From the standpoint of temporal life alone, entering into eternity just looks like death. From the standpoint of eternity, death leads to the ascension from merely temporal life to the fullness of God’s eternity. Jesus’ Ascension leads us to look forward to that, while corporately in the church we remain committed to being his body that deals with the temporal issues of our day.
I invite you to celebrate the Ascension, my friends, with three moods deep in the heart of Christian piety. Because Jesus has left, we are responsible for what we do as Christians, with no appeal to special authority. This mood is sober and serious, and it brings home to us just who we are, and how we relate to one another in particular loves of many kinds. Because Jesus is remembered, we can imagine him to be with us in advice, comfort, and touch, almost as if he is with us, although connected to us through books and centuries of traditions instead of direct sight and sound. This mood is the joy of mystical passion, of companionship with Jesus in the Spirit. More of this next week. Because Jesus ascended to prepare a place for us, we know that we have eternal life in God far richer than the present passing days. This mood is the hope for bliss and glory. The sober mood for personal responsibility reflects God’s creation of us in our particular characters. The mystical joy of possessing Jesus Christ in this life reflects God’s incarnation in the creation. The hope for eternal life in God reflects that, in the end, God is in all, and is all there is. May we give thanks for this infinite benefit we have received from God’s hands.