Now if language fails us in something so simple as communicating the experience of eating a food in a particular place, just imagine how it fails us when we are talking about the things of the Divine realm! Mystical experiences are downright impossible to transmit in the limited sphere of language. And when we grasp that, we can better understand why some of our Bible stories sound … well … weird. Today’s readings about the ascension of Jesus are just that – weird! Luke, who wrote both the gospel bearing his name and the second volume follow up we call the Book of Acts, is doing his level best to tell us about something mystical in the Divine realm and he’s hamstrung by the limits of language. The gospels of Luke and Matthew all end with Jesus giving a final discourse and John tells of Jesus in conversation with Peter; however, only Luke specifically mentions Jesus’ physical departure. And he uses the imagery which he derives from his Jewish heritage especially the image of Elijah being taken up bodily into heaven by a whirlwind. While we don’t get the whirlwind in this story, we hear he “was carried up into heaven” … and the passive voice reminds us God is behind this action. Of course this has given us all kinds of artistic images of the disciples looking up and Jesus floating away from them.
Former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, remarked upon how we have come to view the Ascension this way:
"Many western Christians have been embarrassed about the Ascension over the years, because they have thought of heaven and earth in the wrong way. We have supposed that the first-century Christians thought of ‘heaven’ as a place up in the sky, within our space-time universe, and that they imagined Jesus as a kind of primitive space-traveler heading upwards to sit beside God somewhere a few miles away up in the sky. And we have told ourselves this story about the early Christians within an implicit modernist framework in which God and the world are in any case a long way away from one another, so that if Jesus has gone to be with God – whatever that means – we understand that he has left us behind, that he is now far away in another dimension altogether. And we have then thought that the point of this story is that we, too, will one day go off to this same place called ‘heaven’, leaving earth behind for good. But this way of understanding the Ascension is, quite simply, wrong on all counts." (“Spirit of Truth” – Rt. Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright, preached Pentecost, 2007 in Durham Cathedral).
This image of Jesus “flying off into ‘heaven’” in conjunction with dispensationalist rapture theology so endemic to our American culture presses upon our deepest anxiety that the disciples, and by extension we, have somehow been abandoned by the Lord and our job now is just to hang out until we can evacuate the planet too. But is that really what Luke is trying to say?
If we take seriously what Luke tells us about the disciple’s response to this event, it seems that abandonment is not what’s happening here. They are not grieving or depressed over this event. Not at all! They went back to Jerusalem rejoicing and were in the temple praising God. Clearly, Luke wants us to know the disciples experienced this event as one of rejoicing and expectation. This is not a replay of the crucifixion. It appears that what Luke is attempting to convey within the limitations of language is that the relationship between the disciples and Jesus had fundamentally changed – it had been transformed. Jesus, the flesh and blood human being who had embodied the fullness of God, was no longer going to be here as he had been. Jesus departed but Christ did not.
We sometimes forget that “Christ” isn’t Jesus’ last name. We would be more accurate to call him Jesus, the Christ. And it is important to make the distinction between Christ, who is a member of the Trinity (yet another mystery where words fail us … come back in a couple of weeks and we’ll talk about that one!) and Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth, the human being who lived in a particular place and time in history. The two are not the same! While they intersected in a particular time and place for a purpose, they are not the same. Christ has always been and always will be. Jesus embodied the Christ for a few brief years in a mystical act of God which bound the created to the Creator through a profoundly redemptive act. And just because Jesus, the historical human being, is no longer with us in the same way he was with his disciples after the resurrection, Christ is still with us, working among us and through us.
This is why we continue to proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again … which is what is depicted in this painting by one of our recently confirmed members, Lee Falk. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again (in Latin in the painting) is the affirmation that the ascension of Jesus has not changed the presence of the Christ among us. We see three verbs in three tenses. Christ has died recalls the historic past event of his death. Christ is risen proclaims the current and continuing reality of the resurrection. Christ will come again is a promise of the future realization of the fullness of the Reign of God to come. In this acclamation, past, present and future collide … perhaps even collapse … into the present – right now. I have heard it said that the definition of eternity is “now” – no past to regret, no future to obsess over – just now. And Christ is present … right here … right now. Contrary to our collective anxiety or just downright bad theology, the ascension of Jesus is Luke’s way of reminding us that while Jesus will not be with us bodily, Christ hasn’t gone anywhere. Christ is still with the disciples. Christ is still with us. And power from “on high” is coming.