Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have always marked this festival day of the Church Universal. But this year is different because I have two personal stories to share with you, stories I have to this point shared only with two or three other people.
Let’s just be blunt here at the onset and say that the Ascension of Jesus never happened. It is not an historical event. If you or I had been there 40 days after the resurrection of Jesus, we would have no pictures to show and no videos to share on Facebook. Yes, I am well aware of what the ancient creeds of the Church say: “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures, nor of the creeds.
We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. We live in a different mindset: we know the universe is infinite. We know about gravity. Many of us have flown all over the globe and we can each reassure you that heaven does not exist above the clouds.
The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. And although we can’t be sure of his real name or know anything about him, we do know he was not an historian. He was not a scientist. Both of his works are addressed to the same person: Theopholus. The name is a Greek one, like many of the delightful Greek names that Mary likes to read on Sunday mornings. But the name Theopholus means literally “lover of God.” In other words, the books are addressed to the lovers of God, you and me, with the author’s intent that we come to share his deep faith in Jesus and in God.
So, what did the ascension mean for Luke? And, more importantly, what does it mean for you and me today?
I believe that the followers of Jesus experienced God so powerfully when they listened to him that they came to believe that the very presence of God was among them. And this experience of Jesus’ power continued after his death. In fact, these experiences of Jesus were so powerful that they defied logic and description. As these followers searched the Hebrew Scriptures, they found connections with two earlier prophets, Elijah and Elisha, which helped them to build a context for the idea that the Spirit of Jesus continued to act and move among and within them.
If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we have to find another answer. We owe it to our children to give them a faith that can stand the onslaught of scientific discovery and plain old logic. Because if our faith is based only on a miraculous Jesus who ignores the laws of gravity, time and space, how will that help us when we have life-threatening illness? Or dementia? Or suffer the loss of a child? We cannot. Unless we grow in our faith, we will soon enough decide that it is irrelevant and we will abandon it.
Jesus was human, and yet his gift to us continues to give. He continues to reveal to us God in all God’s glory. He also reveals to us our own divine nature and the glory that resides within us. For myself, Jesus matters and his ascension is real even though the story is not literally true. Through his radical love of his enemies, he invites me into the mystery that surrounds me and is part of my very being. Jesus has become, for me, the door through which I am willing to walk into the Mystery of God. For this Mystery I have decided I am willing to die in order to find new life. And that’s because Mystery makes sense to me, miracle stories do not. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being more fully human. He sustains my faith even as he challenges it.
A year ago, on the Saturday before Easter, I had a near death experience in David’s apartment in Indianapolis. As most of you know, that year was the 20th anniversary of my son Christopher’s death, and it hit me very hard. He died at 19, so he has now been gone from me longer than I had him with me. I was sorrowful and grieving every day, though I think I hid it well from most of you. So I am standing in David’s kitchen, chopping carrots for something I was cooking. Suddenly I was not in the kitchen, I was nailed to the cross with Jesus, on the backside of the cross actually, and I was able to whisper into his ear as he was dying, “Lord, I can’t do this any more. I miss my son, and I’ve kept this deep hurt for too long. And now he’s gone twenty years and I just can’t do it any more.” And he said to me, “I understand. It’s okay if you want to go. There is no shame in saying you just can’t do it anymore. You can go if you really want to.” I remember feeling so relieved at hearing this and I told him I wanted to go. And then he indicated that I should raise my eyes and look at what he was looking at before I left. And I saw an entire universe of sparkling stars, so many billions and billions of them. There was a twinkling star for every single human being who had ever been or who would ever come to be. And I saw them as Jesus saw them, in their sorrow and their pain and suffering. It was overwhelming and I realized that this is exactly what Jesus had seen from the cross. And suddenly, his death made sense; he had seen all of us and had decided to trade his life for all of ours. “You see,” he said, “there is no shame in leaving if you simply cannot continue.”
As he said this, a swirling cloud covered the stars and a light began to glow within it from far away. I was being drawn into the light, feeling relief and gratitude that I was done with this life of suffering and loss. There seemed to be a threshold and it was there I paused for second. I looked back at the countless billions of hurting souls and I said, “Wait. I don’t think I should go yet, I think maybe there are some I might be able to help.”
Just like that the vision ended and suddenly I am on the floor with David hovering over me, hysterically calling my name, saying I had no pulse and that he was going to call 911. My arms were in the form of a cross and he was trying to pull me up from the floor. He was yanking on my right hand and I said (or thought) “David, stop pulling! You have to pull the nail out first!” I wondered how someone with so much practical knowledge could ignore the obvious! I had a bump on my head but no other injury and for awhile I couldn’t even speak of it because it was something that defied common sense and there were no words to really express what happened, but I knew then that Jesus had really ascended, and that that’s where all of us are headed.
Luke, in both his gospel and in Acts, is trying to prepare us God-lovers for our own personal arrival of the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that lived and breathed in and with and through Jesus. He wants us to find the same joy those early Christians felt when they realized that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. He wants us to discover for ourselves that we can love as extravagantly as Jesus. And most important of all, he wants us to realize the power we have to bring healing and reconciliation to at least a few of those billions and billions of human souls. Just like Jesus did.
My prayer for each of us is that the truth of the ascension comes to live and breathe and be real to us. May we know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, and may we know the God who is everywhere, even within us when we feel we simply cannot endure. May we love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May we live as abundantly as Jesus lived. And may we always remember that the ascension is an event that never happened, and yet ascension happens every day in every human heart that loves.