May 28, 2017 Ascension
The Rev Rod Sprange
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
My wife, Susan, likes to read mystery novels. She loves a good mystery - possibly it’s why she married me. I too enjoy a well written detective story. I love to get involved with the characters, especially in a detective series with characters that you meet in each successive book and learn more about their backgrounds and how their relationships develop. But the main thing is the mystery. And in a great novel the mystery stays a mystery until very near the end of the book or in some cases the series.
There is much in the Bible - especially the New Testament that is full of mystery. Some parts of the mystery are revealed to us as we read on, but some, remain mysteries - and we are left to puzzle over them. I sometimes think theologians are biblical puzzle solvers. But in the end we are left with the reality that we will not get the full answer to God’s mysteries until the end of the series - in this case the end of the age - or put another way when God’s vision for the world is fully realized with the completion of God’s Kingdom. - the new creation.
So it can be a bit frustrating to read about the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus because both are full of mystery and while we are given clues to understanding some of the mystery - we have to accept that this may be as far as we are able to grasp for now. We can either find this frustrating, or give thanks that the final revelation of the mystery of God still awaits us.
When we finish a very good mystery we may feel relieved that now it all makes sense - but we may also have a bit of a let down, oh no - it’s finished, I can no longer look forward to another chapter.
With the mystery of God we have a couple of options. We can say to ourselves - “oh well it’s a mystery, I won’t worry about it any more”, or perhaps we can say “What can I learn from what I have read?” The first may be the easier route but does it lead to growth? - does it help us in our Christian journey and formation? The second approach does lead to growth and Christian formation but is more challenging. It means studying, learning. It means discussing and exploring the mystery with others who want to learn and grow. We might ask ourselves and others “How much of the mystery can we unravel that will guide us today?” This is why opportunities like Christian Education sessions and Bible Study groups are so crucial. In any important field of endeavour practitioners are required to embrace life long learning. They can never say “I have enough knowledge and understanding”. Surely it should be the case for the most important endeavour of them all - Christian discipleship.
Scholars and professional theologians and even at times preachers can be valuable to us in this search for understanding and meaning.
One of my favourite New Testament scholars and theologians is N.T. (Tom) Wright. His writing has influenced my theological development and along with others he has helped me to peel a few layers from the onion of the mystery that is God as made known to us in scripture and particularly through the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and the ascension.
In today’s readings from Luke 24 and Acts 1 we are faced with the mysteries of Jesus’s resurrection and ascension: In Jesus’s resurrection just what kind of bodily existence is it, and in the ascension, just what and where is this place we call heaven?
A few verses earlier in Luke 24 Jesus appears to a gathering of his disciples in Jerusalem. In this appearance the disciples are scared that Jesus is a ghost. But he shows them his wounds and even asks for something to eat - spirits or ghosts don’t eat a piece of broiled fish! And yet, he seems able to appear and disappear at will. Well that’s just weird! That’s mysterious.
Then after giving his disciples a job to do (be his witnesses to the whole world, and in his name pronounce repentance for the forgiveness of sins, starting in Jerusalem) he takes them out to the Mount of Olives and while blessing them he is separated from them. Where did he go? Not up into space!
For mystery lovers this is an opportunity to think about both the nature of Jesus’s resurrected body and this realm of God’s that we call heaven.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15 goes to great lengths to try and teach us about the reality of the resurrected body. But most likely, it first needs us to adjust our thinking or imagining about heaven.
Most of us probably developed our understanding and imagining of Heaven as children. It’s where God lives - up there - somewhere. And that’s where we hope to go if we lead the right kinds of lives here on earth.
But that isn’t what the Bible has to say about it. That’s not what the 1st century Jews believed and it’s not what Jesus taught.
In Jewish thought at the time of Jesus, creation had two halves - Heaven and earth - they were two different dimensions of a whole. God’s dimension and ours. God’s plan is for a new creation - new heavens and a new earth, and in this new creation the two dimensions are joined together. No longer segregated - a single reality.
With this understanding it’s a little easier to see how the risen Jesus could be both flesh and bone - and also appear and disappear at will. The risen Jesus is the new Adam, the first in this new creation. His ‘new creation’ body therefore can access both spheres - heaven and earth. When Jesus is described as being lifted up, it didn’t mean so much up into the sky - it meant that he was going to remain in God’s dimension, as Tom Wright put’s it “until such time when everything is renewed and joined together” the second coming of Christ. For now, we can think of heaven as another dimension of creation.
Let’s go back to the ascension story as Luke tells it in his sequel to his version of the Gospel; The Acts of the Apostles. The poor disciples are in a time of transition from disciples (students and followers of Christ) to Apostles (ones sent as Christ’s messengers).
They have been through so much - so many ups and downs, mountain top highs and Good Friday lows. They have been blessed and mystified by the post resurrection appearances. Can you imagine the joy of his friends discovering that The Lord is Risen! The relief mingled with the amazement and, even for them, the mystery of the Risen Christ.
Jesus spends a little. ore time teaching them and then takes them out to the Mount of Olives and then he is gone - somehow disappearing from them. It was such a strange occurrence it is hard for the evangelists to describe. They are dumfounded. Shocked. I can imagine them standing there together - their mouths dropped open - unable to move, looking around and up looking for Jesus. I am sure they were so shocked and disoriented they didn’t know what to say or do.
Then, what seems to me like a touch of humour is brought into the story. Two men in white, which links this to the story of the empty tomb, chastise the disciples. They say something like. “Hey, you bunch from up North, what are you doing with your mouths hanging open looking up into the sky. You’re looking for Jesus, for now he’s been taken from you, but he will return in the same way. Meanwhile, he told you what to do, so stop hanging around here and get moving!”
That’s not exactly how it’s written in scripture - but I think that’s the gist of the message.
The disciples returned to Jerusalem as Jesus had instructed - to await the gift of the Holy Spirit who would support and strengthen them in their task of being Christ’s Apostles, being sent to take the good news of the Risen Christ into the whole world. To tell the world that the Kingdom of God had come near - and that God was establishing a new creation. And they were to invite any who would listen to become part of the new kingdom. They were to preach about and pronounce repentance and forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation. They were to model a new way of being community. And they could do this as the church, because God had given them the greatest gift of all - Christ as the head of the church, and soon the Holy Spirit as their guide.
And my friends, this is what we have inherited - the gifts and the responsibilities. The gift of being part of the body of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But also we have inherited the responsibility to take the message of God’s love to the whole world. Not forcibly, not in superiority, but in humility and sincerity sharing the good news and in the spirit of Jesus’s hospitality inviting others to come and see and to belong. And to do this, not for our benefit but for theirs. Not to fill pews but to fill hearts.
So lots of lovely mystery in today’s readings. Like Susan I also love a good mystery - and the most wonderful mystery is that God loves us, just as we are. And God’s love overflows with creative energy and generosity. Using some of Paul’s words written to the church in Ephesus let us pray:
Holy and eternally loving God, we ask you to give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know you through Jesus Christ, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which you have called us.