Last Thursday, June 1st, the Christian Calendar called for the observance of the Ascension of our Lord or Ascension Day. We Protestants have a very difficult time dealing with the theme of ascension especially after the beginning of space exploration. The literal ascent of a body unaided by any kind of extraneous power is not something we want to talk about or, least of all, preach about. We are too sophisticated to deal with this subject so we have chosen to ignore it, to our peril. The symbol of the Ascension is something we need to recover and reclaim if we are to remain faithful followers of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Of course the literal belief in the Ascension as space travel without a space ship is problematic. I was dramatically confronted with that fact by a 13 year old Armenian youth who attended the church where I taught Sunday School back in 1962. Eddie Marderosian was a very smart young man who kept up with current events, knew a lot about astronomy and otherwise liked to shock my class and disrupt my teaching. Out of the blue, no pun intended, he asked, "I wonder how far has Jesus traveled since the Ascension. If we assume that he is traveling at the speed of light, he has only reached the far ends of our Galaxy, The Milky Way." I think Eddie was more interested in asking his question than on getting an answer so I did not give him an answer but instead I asked him and the whole class, "What do you think?" Not surprisingly, the majority of the class agreed with Eddie and after a while we began to talk more about symbols and their importance and power.
I was still two years away from entering seminary so that names like Rudolph Bultmann and the concept of Demythologization had not entered my consciousness. Yet this conversation with 13 and 14 year old boys and girls did a lot to prepare me to hear my professors with a great deal of interest. I am sure that many older lay persons wish they could ask the same questions but having survived adolescence they censor themselves and do not ask those troubling questions that come up in their minds when stories like the Ascension come up. That is a great loss because many of us pastors and preachers prefer good questions to quiet assent.
Once I got to seminary I read eagerly and listened intently to scholars who had been dealing seriously with the questions Eddie and other teens asked in jest. Yes, the biblical mindset was different from ours. They've really thought that the heavens were not too far up and that people could be taken up there. Jesus was not the first biblical character to be taken up; there was Enoch who never tasted death, and of course there was Elijah who ascended on a chariot of fire. So when people heard the story of the Ascension for the first time, they were not as shocked as we are neither did they wonder how far "up" he had to go. It was generally accepted that the cosmos was like a three-story building. Heaven was a realm behind the visible sky where the sun, moon and stars had been placed by God pretty much the same way one would place light bulbs strategically on the ceiling. This heavenly canopy had windows which God opened at will to let the rain water the earth, that second story of the universe where people, plants and animals existed. Finally, there was the nether world where the negative spiritual forces dwelled. These beings were permitted to go up to the earthly part of the universe to tempt and bother humans who could always pray for angels to come to their assistance and help them overcome the temptations presented by Satan and his hosts.
It is easy to see that with this world vision, the Ascension of Jesus, did not present the same problems for first-century adults as it presented to space exploration teenagers in the 1960's. But a purely scientific reaction to the story might lead young people to dismiss the profound message behind the story. It is easy to see that with this world view, the Ascension of Jesus, did not present the same problems for first-century adults as it presents to space-age teenagers. But a purely scientific reaction to the story might lead young people to dismiss the profound message behind the story. The details of the text would hide the depths of the eternal truths first conveyed with a medium perfectly intelligible to the writers and readers of this document in earlier years from those whose scientific learning, however rudimentary, at 13 or 14, prevented them from taking the story seriously. I believe that we must retain and encourage the annual observance of the Ascension because it is primarily a story that invites us to explore other dimensions of life. The power of this story is not in the details that confound us but in the message that transforms us. This is a story urging us to expand our horizons and widen our perspectives.
Eddie, the young man who asked the embarrassing question in my Sunday School class in '62, was in great company. His question, for all the scientific sophistication that accompanied it, was narrow and parochial. Guess what? It was just as narrow and parochial as the question the disciples asked Jesus a few minutes before he is to ascend. And these disciples had already seen the power of God manifested in Christ through the resurrection! And they had the benefit of having walked with him and listened to his preaching and witnessed his miracles and heard him speak of a Kingdom not like the ones in this world. So what do they ask? "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" This is as parochial and ethnocentric as you can get. Jesus basically ignores the question by reminding them that God is the only one who knows the times and that it is none of their business.
Would that every person on earth could hear Jesus' answer over and over again instead of following those who think that they have figured out when the end of the world will be, when Jesus will return and when Armageddon will take place. Jesus then gives the universalizing task that expands the horizons of the disciples and should also expand our own mindsets and concerns. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Just as the three storied-universe of the first century needs to be explained and understood, so does Jesus' answer need a little explanation. The acquisition of the power of the Holy Spirit will enable us to abandon the parochial questions and concerns which we have asked as humans from the infancy of our race. It is not by trying harder that we will catch the Spirit; rather, the Spirit will catch us and enable us to go where we never thought we could go. Jesus' statement to us through the disciples is leave your comfort zones after you have been empowered by the Spirit. What is the use of stories like the resurrection, the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit if they are kept indoors by us or enjoyed only in private? These are enabling and empowering stories. The question of the disciples is a powerless question, "When will you do this for us?" The answer of Jesus is an empowering answer: "You will receive power...you shall be my witnesses, you will go to places you have avoided before, you will end up in places you have not even imagined or have always feared."
Samaria was to the disciples what the other side of the tracks is for us or worse. Samaria was a place to be avoided. Jerusalem was frightening enough for these Galilean hicks. The urban, multicultural business center of power was a scary place for fishermen and peasants, yet it is there that they must wait in order to receive the power to go to the hard and difficult areas of the world.
Do we not hear the echo of that mandate today? Why are we abandoning so many urban areas, relocating churches to safer suburban homogeneous communities? Because we have not received the power. Next Sunday the church will celebrate Pentecost and the text from Acts 2 will be read in many languages and we will sing, "Come Holy Spirit." But to celebrate Pentecost without seriously considering the Ascension is like jumping to Easter without Holy Week and Good Friday. The Holy Spirit will come only if we're willing to let go of Jesus as an external source of power. Christ wants us to have internal batteries, not long cords. The Holy Spirit is the gift of God to be within us all the time, to guide us and to take us to places we did not want to go and lands we never even imagined.
When our text ends, the disciples are still looking up and a messenger tells them to quit looking up. Too many Christians spend more time looking up than acting up. The Resurrection and the Ascension are not dogmas to blindly obey nor teachings to piously ponder. These stories are for our transformation and also for the transformation of our world. May you be empowered to stay in your Jerusalems first but then to go out to the Samarias and to the scary ends of your world. Amen.
Let us pray.
Creator God, our ancestors in the faith left us stories that confound us yet convince us. Help us to claim the Ascension of Christ in such a way that our scientific knowledge and our informed faith may come together to make us more faithful followers and more dedicated disciples. Help us to know that science and faith can indeed work together. And, above all, make us faithful witnesses, bold disciples, and true agents of your love, peace, and reconciliation. We pray in the name of the risen and ascended Christ. Amen.