Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Ascension - a narrative of expansion

 Texts:  Acts 1.6-11 and Matthew 28.16-20

There’s an old story I like, about a country farmer and his son who were staying, for the first time, in a hotel.  They were astounded by all the modern miracles they were seeing for the first time. The farmer watched an old woman get into the lift, in the hotel lobby.  Then a few moments later, the doors swooshed open, and out came a gorgeous young woman. 

“Wow!” said the farmer to his son.  “They have a machine for turning old women into young ones!  Go and get your mother, son!”

I imagine that sense of awe and wonder was rather similar to what the disciples felt on the day when Jesus ascended into heaven.  For them, it must have been even more of a miracle than him rising from the dead – because this happened right before their eyes.  They are standing with him, on a mountain-top outside Jerusalem.  According to Matthew’s account, he gives them what we call the Great Commission – a command to take his message to the four corners of the world.  Matthew doesn’t say what happened next – but, as Luke tells it in the book of Acts, Jesus was ‘lifted up’ and ‘a cloud hid him from their sight’.  You can just imagine them standing around, mouths open, looking at one another, then up to the sky, and mouthing to each other ‘what just happened?!’

It’s a good question for us, too, as we encounter this story in the 21st century.  What exactly did happen?  Interestingly, Matthew’s account contains no reference to Jesus disappearing, let alone being taken up into heaven.  Mark and John are both silent on the whole episode.  It is only Luke who tells us this particular story.  And even he changes the details. 

Luke tells the story twice:  first at the end of his gospel, Luke says that having blessed his disciples, Jesus ‘withdrew from them’ and was carried up into heaven.  This sounds more like a statement of belief.  ‘Jesus withdrew’ is a description of a teacher who gives his blessing, and then wanders off to be alone.  One wonders if the reason Luke adds ‘and was taken up into heaven’ is because the disciples didn’t see Jesus again.  So he probably, must have, got taken into heaven.  Didn’t he?

This account, intriguingly, is at the heart of various mythologies about Jesus’ continuing ministry on Earth.  According to the Mormon faith, for example, Jesus left his disciples, got in a boat, and sailed to America – where he founded a new civilisation!  There are other legends too, of Jesus making his way to the Middle East, or even as far as India.  I have to say, clearly, that there is no historical evidence for such stories.  But they do persist in various dark corners of the Internet, and indeed in the myths of the Mormon church!

Perhaps the uncertainty about what happened to Jesus after he withdrew is the reason why Luke’s second account of the same story, in the first chapter of Acts, is a much clearer, unambiguous statement.  One can imagine Luke, between the end of his gospel, and the writing of the book of Acts, thinking to himself “I’ve left that ending a bit open to interpretation, haven’t I?  Perhaps I’d better fill in a few more details”.

So in the account from Acts, Luke is quite specific.  Jesus doesn’t ‘withdraw’, but rather, he is lifted up, and a cloud hides him from his disciples’ sight.  Of course, it is perfectly possible to describe ‘being hidden by a cloud’ as ‘withdrawing’ – but that is not, in fact, the clear inference of Luke.  He goes on to emphasise his new version, by picturing the disciples standing around, stunned, gazing into the sky – until two men in white (whom we assume to be angels) arrive to explain what has just happened.

From our 21st century perspective, it has to be admitted that this is all a bit fanciful, isn’t it?  For one thing, we no longer believe (as Luke would have) that heaven is ‘up there’, and hell is ‘down there’.  That triple decker view of the universe, common at the time of Jesus, with earth as sandwich filling between heaven and hell – that view has been roundly discarded, along with the idea of a flat earth having four corners.

In fact, 21st century science offers us what I consider a far more intriguing idea – namely the concept of the multiverse.  According to the discoveries of physics, it is theoretically possible for there to be multiple dimensions, and multiple universes existing side by side. They are invisible to us, because we were born into this universe. But the behaviour of certain sub-atomic particles, which appear to wink in and out of our existence, suggest that there may be a way to travel from one universe to another. 

Perhaps heaven (and indeed hell) is such a place.  Perhaps heaven is a realm that co-exists with our reality – separated by physical laws we are only beginning to understand.  Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is among you’.  Perhaps there are even moments when we are capable, through faith, of peeking through the veil between this world and heaven.  There are places on earth which humans have, for centuries, described as ‘thin places’ – places where the peace and the beauty of heaven feel close enough to touch.  And perhaps there are moments when heaven touches earth, through the sub-atomic barrier – such as when Jesus met Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, or perhaps when angels appear, dressed in white, to let us know what has happened?  Or perhaps when, after diligent and constant prayer or worship, we ourselves sense the presence of God?

All this is conjecture, of course.  I’ve used the word ‘perhaps’ rather a lot!  But I wanted to explore how it is possible to read Scripture’s variable and in some cases competing accounts of a key event in Jesus life, and still find a way to live with the mystery of what the writers of Scripture have left us. The underlying truth that differing accounts of this moment all point toward is this:  Jesus is no longer confined to a human body, with all its limitations of time and space.  His message, his love, his presence (if you will) are available to all people – not just those who manage to track him down to one physical place.  This is a narrative of expansion.  Jesus’s message, Jesus’s love, carried by his disciples, carried by you and me, can be likened to a firework, fired into the sky, to burst out in a blaze of glory and to shower the entire world.  As Jesus said in Matthew’s account – “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age!”

And to that, we can certainly shout with joy, ‘Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!”

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