7 Easter — 28 May 2006
St. Alban’s, Davenport — 8:00 & 10:15
Acts 1:15-26 Ps 47 1John 5:9-15 John 17:11b-19
I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
This past Thursday was Ascension Day, and as you recall, the first reading for Ascension Day from the Acts of the Apostles tells how Jesus was seen to be parted from his disciples and to be taken up into heaven. The point of course is not that Jesus was going away, but rather that only in this way does it become possible for Jesus to be with us always, to the end of the age. The Ascension of Jesus proclaims that his presence is no longer limited to Palestine in the first century; Jesus now can be and is present in Davenport in the twenty-first century. As the Collect for Ascension Day puts it, “our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.”
But today I’d like to think a moment about another aspect of the Ascension of Christ, to which the Gospel today points us. And that is precisely that Jesus does after all ascend to heaven. And this raises for us the issue of God’s transcendence.
But a word here about the imagery that’s in use here. We all know, at least up here [head], that heaven is not a “place” which is located “up.” A few of us remember back some forty years ago when one of the early Soviet cosmonauts came back from orbit and in loyal Leninist fashion solemnly proclaimed to all the world that he had looked all around while he was up there and hadn’t seen God anywhere. And we all snickered at that; was that really supposed to be taken seriously as a scoring attempt by atheism? But let’s also not underestimate the power of these very simple spatial metaphors; we are, after all, by our very nature beings who live in space and time. We do speak of transcendance as “higher,” as “above”; heaven—the direct presence of God (“direct presence of God”—see? Even that’s a spatial metaphor)—heaven for us is “up,” not literally but powerfully figuratively. And this image is not disdained by the New Testament authors themselves: Jesus is spoken of as “ascending,” and although clearly he’s not sailing off in a hot air balloon like the Wizard of Oz, he still goes “up.” (The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, suggested that the Ascension event may be understood as an “enacted parable” by Jesus, a final resurrection appearance in which he vividly demonstrates to his disciples that they should not expect to see any more appearances. If Jesus had just vanished, or if the appearances had just stopped and Jesus was never seen again, the disciples might well have wondered what had happened to him, and have thought that Jesus was really gone for good now, absent forever. If Jesus had gone sailing off from the Mount of Olives on a westward trajectory, they might have thought he had gone to Cleveland. But Jesus is taken up into a cloud (cloud: symbol of the divine presence) so that the disciples will understand that he is going to the right hand of the Father (right hand: another spatial metaphor). Hey. We can appropriate this very direct imagery without being simple-minded literalists. After all, that’s the way it was meant in the first place by the New Testament writers, who also were not simple-minded literalists.
But I’m disgressing from my point about transcendence.
Most of us, I think, are very eager for our Christian faith not to be just a matter of “pie in the sky when you die by and by,” but to be a faith which impacts powerfully and transformatively upon this world in which we live. We recognize the validity in Karl Marx’s critique of much traditional religiosity as an otherworldly escapism that anesthetizes us against present evils, an “opiate” that dulls our sensitivity to injustice. A lot of Christianity used to do that. A lot of Christianity still does. We’re right to be on guard against it.
But we must also not forget that this world, the world of our own observation and experience, is not all there is. This world of ours is not the center of the universe, and certainly is not the center of all that is. And however much we come to know, in a descriptive, analytical way, about our universe and the process by which it came to be the way it is over the billions of years, however much we may be able someday to include within a unified theory the quantitatively unimaginably immense dimensions of astrophysics and the quantitatively unimaginably infinitesimal dimensions of quantum mechanics, it is still the case that the world, our world, our universe, does not account for itself. It is not self-explanatory, not to those who have the intellectual courage never to cease from asking “why?”. The ultimate meaning of this world is not to be found within this world itself.
As Christians our home base is not here; for we belong to the One who “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things,” “the One who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,” “the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart,” the creative Word eternally uttered by the Source of all Being — the risen Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians we must remember that reality is not to be reduced to our own measure; and all the more so our Christian faith.
In the Gospel today we hear Jesus in his great priestly prayer give voice to the tension, the paradox: we are truly in this world, but we do not finally belong to this world, we are not captives of this world, we are not beholden to this world. But we are in this world; we are not to be taken out of the world, we are not to try to escape from this world. But in this world we are to be protected from the evil one, sanctified by the word of the Truth Itself, made holy, claimed by that Truth as Truth’s own. And then sent back into this world as agents of that other realm, heralds of a transcendent dominion: the dominion of heaven, the eternal reign of God, which is after all the ultimate destiny of this world, the ultimate destiny of all worlds.
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead