Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Luke 24: 44-53
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Earlier this week a Pew Research Study surveyed 35,000 individuals about their religious affiliation. The results of the survey indicated that seventy percent of the respondents identified themselves as Christian, which actually seems like a pretty good number in my opinion. When compared to the results of the same survey eight years earlier, there is about an eight percent decrease. In 2007, eight years ago, seventy-eight percent of the respondents identified themselves as Christian. What accounts for this decline in the last eight years? There are many reasons!
People point to hypocrisy in the church, which is real. They also point to Christians who are perceived as judgmental rather than compassionate. They point to the church being a patriarchal, archaic and anachronistic holdover from a bygone era.
It is this last reason I suggested, that the church is considered outdated, that I believe would be why many who label themselves “none” (N-O-N-E) on a religious identification survey would struggle with the day we are honoring today – Ascension Day.
The idea of ascending, or supernaturally floating up toward the heavens, is an ancient mythical concept that was part of the lore of a variety of gods and goddesses long before Christianity came around. Christianity latched onto this idea, as it seemed to capture the popular imagination of the time – who wouldn’t want to fly away, leave your problems behind, like the old man does in the Pixar animated film “Up”? The closes we get to ascension is when we get into an airplane, fly up into the sky, and at least for a day or few days, leave the ordinariness of our life behind.
Admittedly, the Biblical concept of an ascension, where Jesus miraculously ascends to heaven is a bit outmoded. But we have to remember that the story about Christ’s ascent to heaven comes from a 2,000 year old world view in which people believed that heaven was literally above us in the sky.
But 500 years ago, Copernicus challenged the church at the time to reconcile traditional understandings (such as Jesus ascending “up” into heaven) with the scientific worldview of the time, which was that heaven was not “up,” which, of course, got him crossways with the Catholic Church.
There is another problem with Ascension though, and that has to do with the timing of the event. Acts 1:3 says that after forty days of appearing to the disciples, Jesus ascended up to heaven. If you read the Bible, you might be aware that the number “forty” appears rather often. Noah and his family were in the ark forty days. The Hebrews were in the wilderness for forty years. Moses spent forty days fasting on top of Mt. Sinai while writing the ten commandments. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness himself.
When the number “forty” is used in the Bible, it is like shorthand for “a long time passed,” so it doesn’t mean forty exact days – it means “awhile.” Understanding that “forty days” doesn’t necessarily mean “forty days” helps us to understand Luke’s way of telling the story of the Ascension, in which Jesus ascends to heaven on the night following Easter.
There is great irony in the Ascension: Jesus abdicates power in order to rule. He departs from the disciples in order to be more fully present. He withdraws so he can draw all people to himself. The Ascension doesn’t take Christ out of the world, it makes Christ available to all people at all times, in all places. St. Teresa of Avila understood this clearly, as she demonstrates in a prayer she wrote centuries ago on the Ascension:
“God of love, help us to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world. Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.” Christ’s body ascends, so that we may become Christ to those in our midst. AMEN.