Overcoming Ascension Deficit Disorder

This last Thursday was the 40th day of Easter which meant it was Ascension Day, a day that commemorates a truth we proclaim every Sunday when we say, “I believe…in Jesus Christ…who ascended into heaven.” According to Luke-Acts, Christ was lifted up to heaven and a cloud took him away. Honestly, my left brain (my logic and reason) has difficulty accepting this part of the Creed and the Scriptures. I have what one of my colleagues jokingly refers to as “Ascension Deficit Disorder.”[1] My problem with this “ascension” is that the author was writing according to an ancient worldview, which held that Heaven was physically above us and Hell was physically below us. Modern science and space exploration have challenged and shattered this worldview. The first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is purported to have said regarded his experience in space in 1961, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God up there.” This thus begs the question, “What really happened to the Risen Jesus?”

My left brain is partially satisfied in thinking that Jesus ascended into another dimension since String Theorists suggest that there are at least 10 dimensions in physical space that our limited, three-dimensional minds cannot perceive. But then that makes me feel like I’m reading a science-fiction story. And why did Jesus have to ascend in order to enter another dimension?

It always helps me to remember that these Scriptures are not scientific documents but rather stories attempting to communicate supernatural phenomenon. Spiritual author Karen Armstrong calls theology “a species of poetry,” employing metaphor and imagery to convey spiritual truth. Luke was using this “species of poetry” when he wrote about the Ascension. So what spiritual truth is he trying to communicate?

The authors of the Christian Scriptures often allude to stories and scenes from the Hebrew Scriptures in order to express a truth about Christ. Here, Luke is alluding to Elijah’s Ascension in II Kings (2:1-12). Before leaving his faithful disciple Elisha, Elijah says to him, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha responds with a bold request: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” Elijah, willing to grant his disciples’ request, tells him to watch him as he leaves. So Elisha watches Elijah leave but he also screams and cries out while watching Elijah leave because of the whirlwind and fire and flaming horses that snatched Elijah up into heaven! But it worked. After Elijah’s ascension, all the prophets declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha!”

So according to Hebrew tradition, a disciple receives the spirit of the master while watching the master ascend to heaven. That is why Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). In fact, Jesus said his disciples (us!) will do even greater things than Jesus since he is leaving! (John 14:12) It’s almost like we will get a double dose of Jesus’s spirit!

When Jesus’s disciples received the spirit of their master at Pentecost, they also got caught up in a fiery whirlwind not too unlike Elijah’s chariot and began speaking in other languages and preaching and behaving in such a way that others thought they were drunk! And so the Church was born. (And next Sunday we celebrate this birthday of the church, the day of Pentecost.)

Now that same Spirit that empowered and seemed to intoxicate the apostles is available to all of us through our baptism. Just as the disciples received the Holy Spirit after the Ascension so do we receive the Spirit of the master through our baptism. And the Spirit of the master guides us into all truth and empowers us to do even greater things the master himself!

As we learn from Jesus’s final prayer in the Gospel of John (which we just read this morning), the Holy Spirit’s mission is to make us one as the Father and the Son are one. And just as Jesus prays to include and welcome us into that loving union (and yes, he specifically prays for us!) so are we called to include and welcome others into that same loving union. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s mission is to sweep us all into the loving unity that flows between the Father and the Son while empowering us to welcome others into that same love. And how do we tap into that powerful Spirit of our master and allow ourselves to be shaped and formed by the divine union, the same divine union that the church fathers described as a holy circle-dance (a perichoresis)? How do we abide in the Triune God?

The readings this morning offer three ways that we can be caught up into the divine union through the Holy Spirit and welcome others into that same union.

First of all, according to Acts, the disciples kept their eyes on Jesus as he ascended. In fact, the author emphasizes the fact that the disciples watch Jesus ascend by saying, “as they were watching, he was lifted up” and then reiterating it by saying again, “While he was going up…they were gazing up toward heaven.” In order for Elisha to have received the double dose of his teacher’s spirit, he had to keep his eyes on Elijah as he ascended. Elijah told him, “If you see me as I am being taken from you, [your request for a double share of my spirit] will be granted you; if not, it will not.” We inherit the Spirit through our baptism but we also tap into the power of the Spirit by keeping our eyes on Jesus as he shows up in our lives, as he shows up in our weekly worship, in the bread and wine made holy, in the Scriptures, and in the faces of those around us, especially the poor and the vulnerable.

Another way to tap into the power of the Spirit of the master is through humility. As the apostle Peter writes in his first epistle, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.” In today’s collect, we prayed that God “exalt us.” And in order to be exalted as participants in the divine community and invite others to join us, we must be humble. These last two Sundays I have preached about 14th century English mystics (Julian of Norwich and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing). There are others including Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton and they all insist on the necessity of humility for mystical union with God. According to the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, the only way to comprehend and attain union with the incomprehensible God is through charity and humility.

And finally, we tap into the power of the Spirit through prayer. After Jesus tries to communicate the meaning of his immanent death to his disciples in the upper room discourse, he finally looks up to heaven and prays. And his prayer (of which we read only a part) is considered the “Holy of Holies of Scripture” and is called the High Priestly prayer of Jesus, in which Christ articulates perhaps most clearly his hopes and dreams for his disciples, for us. And his hope and dream for us is not that we become rich or famous or even successful in the eyes of the world. That is not Christ’s prayer for the church. In fact, that’s what he is trying to protect the church from; he’s trying to protect his followers from getting caught up in that anxiety and “tangle of fear-thinking.” Instead, his prayer is that we, as a community, experience and then embody the love that flows between the Father and the Son, between Christ and his Abba, his Daddy. The love between the Father and the Son is personified as the Spirit, which has been generously poured upon each of us. And we can access this Spirit through prayer. Last Sunday, I invited us all to practice 10 minutes of prayerful silence each day. In order for us to grow spiritually, we need a daily discipline of intentional prayer. Dr. William Spohn, a Professor of Theology at Santa Clara University, writes, “Historically, spirituality has insisted that individuals and communities will not be transformed by the Spirit without committed practices. People may shop around for spiritual experiences, but without regular, intentional practices there is no real spirituality. Although peak experiences can make us see the possibility of change, it takes a life of regular spiritual practices in response to grace to yield a new character” (Spohn, 275).

In the last verse from our first reading, we learn that all of the apostles “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). And the reading from 1 Peter calls us to “discipline ourselves,” which means “practice the spiritual disciplines regularly.” And two essential spiritual disciplines for us as followers of Christ are prayer and worship. We made a vow to keep these practices at our baptism, “to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” By prayers, we mean daily prayer, at least 10 minutes a day. (If you’re already doing that, try 15). And by worship and breaking of the bread, we mean at least one hour of communal worship a week, as we are doing now.

This is how we can experience and embody the love that flows freely and generously between the Father and the Son: by practicing humility and daily prayer, and by keeping our eyes on Christ as he continues to show up in our weekly worship and in those who are poor and vulnerable. These are the ways that we can overcome Ascension Deficit Disorder and allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit of our master, our Lord and our Savior who dreams that we (as the beloved community) do even greater things than he. Amen.

[1] Cuyler Black of https://www.inheritthemirth.com

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