Luke 24:44-53 & Acts 1:1-11 – Ascension Sunday – for May 20, 2012
“…They said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand look up toward heaven?”
Am I a bad boy for not believing?
Here, take the chalk, hustle over to the old blackboard and start writing.
Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud. Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud. Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud. Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud. Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud. Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud. Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud. Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud. Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud. Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud.
Ten times. It could be a hundred. For me, it doesn’t matter how often the chalk screeches across the board.
And yet shouldn’t I feel bad, maybe don a dunce cap and mope in the digital corner of a virtual classroom, for not believing that less than two months after his resurrection, Jesus was “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight?” According to the Acts of the Apostles, that’s what happened! Or, maybe, since a cloud (nor two men in white robes) wasn’t mentioned in the other version—Luke’s Gospel—Jesus simply “withdrew from them and was lifted into heaven?”
Hold your horses and scriptural references! Acts had Jesus on a cloud…but Luke didn’t? Two men were present in Acts…but absent in Luke? Why couldn’t the guy who wrote both Luke and Acts get his facts straight? Uh-oh, with a question like that I may have to retreat to the blackboard for more screechy punishment . . .
I believe everything the Bible says. I believe everything the Bible says. I believe everything the Bible says. I believe everything the Bible says. I believe everything the Bible says. I believe everything the Bible says. I believe everything the Bible says. I believe everything the Bible says. I believe everything the Bible says. I believe everything the Bible says.
I’m a bad, bad boy.
I also don’t believe the world was created in six days (though I lean toward believing And on the seventh day, God napped…), crossing the Red Sea without a need for a dry change of clothes, Elijah swooshing upward on a flaming chariot, Daniel in the den of lions, three wise guys from the east or nearly any prediction in the Revelation of John.
Sorry, I don’t believe Jesus ascended through the troposphere, stratosphere, and mesosphere and beyond.
What don’t you believe?
But with God, all things are possible. Right? Haven’t even I, Mr. Don’t Take The Bible Literally, claimed that statement before? If I believe in the divine power of forgiveness shared between two people or the transcendent gift of a sacrament found in a bit of bread and a dollop of wine, why can’t I wrap my faith around Jesus’ flight beyond the pull of gravity and through the earth’s atmosphere? I. Just. Don’t.
But this I do believe: however anyone reads the accounts of Jesus’ birth-life-message-ministry-betrayal-death-and-life-again, every book in the Christian testaments (the 27 books of the traditional canon or the thousands of tales never included) arm-wrestled with the truth of . . . his absence.
Jesus’ ascension tipped a theological hat to Elijah’s departure (II Kings 2:11). Jesus’ ascension also highlighted what they did then and what we moderns still do: when we refer to God or Heaven or the Inexplicable, we gaze upwards. It doesn’t matter if, like first-century disciples, we view the sky as a dome with heaven’s pearly gates just beyond our sight. It doesn’t matter if, today or tomorrow, we track the faint glimmer of a satellite hurling through the exosphere. We all crane our necks and raise our hands over our heads to gesture toward the Holy. Or to the beyond, where the known blurs into the not yet known.
But for whatever reason we search the “heavens,” and for whatever reason we raise our hands on high, we will eventually lower our eyes and drop our arms. And that’s when the fantastical account of Jesus’ ascension becomes serious for me. Its central question was . . . after bidding Jesus farewell, what will you do?
Last week I listened to an NPR report about Teresa McBain, a fellow United Methodist pastor from Florida. McBain had briefly become part of national news when she attended the American Atheist convention in Bethesda*, Maryland. There she “came out” as an atheist. You could say, to use traditional church language, she bid farewell to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Questions about faith caused her to question God’s existence . . .
“In reality,” she says, “as I worked through them, I found that religion had so many holes in it, that I just progressed through stages where I couldn’t believe it.”
The questions haunted her: Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all? And one day, she crossed a line.
“I just kind of realized — I mean just a eureka moment, not an epiphany, a eureka moment — I’m an atheist,” she says. “I don’t believe. And in the moment that I uttered that word, I stumbled and choked on that word — atheist.”
I wonder why similar questions causing McBain to abandon faith have strengthened (or have become inconsequential) for my faith. Of course, I can’t answer that. Each person deals differently with the perceived presence, absence or non-existence of God. Based on what I’ve read, I’m saddened about the angry, judgmental attacks directed at McBain by fellow “believers.”
Faith—and not only Christian faith—is riddled with holes. For me, Jesus’ ascension was holy fiction than more faithful fact. If you take it literally and it provides a foundation for your faith—good for you! If it becomes a severe stumbling block for faith (and maybe McBain would include Jesus’ ascension on her haunted questions list)—well, I think I understand. But there’s a third way for me . . .
In the holy fiction of the Bible, I’m grateful for the Acts-only arrival of “two men in white robes.” Their question was relevant 2,000 years ago and today: “Why do you stand looking toward heaven?” Which is to say, get going, get to work. Don’t waste your time judging others, but embrace each day as a time to create heaven on earth.
This week, along with Teresa McBain’s story, I discovered an old (and always new) Anne Frank quote . . . “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Thanks Anne. Go in peace, Teresa.
My eyes lower to the earth. To today. Get going. Get to work.
*Doesn’t an atheist convention in Bethesda veer toward the ironic? According to John 5:2-3, Jesus healed a man at Bethesda, a famous pool in Jerusalem. The Maryland town was named after that miracle. The word means house of grace, of loving-kindness.
**Thanks to Michael Woessner of www.kowoma.de. He permitted use for the illustration of earth’s atmosphere. He seemed a bit perplexed that a someone pondering/obscuring scripture would want to place the image on a web page. It’s not the first time I’ve confused another person! I wanted a visual reminder that, unlike what folks thought in the first century, the sky’s not a round, fixed dome covering the earth. Oh, you knew that?