A Third Way

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.

Quite a few objects reach into the atmosphere...don't think reaching heaven on a cloud is one of them.**

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?

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  1. I’m surprised that a Methodist minister would make such a seismic change in faith. In contrast, I have no trouble believing that a dyed in the wool Fundamentalist, fresh out of Moody College, with faith in the inerrency if the Bible a mile high, would even survive earning a Ph.D from Princeton, faith intact, then have it dissolved rather quickly by a few of our better known 21st century catastrophes, man made and natural. The more hermetic (as in hermetically sealed) the faith, the more brittle it is, and the more it is likely to shatter. Being a Lutheran, I sense I’m half way between Ehrman and your Methodist minister. Old Brother Martin has us in an Either / Or situation over which we have no control, except to turn our backs on the question. You Methodists think you have a say in the matter.


    That’s why, through a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, teaching adult Bible study, and now with an MS in “theological studies” (more on that some other time) my faith is tepid. The big problem is what is the alternative?

    What do athiest talk about when they get together? Do they talk about us? If that’s the case, being an athiest is pretty sad. It’s like my favorite quite from Avatar, about the cup which is already full. Well these folks seem to empty their cup, but with what do they fill it? I have better feelings about Wiccans and Druits and (well, maybe… the New Age stuff, if I’m in a good mood). But tell me, what is a group like whose prupose is explicitly to not believe in a God. Why in the world don’t they take up Buddhism and make an honest break. Buddhism is a beautiful religion, almost as old as Judaism, … with no God. There are lots of those crazy things called Bodhisattvas, but they aren’t Gods. Buddhism, like Hinduism, is square about their divine images. They are just that, divine fictions.

    I went to a Humanist book club for three weeks over the summer, and I was impressed with how they were able to maintain such good attendence. If you can get three Lutherans or three Episcopalians to voluntarily get together for more than four weeks, you must be spiking the punch. But I guess these folks are using this to fill that need that our weekly services fill (more on that subject later as well). And why are they so gleeful when there is a rolling back of the least of religious symbols from the public. An intolerant Athiest is probably as noisome, or even more so, than an intolerant Lutheran (yes, they exist… like my cousin).

    When I read The Iliad, I have no trouble suspending disbelief in all sorts of fanciful gods, goddesses, nymphs, oracles, and heros. And that fiction in no way interfreres with my admiration and excitement about two of the hands down greatest heros in literature, Achilles and Odysseus. No one can hold a candle to these two. Not Captain Ahab or Captain Nemo or Lancelot or Don Quixote or Gandalf the Grey or the man with no name. And they are probably as fictitious as my imaginary playmate, George.

    The fiction that you know is better than the blackness you don’t.

    1. Hey, Bruce, I guess this And Yet opened up a few verbal floodgates for you!? I don’t think it matters that “a Methodist minister would make such a seismic change in faith.” Whatever denomination in Christianity, and whatever faith tradition, whether “liberal” or “conservative” or in between, I suspect all of us can be surprised with the changes that come to our life. Thanks for your comments. And though I might agree with you about Achilles and Odysseus, there’s also Holden Caulfield and Atticus Finch!

  2. I have looked to the sky for answers since I was very young. Why is that? Perhaps, because it is somewhere other than Earth…??? Maybe..I have always been fascinated by the sky and beyond, especially being in the mountains and being able to even see the satelites up so high..Larry, you have put together a unique symbolic way of looking towards the heavens

    I don’t think it matters whether Jesus was taken up by a cloud or not..The lesson to me is that there is somewhere else to go..somewhere better..HOME..not here..and Here needs much work…with actions of love and kindnesses and help for others

    The question to me is very simple to answer…But not always easy to implement…do I take what I have learned and use it with love, forgiveness and all those great ideals or just live for only myself and not help others ?

    As for Atheism, the ones I know are more spiritual ..in a humanistic sense, than many church folk..they are more accepting and loving and kind..What is up with that? Perhaps they have not allowed themselves to be darkened by unaccepting church folk..I say this as a general term (church folk)..ok Right wing haters..it was hard to put that up there..or is it left >< lol

    I do believe that we need to contemplate and challenge our belief system every so often to see where we really are in our life and the way in which we live.

    As for me, I want to know if I believe in God because I want there to be A god..but, when I look to the sky, see the rose on the bush, remember my time in the mountains..I KNOW that God exists.

    1. Thanks Jenny. I too have known atheists (and all kinds of other “non-Christians”) who put me to shame in terms of their compassion, insights and openness to treating the neighbor and the world with deep respect. We are all on different journeys. I am grateful for your insights.

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