Luke 24:44-53 & Acts 1:1-11 â€“ Ascension Sunday â€“ for May 20, 2012
â€œâ€¦They said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand look up toward heaven?â€
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 doesnâ€™t matter how often the chalk screeches across the board.
And yet shouldnâ€™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 â€œlifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight?â€ According to the Acts of the Apostles, thatâ€™s what happened! Or, maybe, since a cloud (nor two men in white robes) wasnâ€™t mentioned in the other versionâ€”Lukeâ€™s Gospelâ€”Jesus simply â€œwithdrew from them and was lifted into heaven?â€
Hold your horses and scriptural references! Acts had Jesus on a cloud…but Luke didnâ€™t? Two men were present in Acts…but absent in Luke? Why couldnâ€™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.
Iâ€™m a bad, bad boy.
I also donâ€™t believe the world was created in six days (though I lean toward believing And on the seventh day, God nappedâ€¦), 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 donâ€™t believe Jesus ascended through the troposphere, stratosphere, and mesosphere and beyond.
What donâ€™t you believe?
But with God, all things are possible. Right? Havenâ€™t even I, Mr. Donâ€™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 canâ€™t I wrap my faith around Jesusâ€™ flight beyond the pull of gravity and through the earthâ€™s atmosphere? I. Just. Donâ€™t.
But this I do believe:Â however anyone reads the accounts of Jesusâ€™ 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.
Jesusâ€™ ascension tipped a theological hat to Elijahâ€™s departure (II Kings 2:11). Jesusâ€™ ascension also highlighted what they did then and what we moderns still do:Â when we refer to God or Heaven or the Inexplicable, we gaze upwards. It doesnâ€™t matter if, like first-century disciples, we view the sky as a dome with heavenâ€™s pearly gates just beyond our sight. It doesnâ€™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 â€œheavens,â€ and for whatever reason we raise our hands on high, we will eventually lower our eyes and drop our arms. And thatâ€™s when the fantastical account of Jesusâ€™ 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 â€œcame outâ€ 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 Godâ€™s existence . . .
â€œIn 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 â€” I mean just a eureka moment, not an epiphany, a eureka moment â€” 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 â€” atheist.”
I wonder why similar questions causing McBain to abandon faith have strengthened (or have become inconsequential) for my faith. Of course, I canâ€™t answer that. Each person deals differently with the perceived presence, absence or non-existence of God. Based on what Iâ€™ve read, Iâ€™m saddened about the angry, judgmental attacks directed at McBain by fellow â€œbelievers.â€
Faithâ€”and not only Christian faithâ€”is riddled with holes. For me, Jesusâ€™ ascension was holy fiction than more faithful fact. If you take it literally and it provides a foundation for your faithâ€”good for you! If it becomes a severe stumbling block for faith (and maybe McBain would include Jesusâ€™ ascension on her haunted questions list)â€”well, I think I understand. But thereâ€™s a third way for me . . .
In the holy fiction of the Bible, Iâ€™m grateful for the Acts-only arrival of â€œtwo men in white robes.â€ Their question was relevant 2,000 years ago and today:Â â€œWhy do you stand looking toward heaven?â€ Which is to say, get going, get to work. Donâ€™t waste your time judging others, but embrace each day as a time to create heaven on earth.
This week, along with Teresa McBainâ€™s story, I discovered an old (and always new) Anne Frank quote . . . â€œHow wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.â€
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 earthâ€™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?