Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Does the Ascension Mean?

Scripture for the 7th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 1:6-14; I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

On the fortieth day of Eastertide, following the chronology of the Gospels, the Church catches its breath as our Lord Jesus Christ ascends into heaven. What does the Ascension mean?

The New Testament is challenged by the question, “With what sort of body does the risen Lord come?”. There’s clear evidence that the Gospel writers do not want us thinking of the resurrected Christ as a ghost. St. Luke reports that at our Lord’s final appearance to his disciples, “They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have… ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” (Luke 24:36-43)

How charming can you get in making the point that this is one and the same Jesus, the Christ known to them, loved by them, as before?

But where the tension enters is around the question, “So is his the body of a resuscitated corpse?” No. That’s out of bounds for two reasons. First, resuscitation leaves the door open a crack for thinking that he didn’t truly die, which would make the resurrection fall far short of being the good news Christians dare believe it is. Second, if we really were dealing with Jesus in his same physical body as before, wouldn’t he be subject all over again to the limitations of flesh and blood? St. Paul, writing to the Romans, insists, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” (6:9-10)

The Renaissance painter who tried to capture the Ascension with a group portrait of the disciples looking up to heaven, a pair of bare feet dangling overhead--- that’s all you see of Jesus, just those feet—wants to tell us that we’re dealing here with flesh and blood, metatarsals and Achilles tendons, bunions and blisters, and, of course, those nail holes.

But doesn’t that same ploy, the dangling feet, sweet as they are, reveal the inadequacy of flesh and blood to describe the ascending Christ? Might a painter capture the moment and the movement better by an abstract style, not so much feet in flight as energy rising, returning to its source?

St. Paul again, this time writing to the Corinthians, speaks to our question. “But some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come? …” Do you remember what he says next? “You foolish one! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel… But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body… For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality.” (I Corinthians 15)

What’s the take-home from all that? Paul’s distinction between a physical body and a spiritual body. By Paul’s understanding, Jesus’s forty days of post-resurrection appearances have been in what he calls a spiritual body. Remember how, last Sunday, we heard his apostolic colleague Peter claim that our Lord’s very first appearance out of the tomb took him to breathe freedom into those mockers and scoffers who made fun of Noah during the building of the ark. What an edgey way to declare that absolutely no one is beyond the reach of the spiritual presence of Jesus!

We all know what a physical body is, and how it works. A spiritual body? Whatever that is, I believe it’s the answer to our opening question. The doctrine of the Ascension does not require belief that a physical body is taken up, but rather that a spiritual body rises to return to its source.

While I don’t have a handy definition of a spiritual body, here’s how that image makes sense to me. Jesus Christ the righteous one suffered for the sake of the unrighteous, in order to bring us all to God. And when man’s inhumanity to man had done to Jesus the very worst it could do, God made him alive in the spirit: not as a resuscitated corpse, but as a person transformed from dependence upon flesh into the full freedom of spirit.

Which gets me thinking that the Ascension is really about you and me, about what our dying means, and how it is we dare conceive participating in a realm beyond this one.

What we do know about a spiritual body is that the Church is described that way in the New Testament letters. Paul writing in I Corinthians says, “For just as the (physical) body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one (spiritual) body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, male or female—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (chapter 12)

We physical individuals are united, made one spiritual body, in grateful acceptance of the gift of Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, the life that constitutes goodness and sets in motion a power that equips humanity to reproduce his wide-embracing love. That love is the gift the world needs. To take our part in that love, we open ourselves to be transformed from dependence upon flesh into the full freedom of spirit.

What does the Ascension mean? The Collect for that day answers the question-- so why, for heaven’s sake, didn’t we go there right away and not wait til the very end of this sermon? All I can say is that to approach the Ascension, you have to go the scenic route.

“Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages…”

He ascends in order to fill all—what goes up must come down—freeing us to love God in all things and above all things, freeing us to seek and recognize and treasure his presence with us on earth.

By ascending, the risen Christ trains the spiritual body of his Church to look up. There’s as basic a meaning as you can get… but there’s not a one of us who doesn’t need the message reinforced daily: Look up from our smart phones, our must-do lists, our agendas and our analyses. Disentangle from what has to matter so much because of our physical dependencies, and choose to practice the spiritual freedom that God gives us, calls us to, and uses to prepare us for what God is preparing for us.

And what comes down, according to the New Testament’s chronology, comes down ten days later, on the fiftieth day of Eastertide, and causes the Church to catch the breath of God inspiring the new creation released in the resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Spirit, the same spirit in Jesus that is in the Creator God, comes down on Pentecost, and fills all hearts that will seek and recognize and treasure such a gift.

Next Sunday is the Day of Pentecost. It will have some stiff competition hereabouts, with commencement at Williams. Rise early and come to worship at 8:00, when we’ll sing, and when parking is easy, and when leftovers from our breakfast for Williams seniors are at their most plentiful, and the timing is perfect to go watch the procession, and first the opportunity to rejoice with a few of our seniors and their families.