Thursday, May 21, 2009

Which Way Is "Up"?

(The Ascension, Giotto)

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying* with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with* the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’  (Acts 1:1-11)

The first chapter of Acts challenges us to stand among the witnesses to the Ascension and register their shock when confronted by the implication of this Christ-event.

The reading from Acts bridges the gap between the Resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of what we now know as the Church.  Luke, in both his Gospel and Acts, writes from the vantage point of third-generation Christianity.  Jesus and the Apostles are figures of the past.  Jesus' life is what he began to do and teach.  What the disciples do and teach is what Jesus does and teaches after his ascension.  The tie is made through the commandment which he gave and through the teaching he did "for forty days".

In Acts 1 the forty days are the proper time for full and complete teaching to take place.  A much later rabbinic tradition suggests that teaching and learning something forty times makes the student a competent teacher.  Jesus' teaching about "the reign of God" is the teaching of the resurrected Christ, given by the Holy Spirit.  Thus the disciples, properly equipped, continue Jesus' teaching.  After forty days Jesus could leave because his teaching was clear.

It's not unreasonable for the disciples to "stand looking into heaven" on Ascension Day.  Leaving aside cosmological speculation about the direction in which heaven is, heaven for these disciples is quite simply that "space" (?!) into which Christ has disappeared from their sight, that "place" (?!) where God is present in a holy resplendence and majesty invisible to human sight.  To gaze after the vanished Lord is a touching expression of faith, hope, and love anchored in Jesus.  Where else would the disciples now fix their gaze?

But the question, "Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?", shatters any nostalgic or otherworldly reveries. Two heralds redirect the disciples from mourning a loss to celebrating a victorious presence.  In Acts it is the presence of the ascended Lord through the promised Spirit.  Just as the "forty days" of verse 3 confirm to the disciples the identity of the risen Lord with the earthly Jesus, the gift of the Holy Spirit will empower them to bear witness to the ascended Lord "in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.

Many who hold to a scientific view of the universe might consider the ascension of Jesus peculiarly laughable, and therefore void of any contemporary meaning.  One of the most certain achieved results of the science of cosmology is that nobody knows which way is up.  Any direction in which you choose to point, from any spot on this spinning and orbiting globe, has as much right as any other to be called "up" or "down".  One searches the starry heavens in vain for any indication that there's any intersection on any grid in the space/time continuum that might be identified as the place of God's dwelling.

Yet this scientific fact drives us back to the Scripture texts and makes us wonder whether the ancient biblical view of the universe is quite as naive and unimaginative as many contemporary people like to assume.  Genesis 1 does indeed say that God "created the heavens and the earth": but read it carefully.  There's not the slightest hint in this ancient view of the universe that God's dwelling is more nearly associated with any part of God's good creation than with any other part of it.  In that sense, God is literally equidistant from everything that God has made and, therefore, equiproximate as well.

This isn't to say that Old and New Testament people held modern rather than primitive ideas about the universe.  But it is to say that the biblical idea of "which way is up" doesn't depend on any cosmological speculations.  "Up" in the biblical sense is defined as the Godward direction, that way which points toward the holy will and the holy way of God in human affairs.  The problem in the Bible is never to locate God's place: the problem is to recognize the will and the way of God and to move in that direction.

So Ascension faith does saddle us Easter Christians with the rather embarrassing claim of knowing which way is up! The Ascension of the risen Christ to "sit at the right hand of God the Father" means that the will and the way of God disclosed in Jesus on earth is like the needle of a cosmic compass that always points straight up.  It points directly Godward, to the reign and the power and the glory which transcend all creation.  But as in all the Bible, that Godward direction, for each of God's people and for all of us together, begins where we are and leads us first of all into the world of men and women with whom and for whom Jesus lived and died.

The appropriate direction in which the disciples and we are to look, therefore, isn't toward heaven but toward the earth, where the Spirit-empowered work of witness to the ascended Lord is to be carried out.  In no sense does the Ascension mean that Christ has abandoned us or this world.  The date at which Christ will "restore the kingdom to Israel" isn't the proper concern of the disciples or of us.  It's our job, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to the risen and ascended Lord here and now, in the time between.

But this work of witness is to be lived out in the sure confidence that, in God's time, the utterly victorious rule of God on earth will come.  We've not yet seen the reign of God, but we have seen the One who brings God's reign to our world. Witness to the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord, here and now, is the proper mode of hope that "this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven".  By the present power of the Holy Spirit, the ultimate confidence of us who are Jesus' disciples is in the present lordship of the ascended One, and not in the "far-off divine event" of his victorious appearing.

(Adapted from an article in Proclamation, Year B, 1988)

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