If you were listening to our lessons today, and especially the first one from the Book of Acts, you heard some pretty strange things. The Risen Lord gives his followers a last few words of encouragement, and then Acts says, “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” It’s the moment the church calls the Ascension, which we affirm every week when we say in the Nicene Creed, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I remember once years ago explaining the story to a group of teenagers, and hearing one youngster blurt out, “Sounds like you’re talking about Jesus the Rocket Man!”
There have been many paintings of the Ascension down through the years. They usually picture Jesus rising before the eyes of his dumbfounded followers, or at least in one case simply portraying the clouds in the sky with only the soles of Jesus’ feet in view.
Preaching about the Ascension has always been a complicated assignment. Are we supposed to think that Jesus rose like a divine rocket into the sky? Is the Ascension one more proof of how primitive Christianity is, or could it be that the problem is really our narrow worldview, and that there is something here essential for us to hear?
You may have heard of the story published by an English headmaster named Edwin Abbott in 1884 called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. The main character, whose name is A², lives in a place called Flatland, where everything has just two dimensions, height and width, but no depth. If people turned sideways, they would disappear. They lived in flat houses, eating flat food, raising flat children, and having only flat thoughts.
But one day A²’s son, named Pentagon, has a dream that no one had ever dreamed before – that there was another dimension of reality called depth. In his dream trees and buildings other children and adults all looked deeper, more alive, more complex, somehow more real. Everything seemed different.
Needless to say, the vision disturbed his parents and their friends, and eventually they put him in a home for the mentally ill. But some of them, and especially A², continued to be haunted by what his son saw. At one point he cried, “Either this is madness or it is hell.” But a voice responded, “it is neither; it is knowledge; it is three Dimensions; open your eye once again and try to look steadily.” And eventually A² began to see this new reality.
Well, one thing for sure is that the story of the Ascension is never going to make any sense if our worldview is as flat as that one. Of course we see everyday things in three dimensions, but most of us think in a flat world way, a world where the only things that really count are the things we can measure and see and touch – money, houses, career achievements, SAT scores, batting averages, sales figures, voting results, poll numbers, Dow Jones numbers. And we are often urged to think of Jesus in flat world ways – as a noble teacher, or as a fighter for the poor, as a moralist who wants us to behave ourselves, or as a budding capitalist urging us to pray for success. We make him understandable and manageable by removing all the depth.
But we come here week by week to hear stories of a deeper world. And today we hear the story of how Christ made his way home directly into the heart of reality itself. The Ascension is concerned less with historical fact than with ultimate truth. For nearly 2000 years the Church never worried about what “really happened,” only whether it told us things we needed to know about God and our lives.
It said that after forty days of resurrection appearances, Jesus had gone away, not to abandon his followers, but to surrender the limitation of one life in order to become part of the healing of the entire cosmos. And in going away he did two things.
First, he took our human life into the heart of God. It’s an enormous assertion – that one human being representing all of us has entered into God’s own life. Those paintings of the Ascension always portray Christ rising into heaven still bearing the wounds of the cross, the marks of his own life in the world. Christ takes his whole human life into God, our whole life, including the suffering and confusion and wounds of our days.
And because of that we have something to say to people who know what it means to be wounded. Several years ago a man stopped me after church one Sunday and asked me a tough question: “What would you do if you were God?” he said. That’s enough to give one pause. Playing for time, I bounced the question back. “What would you do?” Then, as if out of the blue the answer came, “I would end all this – all this world with the mess and pain of it.”
I never came to understand what lay behind that man’s statement. But I imagine it’s a feeling not alien to most of us – of sometimes being overwhelmed by what’s happening around us, by the amount of change and uncertainty, by the talk of terrorists and nuclear arms, by a sense of a world and a society gone badly awry.
I remember in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing years go a member of one of the militias was asked why he was stockpiling weapons. “Things are out of control,” he said. “The only answer is to be armed and ready for anything.” We heard a lot of talk like that after 9/11.
But Ascension Day means that we have something to say to people haunted by worry and uncertainty. And our response is, Christ has gone up into God taking the burden of our life with him. That means that finally Christ’s love will reign over all that exists, and our own struggles and pain are now being held in the heart of God.
And so to the victims of 9/11 and the war in Iraq and the terrible bombings across the Middle East, we can say, Christ has gone up, taking your struggle into God’s heart.
To people who can’t find homes or jobs, to people with terminal illness, we can say, Christ has gone up, taking their pain into God’s heart.
To the hungry, the sick, the desperate we can say, Christ’s love rules in heaven, and so we who follow him will not rest until there is food and health and hope for everyone.
And to the lonely, the lost, the confused, to those locked in thin, two-dimensional lives, we can say that Christ has opened the way into a deeper dimension, where you are safe and loved forever. The healing of the world has already begun in heaven and will gather us up in the end.
But there’s a second dimension to this story. In the account in the Book of Acts the disciples aren’t left with their heads craned upward, staring into the sky. Two mysterious figures appear and say to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking upward into heaven?” And with that prodding the disciples turn to go back to their lives in Jerusalem, where they have been promised more power is coming to them through the Holy Spirit. Jesus stops being one teacher, leader, and friend, and will become the life and energy within them that will change the course of history.
In Jesus’ farewell words in the gospel chapter for today he speaks of how the disciples and he have become one. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus now becomes the life inside his followers. “I in them,” he says, “and you in me,” as if there is no distance between them at all.
Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls describes a human moment much like this. In it Robert Jordan, the hero, has been fatally wounded in a war, and the girl he loves, Maria, wants to stay behind to die with him. But he tells her she must go on ahead and leave him behind, and this is how he tells her:
Now you will go for us both,’ he said… ‘Now you are going well and fast and far and we both go in thee…Not me, but us both. The me in thee. Now you go for us both, truly. . .
But Maria starts to turn around. ‘Don’t look around,’ Robert Jordan said. ‘Go!’
‘Roberto!’ Maria turned and shouted. ‘Let me stay! Let me stay!’
‘I am with thee,’ Robert Jordan shouted. ‘I am with thee now. We are both there. Go!’
Jesus is sending his disciples. “Go!” he says to them. I am going with you. Now it’s your turn, and you must go for both of us. I will be in you and you in me.
Even though Jesus has gone away, he is now living inside us, leading us, teaching us, stretching us, opening our eyes to see, sending us out to do his work.
And so Jesus is saying to us, Go! Be my hands and heart and feet. Go, with the me in thee.
Go to your work tomorrow and I will be with you as you serve me there.
Go into the public realm and stand with me for a just and fair life for everyone, for housing in a city where the poor are having to move out, for schools that can give their students hope of a good life.
And go, you mothers on this Mother’s Day, you whose vocation has been the Christ-like work of giving selflessly for the sake of your child. Go home in the gratitude of those whom you have loved. Go in the knowledge of the sacred work you do of nurturing the young, and I will go with you.
For those who have had enough of life in flat land, Jesus says, come with me. Yes, I have gone to the heart of God, and have taken you with me. But here and now I am with you too. The me in thee. Trust in me, and we will do amazing things.
“He ascended into heaven.” What strange, consoling, challenging words those are. Christ has gone up! And Christ has come in!