May 8th, 2016
When we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord, we automatically and understandably spend a lot of time looking up. After all—Christ ascended. He went up. He rose up. He floated in a rising direction on the x-axis. He rose at the Resurrection and he rose higher and higher, until he floated on up out of here to take his seat the right hand of the Father—up in heaven. So, if you love Jesus, or want to love him, you probably spend a lot of time looking up—is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Jesus? Chances are, it’s a plane. If we love Jesus, chances are we spend a lot of time looking up or thinking up—God is up where we might see Superman flying around or Jesus floating about with his arms extended, an automaton of grace, powered by the hidden propellers of the Holy Spirit. Ok, that’s a little harsh. But there is a tendency, almost the grain of our soul, by which we think of God as above, over, higher—transcendent. God is a higher power. God is up, hell is down, and we are stuck somewhere in-between, trying to escape our animal nature and rise to our divine nature. Or whatever else people say about God. We want to ascend—we want to rise up, because God is up there. From a distance, God is watching us—that’s from the Gospel according to Bette Midler.
A friend of mine is a computational neuroscientist, so of course he knows a thing or two about the brain, and one of the brain myths he hates the most is the idea that we have a lizard brain or an animal mind. He waves his hands and says, “It’s a brain. We’re animals. It’s a whole organ! There is no lizard brain. It’s just a brain.” Now he spends his days with mice in a lab running experiments, so what does he know? But I like what he says—we are animals. We are special animals, political and rational animals, but as our knowledge of the animal kingdom grows our sense of being above animals, something more than animal, decreases as we learn more about animals, and, I may add, more about ourselves. Sure, our consciousness may traverse the universe in the space of a single thought, but our lifespans are short, and if we are made of stardust, still it is to dust that we shall return.
Ascension is hard for us. We are not charged with the power of Krypton. And that also means that it is hard for us to accept the Ascension of our Lord—who, after all, was an animal like we are. He was fully human—when they tortured him and nailed him to the cross, when they stabbed him the side with a spear, he did what all animals do when you perforate their bodies the right number of times in the right places—he died. Of course, if Christ was raised from the dead, then anything is possible, but this ascension business seems like an all-too-sweet cherry on top of a much-too-large sundae.
Sometimes it seems like God makes no sense, and that our faith asks us to believe things that are, quite frankly, dumb. Like the Ascension. But that’s why, when an angel talks, it’s a good idea to listen to it. It is, after all a messenger sent from God. And the angels in today says, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” I like that first part—why do you stand looking up to heaven? What’s that going to do? What’s that going to accomplish? Do you think you’ll understand what has happened?
And so far, we’re only a little better off than we were. We still have the image of the ascending superman, or maybe Ironman without the suit. Maybe more of a Dr. Strange. But at least we have the angels—Why do you look up at the heavens? The implication is don’t look up. Or maybe even don’t look.
Theologians call this way of thinking up the theology of ascent. It includes something called the hierarchy of beings which is like the food pyramid of creatures, with us below God and angels, and the beasts and fish and demons below. This came actually from a Greek influence. And Luther, that grumpy monk, couldn’t stand it. And don’t think we should either. Instead, I propose that on this day of Ascension, we take a page for God’s irony handbook and think about a theology of descent—we should think about a God that decided to come down from heaven and became a human being, and chose to reveal himself in creation and in the history of the world. Why do you look up in heaven? Look here—God is with us, and we can bear witness to the world of his grace.
Luther, as I mentioned, hated this theology of ascent. In a great essay on the Eucharist called That These Words of Christ, “This is My Body”, Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics—pretty good title—he talked about the Ascension in this way: “In the first place, we take up the article (of the creed) that Christ sits at the right hand of God…I suppose (the fanatics) will dream up for us, as one does for children, an imaginary heaven in which a golden throne stands, and Christ sits beside the Father in a cowl and golden crown, the way artists paint it…” Luther, as you can see, likes art, but doesn’t want us to go about building a theology on it. He goes on to say, “Where is the Scripture which limits the right hand of God…to one place?” In other words, “Why are you looking up? Even if you scour space with the most powerful telescope, you won’t be able to peer into God’s heavenly bedroom.” “The Scriptures teach us,” he writes, “that the right hand of God is not a specific place in which a body may or must be, such as on a golden throne, but is the almighty power of God, which at one and the same time can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere.”
I love that—can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere. Luke knows about this—remember about the story of the men traveling on the road to Emmaus, and Jesus shows up?” The power of God is immeasurable and breaks all boundaries—it will not be contained. Luther says it is beyond and above all that is or may be—but, “On the other hand, it must be essentially present at all places, even in the tiniest tree leaf. The reason is this: It is God who creates, effects, preserves all things through his almighty power and right hand, as our Creed confesses.” Or, as Paul tells us today in Ephesians: “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
The key here, is this (Luther again): “God must be present in every creature in its innermost and outermost being, on all sides, through and through, below and above, before and behind, so that nothing can be more truly present and within all creatures than God with his power.” That’s what Scripture means when it talks about putting all things at the feet of Christ—Christ is all in all, just as the Father is all in all and the Spirit is all in all. And yes, God is above all, too.
So Ascension means, fundamentally, that Christ is wherever we are. He is not there exactly like you’d say a rock is there, or your spouse: Christ is the power and the word of God, upholding and calling forth the world, present with us and active among us.
This leads me to think a little about Mother’s Day. We honor the mothers among us, but we also recognize those who wish to be a mother but never could, and all the ways motherhood itself is full of pain: with miscarriage and other ways pregnancy can go wrong, with the difficult choices in childbirth and childrearing. We know through motherhood that creation and the material world God loves is broken and in need, crying out in joy and in pain. And the Ascension means that God hears and answers our cries, and that the new birth of not only our bodies, but of this whole Earth, comes to us through the presence of Jesus Christ.
To believe in the Ascension is to believe that all of Creation is sacred because it is Godmade and Godfilled and Godloved. But most of all, it is holy because God chooses to enter it and reveal Godself to us. Present everywhere, God reveals himself in promises—in the Word, in the Sacraments, and in loving care for all things. We are people of the theology of descent—God comes down to us, and by coming to us, lifts us up. Or down. Or sideways. God fills all in all, and opens us to receive grace, wherever we are. Amen.
Reverend John Flack