Dr Simon Perry
Jesus has been crucified, he has risen from the dead – and for several weeks, he has been knocking around in the company of the disciples. And Ascension Day is when we remember being taken up into heaven… I would love to have seen how this happened. When you glance through the history of art on this subject, for the most part, the scene is pictured as Jesus being beamed up into heaven like Captain Kirk onto the Enterprise. But regardless of how this happened, what has always fascinated me is what happened next…
Once the drum-roll is over, the smoke had cleared, the trumpets have silenced – and Jesus was gone – what happened next? What did the disciples do, once Jesus had been beamed up back into heaven? Where’s the history of great art depicting the disciples rolling their thumbs, scratching their heads, and asking such questions as: ‘what was that’; ‘he said he’d be back, right; and above all, “what shall we do now?”
Whatever else it means – the Ascension means that God is not with us. At least not in the way we were expecting, not in human form, not in the way that a normal person is present. This term, we are exploring what God with us means – and following the lectionary readings.
The lectionary is a table of set bible readings for each day of the year, designed to get every Christian in Christendom to be worshipping in harmony, hearing similar sermons and following the seasons of the Christian year. But as one of our theology professors pointed out a couple of weeks ago, we hit a curious issue with today’s reader. The reading from Revelation ends with the warning that if any words of this book are omitted then all the plagues from this book will be visited upon them – and then, the lectionary omits that verse from the reading.
The reading focuses upon the final return of Jesus… Sure he is gone, but he said he’d be back – and the book of Revelation speaks about what happens when Jesus returns. As part of his return, it seems, there are various groups of people who will be excluded from the new Jerusalem… The dogs, the sorcerers, the fornicators, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. So… the lectionary omits all that negativity and focuses upon the good news of the return of Jesus.
I’m not sure why – but one problem is that if you read Scripture carefully – and follow the logic of how our true nature is identified – then most human beings who ever lived can be assigned a place in that small group of nasty people who are excluded when Jesus returns. No wonder the lectionary omits all the nasty stuff that will happen to them. God with us, in this light, is bad news – it’s when Jesus comes back to punish anyone who has not lived a sinless life.
So when we stop to consider what God with us means, it seems to mean that while Jesus is not here, life goes on as normal, but when Jesus returns at the end of the space-time continuum – if we thought things were bad already, then he brings with him eternal damnation. But for now – we are safe, because he isn’t here! It’s this mentality that leads to the creation of that famous bumper sticker: Jesus is Coming – Look busy! Hardly surprising then, that beliefs concerning the presence of God and the second coming of Christ have fallen into disfavour.
The doctrine of the ascension then, means that Jesus is not present. The world is full of horrible stuff happening all the time, and if an omnipresent, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent god were walking among us – then the state of the world would be proof of divine incompetence of the highest order.
The doom and gloom of the world rarely needs restating:
Firstly, this week it has been announced that for the first time certainly in 800 000 years (and probably for 4 million years), co2 levels have risen above 400 parts per million – putting us into a dangerous new ecological age.
Secondly, economically, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund warned the British chancellor that UK’s austerity measures look too aggressive, and others that our economy is flat-lining and living standards falling.
And Thirdly, as if this were not bad enough, the boy-band JLS – have announced that they are to split.
In a world of such doom and gloom, where do we see the presence of the God who loved the world so much he gave his only son? Of course, Christian apologists go to work pointing at the wonder of the universe, and the beauty of the sunset, and the miraculous of the everyday, and the unlikelihood of life being possible in our universe. And of course, atheist apologists rightly ask why, if there is a loving and all-powerful god, there is also bone cancer in children, pointless death on a daily basis, and a total lack of any proof anywhere for the existence of a loving God.
Here it is easy to agree with the atheists – but the god imagined both by the apologists of new atheism or by modernist Christianity, seems to have a particular way of being present in the universe. As though God could or should be present with all power at his disposal to change everything here and now. For sure – part of what is recognised on the ascension is that Jesus isn’t here! And theologically, that makes good sense.
Jesus is not simply ‘there’, like an object alongside other objects in the world. He never did parade himself through our daily world anyway- as an omnipotent wand-waving Jewish superhero. The Jesus of the gospels did not overthrow Herod, he did not defeat the evil Roman empire, he did not end suffering, or violence or death. In fact, with reckless disregard for Health and Safety, he ended up carrying his cross – and encouraging his followers to do likewise. The Jesus of history never alluded to an omnipotent power to change the world by supernatural means – instead, he offered an alternative story of what it means to be human, of what it means to change the world, of what it means to exert force, and seek justice, and build peace.
Not by the strength of arms, by military, or economic, or charismatic power. Instead, he invited his followers to experience the world differently, to embody radical, self-giving love – he invited his followers to wait and see what that would do to the world around them… That is the way that Jesus made this God present – not a supernatural god who embodied pagan notions of power. Instead, he invites them into a way of being, into a way of engaging with others – and the consequences were that God, and nature and human nature all reacted in surprising and unexpected ways.
So when this Jesus disappears from earth – he leaves his disciples with a way of being, and way of relating to one another and the world around them, ways of being that access the most down-to-earth, natural, world-changing, wonder-working, life affirming stuff of the cosmos. No doubt, this will be brought out more fully by Professor Hooker who will speak on Pentecost next week, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
But for now, on Ascension Day – we are invited to reflect upon the absence of God. That is, the absence of a god we can get our hands on, a god we can objectify and fetishize, the absence of a God whose power is just more of the same old human power multiplied into infinity, the absence of a God who can be manipulated into answering prayers the way we want them answered, the absence of a God who brings about the justice that favours us rather than favours humanity.
Jesus, by withdrawing beyond human reach, and human sight – highlights the true nature of the sheer otherness of this God. The reminder that every belief about God is a human projection, the reminder that every statement about God can be tentative at best, the reminder that every claim to have God on your side is empty rhetoric. The withdrawal of God beyond the reach of human manipulation is what we celebrate today – but that does not mean the absence of God from our universe. Instead, it reminds us that God is universally present particular ways.
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is the starting point for speaking positively about what the presence of God means – and that is a subject we welcome next week.