On the liturgical calendar, this Sunday was Ascension Sunday. Seen narratively/historically, the Ascension shows the promises of the Christmas carols to have been true: God has made Jesus King. He’s the one foreseen by Daniel, the Son of Man who will rule Earth from Heaven. Seen theologically, the Ascension shows us something even more mysterious: the eternal Son returning to the life of the Triune God.
And taking us with him. Our humanity.
It’s the latter reading I chose for this Sunday. Some sermons end up getting written purely for my own interest and enjoyment and this is one. The text was the Ascension story as told in Acts 1.1-11. Some of illustrations about space and motion are taken from Rob Bell’s surprisingly decent book, What We Talk about When We Talk about God.
You can listen to the sermon here or in the sidebar to the right. You can also download it here in iTunes or download the free mobile app here.
This past Thursday Christians celebrated the climax of the Easter season with the ancient feast day known as Ascension.
Show of hands- how many of you celebrated it this Thursday?
Don’t feel guilty.
What was once the high holy day when Christians rejoiced that God has made Jesus King over all the nations of the Earth- what was once a holy day is now just Thursday.
Ascension is now largely ignored.
It’s not hard to see why it’s ignored.
For one thing, if Christ has been given dominion over the Earth, if God has made Christ King of the world then Jesus doesn’t appear to be doing a very good job.
What about hunger? And war? Cancer and Verizon Wireless?
Maybe going from carpenter to King was too big a promotion for Jesus.
Maybe that’s why we ignore the Ascension.
But I think the real reason we ignore the Ascension is the embarrassing, unbelievable imagery of it.
The Ascension is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with Christianity in the modern world. It’s a primitive, superstitious picture in a rational, scientific world.
I mean the physics of it are all wrong:
Jesus being lifted up into the air like he’s drank too much fizzy lifting drink,
Jesus, the first astronaut, going up, up, up and away.
Exit stage heaven.
Why wouldn’t we ignore such a ridiculous image in the 21st century? Why wouldn’t we ignore the Ascension. It’s fantastical.
It’s the perfect example of why it’s so hard for modern people to take Christianity seriously.
To take belief in God seriously.
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the 2 angels ask the 11 disciples. But why wouldn’t they be looking up to the sky?
Isn’t that the whole problem with this passage? With believing in God in general?
They believed God was ‘up there.’
They believed the Earth was a flat, disk-shaped place around which the sun and the stars revolved. They believed the Earth floated on water, with the underworld below and heaven above just beyond the clouds. And they believed that between Heaven and Earth was more water, water that could inundate the Earth at any moment were it not for the firmament, the sky-colored bowl that sits over the Earth and holds back the oceans of universe.
And they believed in a Being who lived ‘up there’ above the Earth.
Beyond the clouds and the firmament.
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why wouldn’t they stand there looking up? They lived in an age where everyone believed in a Being up there. And isn’t that the problem the Ascension makes unavoidable for us?
We know God’s not up there, not above the clouds, not beyond the firmament. We know that that God doesn’t exist.
And if that God doesn’t exist, who’s to say God exists at all?
Where the disciples lived in an age where everyone believed in a God up there and disbelief was inconceivable, we live in an age where no one believes in a God ‘up there’ and disbelief in God altogether isn’t just a possibility it’s a real and growing option.
Maybe that’s the reason we ignore the Ascension.
It reminds us that we live in a different age.
But we didn’t get here overnight.
In 1637, Rene Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, was plagued by the anxiety that everything he’d been taught to believe to be true might be false.
Descartes locked himself away and set out to strip away all his received certainties- even 1+1 equalling 2.
Descartes wanted to arrive at what can be known apart from revelation. Apart from God.
Where the ancient starting point for all knowledge had been God, Descartes’ starting point was ‘Cogito ergo sum.’
I think; therefore, I exist.
With Descartes, we became the center of the world. Not God.
And when we became the center of the world, the goal of life shifted too.
From ‘The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever,’ as the catechism begins, to ‘the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.’
With Descartes, we became the center of the world and the starting point of all knowledge and ever since Descartes what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us.
To our senses.
And to our experience.
We didn’t get here overnight. It happened so slowly we’re not even aware of how shaped we are by it.
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
If we believed in them, then we might answer the angels and say we’re not looking because we think God’s ‘up there.’
We know God’s not up there. We know that that God doesn’t exist.
And maybe, more and more of us would say, God doesn’t exist at all.
After all, we don’t have to stand looking up to the clouds. We know what’s beyond them. Up there and out there.
We know that the universe is expanding.
And we know that the visible universe is a million million million million miles across, and all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from all the other galaxies in the universe at the same time.
They’re moving. It’s called the galactic dispersal.
We know that the solar system we live in is moving at 558 thousand miles per hour.
We know the Earth is moving around the sun at roughly sixty-six thousand miles per hour and does so while rotating at the equator at a little over a thousand miles per hour.
We know Earth’s surface is made up of about 10 big plates and 20 smaller ones that never stop slipping and sliding.
They’re moving and changing.
The Universe, the Stars, the Earth- everything is constantly moving and changing and expanding.
And so are we.
We lose 50-150 strands of hair a day (which is worse news for some of us than others).
We shed 10 billion flakes of skin a day.
90% of the dust in our homes is made up of the dead skin we shed.
Every 28 days we get completely new skin.
Right down to the atoms and cells, we are constantly moving and changing.
We know that. Not only do we know that there’s no firmament, we know there’s nothing ‘firm.’ Nothing is stable or constant. Everything is constantly moving, in flux. Everything is transitory, momentary. Moving from one way of existing to a new way of existing.
But that begs the question, a question even better than the one the angels ask:
If everything is constantly changing, if we are constantly changing right down to the hairs on our head…
then how can we be the measure of all things?
How can something in motion, something constantly changing, be the measure of anything?
Ever since Descartes, what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us, to our experience.
But we’re all passengers on the train called Earth, traveling through space and time at 295 times faster than the fastest bullet train in India.
And anyone who’s ridden on a train knows that everything looks normal and still until you try to take the measure of something out the window.
How could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure of anything like God? On this moving train called Earth, how could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure there’s no God? No Divine Being?
Just think about that word ‘being.’
We call ourselves ‘human beings.’
But the word being means someone who is constant. Someone who is still. Someone who is dynamic but doesn’t change.
The word being means someone who is necessary, as in, not caused by anything prior to it.
Someone who just is.
But we’re not like that at all.
Everything that’s created is caused by something else, is changing all the time. Every time you or I do something we change. Our history changes. Our experience changes. Our identity slowly and subtly changes. We become something that didn’t exist previously.
So when you think about it, we’re not really beings at all.
We’re not constant and changeless and necessary and permanent.
We’re not beings.
“Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” the angels ask.
More and more modern people look up to the heavens convinced there’s no Divine Being that exists out there.
But the irony is- it’s human beings that don’t exist.
As human beings, we don’t exist.
I mean, we can fly through the air through the miracle of aviation. We can split the atom. We can take someone who’s done nothing of consequence, like Kim Kardashian, and make them into a celebrity.
But as human beings, we don’t exist.
We’ve learned how to fit a computer into a tiny little phone. We’ve learned how to clone a sheep. We’ve learned how to wrap a chocolate chip pancake around a breakfast sausage and put it all on a stick.
But we don’t know what those disciples knew staring up at the sky.
That human beings…don’t exist. There’s no such thing.
Only human becomings exist.
Everything in creation is a becoming. Everything is growing and changing until it decays and dies.
Human beings- don’t exist.
Only human becomings exist.
‘God’ is the name we give to Being. ‘Being’ is the name God gives to himself at the Burning Bush: ‘I Am He Who Is.’ I am is-ness. Existence. Being.
As Thomas Aquinas put it: God is name we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’
Only God is Being. Only God is permanent and unchanging, eternal and necessary, without cause or antecedent. Everything comes from something else and when it dies or decays it contributes to the becoming of something else.
Only God is Being. There’s only 1 Being. There’s only 1 God. You can be sure the Jews staring up at Jesus in the sky knew that, knew there’s only 1 God, only 1 Being- knew that the One who said at the Burning Bush ‘I Am He Who Is’ is the only 1 who IS.
And that’s the answer to the angels’ question: ‘Why do you stand looking up?’
It’s not because they thought God is ‘up there.’ The God who is IS, Being itself, can’t be any where. Because such a God must be everywhere.
No, the answer to the angels’ question is that the disciples have a question of their own.
They’re wondering how it is that Jesus- flesh and blood Jesus, born of Mary Jesus, fully human Jesus, a human becoming like you or me- could enter- become- Being.
How can a becoming enter into Being?
It’s a good question.
It’s a question that gets at the very heart of the Gospel story.
The whole story of the gospels, from Christmas to Ascension, is how Being entered our world of becoming. The whole story of the Gospel is how the Holy Trinity, the one true Being took on the full reality of becoming: birth and life and suffering and death.
The whole point of the Ascension is that:
having taken on our humanity at Christmas
and having experienced our humanity to its fullest on Good Friday
and having that humanity emptied from the grave on Easter
today Jesus takes our humanity into the very life of the Trinity
today Jesus takes our becoming
Or, as the ancient Christians put it:
God became what we are; so that, we might join what God is: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The whole point of the Ascension- what the Church wants you to see in this image- is not the physics.
It’s that now the Trinity is no longer just an eternal community of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.
Now, because of the Ascension, the Trinity is 3 plus you.
I know what you’re thinking:
Being and becoming- Jason, this is hopelessly abstract. Jason, this has nothing to do with my life.
But trust me, it’s not. And it does. It does.
Last Thursday, a week before the Ascension, I went to Mt Vernon Hospital to visit a teenager who tried to commit suicide. It was morning and the attempt had been just the night before so when I saw him he was still angry.
To be alive.
‘I have no one’ he said.
‘And I don’t think I deserve to.’
I wish I could say I’ve sat through fewer conversations like that than I have.
And I wish I could say I’ve seen more people survive like him than I have.
Even if you haven’t been in that position before, it won’t surprise you to hear that the air in the hospital room last Thursday felt heavy.
Tragic is more like it.
But the tragedy isn’t just that all of us, we’re all just becomings- in motion, changing and growing until we die and decay- the tragedy isn’t that we’re all just becomings and he wanted to cease his becoming prematurely.
No, the tragedy is that that boy last Thursday, when he looks in the mirror he doesn’t see something that is beautiful and holy and mysterious.
The tragedy is that when he looks in the mirror he doesn’t see someone who is a sacrament, a flesh and blood vessel that points to and participates in the eternal Being of God.
The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look in the mirror.
The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look upon, speak to, interact with someone else.
It’s tragic because it flies in the face of the good news we learn today.
You’re more than just a creature. You’re more than just a becoming.
You’re more than just someone who needs to lose a few pounds. You’re more than what your ex thinks of you. You’re more than what that voice in the back of your head says about you. You’re more than what you do to pay the bills or pass the time. You’re more than whatever lines will be written on your gravestone.
You’re holy. You’re Beloved. You’re sacred because you’re a sacrament.
And so is each and every person in your life.
Because in Jesus Christ Being became what we are.
And today Jesus takes what we are into the Being of God.
“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” the angels ask.
But of course they would stare at Jesus in the sky.
They’ve just learned the answer to the most important question of all.
Not: ‘Does God exist?’ God is the name we give to Being itself. God is the answer we give to the question ‘why is there something instead of nothing?’ God, by definition, has to exist.
No, staring up at the sky, they’ve just learned the answer to the most important question: ‘Do we exist?‘
And the answer is yes. Because today Jesus Christ has ascended to God. Today he has ascended and is seated at the right hand of the Father.