On 12 April 1961 the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, was the first person to enter outer space and orbit the earth. Some sources attribute the following statement to Nikita Khrushchev: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there”. This statement points to some assumptions, even misunderstandings, about God and God’s relationship to the world. Too often we believe, speak, and even live as if God is “up there” and not down here… somewhere “out there” and not within. This kind of perspective creates a gap between God and humanity, between spirit and matter, between heaven and earth.
A literal reading of the ascension story might leave us looking up to heaven in order to get one last glimpse of Jesus. This is depicted in the stained-glass window of the Ascension here in the church (point). The difficulty is that we sometimes think of heaven as another place, in the way that we think of places in the world. The logic that follows this way of thinking is that if Jesus ascends to heaven, then he must go to another place. However, rather than looking up seeking to catch one last glimpse of Jesus, the Feast of the Ascension actually directs us to look within.
The Ascension of Jesus is about presence, and not absence. Jesus has not left us; rather, Christ has filled us. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “The ascension of Christ is his liberation from all restrictions of time and space. It does not represent his removal from earth, but his constant presence everywhere on earth.” The unity of humanity and divinity that was first revealed in the birth of Jesus is now brought to completion in the ascension of Jesus.
Jesus disappears beyond the clouds, not into some geographical location, but into the heart of all creation. He is no longer physically in front of his disciples, but rather within them.
The problem is that we sometimes distort what ascension and an ascended life mean. That distortion has invaded our theology and understanding of God. In this distorted view God, heaven, and holiness are up there somewhere, while we are stuck down here. In reality, the ascended life is already ours. Jesus’ ascension is not about his absence, but about his presence. It is not about a location but about a relationship. Presence, fullness, and relationship must surely be what lie behind the question of the men in white, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” It is as if they are saying to us, “Don’t misunderstand and disfigure this moment. Don’t deny yourselves the gift that is being given to you.”
In other words, the ascension of Jesus completes the resurrection. The resurrection is victory over death. The ascension, however, lifts humanity up to heaven. Jesus’ ascension seats human flesh, your flesh and my flesh, at the right hand of God the Father. We now partake of God’s glory and divinity. The ascension is more about letting go than it is reaching and grasping. The question for us is not, “How do we ascend?” That has already been accomplished. The question really is: “What pulls us down?”
What do we need to let go of? Fear, anger, or resentment often weigh us down. The need to be right or to be in control is a heavy burden. For some self-righteousness, jealously, or pride is their gravity. Many of us will be caught in the chains of perfectionism and the need to prove we are enough. For others it may be indifference or apathy. Far too many lives are tethered by addiction. Gravity takes many forms—and so I wonder, what is the gravity that keeps you and me from joining Jesus’ ascension?
I think this is an important question because I have been observing the many different reactions to the mass shootings of the last two weeks, both in Buffalo and in Uvalde. And I have been taking note of the various “solutions” offered to prevent this kind of horrific experience in the future. Here are some of my own thought and reflections:
- Even though Jesus said, “Do not be afraid”, many people purchase guns out of fear. The United States is the only country in the world where there are more civilian-owned guns than people; the latest statistic is 120.5 guns per 100 citizens. We truly are “exceptional.”
- Some suggest more fortifications for schools… and more armed guards… but the Uvalde Elementary School was locked (a teacher propped open a back door), and the armed guard was away from the building at the time. Are we going to turn supermarkets and houses of worship into armed fortifications also? Could we instead put the same funding instead into programs aimed at helping 18-year-olds who feel the need to go out and murder others? This would address the actual problem.
- We received a grant here from the State of Maryland for safety—and so we installed security cameras inside and out, and put bullet proof coatings on the windows to make us feel “safer”… but did the State of Maryland budget an equal amount of money to investigate what leads people to enter houses of worship and start shooting? This is something that would address the actual problem.
- As a result of that grant, I now have a button here to lock the nave entrance doors in case I see someone with a gun enter the narthex. I feel sad that I have sat in my chair looking out at all of you during the scripture readings and wondering what I would do if someone came in with a gun—I would feel helpless. Now, at least, I can lock those doors and ask you to move quickly to the side exits to try and clear the building as much as possible to lessen the carnage. But this does not address the actual problem.
- I am worried about apathy—I see it in myself. We say to ourselves, “Oh, another mass shooting this week.” We begin to accept this situation as the new “normal”. We give thanks to God that it wasn’t us. But when apathy sets in, we will never begin to address the actual problem.
- We do react emotionally when hearing of the latest shooting. But sometimes, to protect ourselves emotionally, we shut down and stop listening because you can only cry so much. I find myself doing that when watching the reports from Ukraine. But when we shut down, we will not address the actual problem either.
- I heard several politicians speaking at the NRA convention saying that there can be no restrictions on guns at all, because once there is one restriction, there will be more and more, with no end. This kind of “all or nothing” approach limits action that could be very common-sense. Cardinal Tobin (of Newark) said this week: “There is no convincing argument to justify the sale or possession of automatic rifles, oversize magazines, folding stocks, and other weapons that are used in an ever-growing number of massacres.” With a different approach, we could do something to actually address the problem.
- I have heard people blame the politicians: “Why don’t they do something?” But we elect the politicians who don’t do anything… so why don’t we do something?
What keeps us from joining the ascension of Jesus? What pulls us down? What do we have to let go of? Is it fear… or apathy…. or shallow thinking… or a lack of concern? The gravity that keeps us down is not creation or the circumstances of our lives. Gravity is not around us, but within us. So, as you begin to look at your life and identify the places of gravity, do not despair. The very things that hold us down also point the way to ascension. Our participation in Jesus’ ascension begins not by looking up, but by looking within. Jesus left us physically, but he told us not to be afraid, and assured us that he would continue to work though us. It’s important that we let Jesus get to work, and not get in the way. That’s the whole point of the Ascension!