This morning’s sermon, following our readings on the Ascension, examines a vexingly simple question: “Where, exactly, is Jesus today?”
This is one of those questions that pastors generally hope their confirmation classes don’t come up with: “If Jesus ascended from Bethany, off the southern slope of the Mount of Olives, where is he now?” You can almost see the raised eyebrows…
Supposedly Bishop Jack Spong was once talking with the late cosmologist Carl Sagan about the Ascension. As they were speaking, Sagan did some math in his head and told the Bishop: Even if Jesus’ velocity had increased to the speed of light, he hasn’t yet left our galaxy. He’s somewhere in the Milky Way.
This story gets at the heart of the tension today. We’ve learned a great deal about the nature of the universe since the writing of the New Testament. The idea that Jesus went up vertically into heaven is a little bit tricky to explain today. We don’t imagine a finite dome of the sky that Jesus could pass through and reach heaven, the way the first readers of this story would have. We know the universe doesn’t work that way.
Still, most of us grew up with picture Bibles or stained glass windows that featured (an often blue eyed blonde haired) Jesus, floating upward into the clouds. A friend of mine from seminary has a t-shirt that I’m very jealous of. It features an unmistakeable traditional image of the ascension. Jesus’ feet point downward, not touching the ground. His arms are lifted as he ascends toward the sky. And there’s a comic speech bubble for Jesus. He tells the disciples “BRB.” (Be Right Back) I want this shirt. 2000 years later, knowing what we do about the nature of the universe, why do we hold on to this story? How can we think about Jesus’ vertical lift-off?
It helps to set the Ascension alongside the teachings of other religious traditions. As you well know, Christianity is not alone in the idea that a religious leader went off to heaven. Our Jewish sisters and brothers share with us the story of Elijah riding the chariot of fire. In Buddhism, the idea is reversed. The Dalai Lama is thought to be the incarnation and reincarnation of a descended being, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, an enlightened deity who has postponed their own nirvana in order to help human beings achieve buddha-hood. This being has chosen to be reincarnated as a monk again and again to help humanity. So each time the Dalai Lama dies, they go looking for the next incarnation.
In Shia Islam, there is a belief in the hidden Imam. It is thought that the true leader, the savior, what Christianity would call the “messiah”, is a living person. The 12th Imam, the teaching says, lives among us, has for centuries, but this person is hidden from our sight. The former president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last summer that he believed the United States was trying to find and arrest the hidden Imam, in order to prevent Iran’s rise to power. But you have to take Ahmadinejad’s words with a grain of salt. This is the same man who claimed there were no gay people in Iran.
Jokes aside, these are strange stories, and they are at the heart of all the world’s religions. Could it be that we all share a sense of loss? Do we share a common discomfort, that great leaders of faith have left us behind?
Ronald Rolheiser, a priest, theologian, and spiritual director writes of a “Holy Longing” that lies at the heart of all human life. There is a fundamental dis-ease in our world. We are created for unity with God, but such a unity evades us. So we are filled with this longing, Rolheiser writes. This holy longing, this desire, can spill out without proper direction leave us frustrated. We can seek satiation in a relationship with a person, and be angered when they don’t complete us. We can look to find fulfillment in status or in wealth. This longing has the capacity to drive human beings to the edge of madness if the longing is left unfocused, or if we focus on an object that can’t satisfy our hunger.
The difficulty is in recognizing the longing. Listen again to the disciples’ question to Jesus: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” How many ways can we hear that question? We know the disciples longed for earthly power. They fight in the gospels over who gets to sit at Jesus’ left and right hand when he comes to reign. We know they longed for Rome’s downfall. One of Jesus’ disciples was a known zealot, a plotter of insurrection. The disciples long for the kingdom of God, but how do they imagine that kingdom? Do they imagine themselves in power? Do they imagine an armed rebellion?
The closest I’ve come to what I believe is an authentic description of Jesus’ kingdom comes from feminist liberation theologians. (And I promise I’m not saying that just because it is mothers’ day). In recent decades feminist scholars have noted that “kingdom” has a gendered tone. A kingdom is ruled by a king, no? Jesus’ preaching centers on this idea of the kingdom of God, and he describes it as a place of justice, of fairness, of equality. God’s kingdom is the anti-Rome. In Rome people are divided, citizen against noncitizen, slave against free, woman against man. In God’s kingdom, all are united. But if you call it a kingdom, the feminist theologians argue, you perpetuate the problem.
Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has proposed another name: the kin-dom of God. Notice, with the deletion of one letter, the whole meaning shifts. This word kin-dom flows similarly to the original, but a different image comes to mind, an image I believe is closer to Jesus’ intention. Kin-dom carries with it a sense of equality. With Kingdom you might think of border walls and a lavish castle in the capital for the King. With kin-dom you might see a picnic where all are invited to share.
Which do you long for?
There’s a troubling verticality to the Ascension as it’s often depicted. There’s a sense that Jesus is now above us all, looking down, “From a distance” as Bette Midler once sang. Good song, bad theology. That verticality, that distance, is problematic because it can serve as an subconscious endorsement of the hierarchies of our own human invention.
So if Jesus didn’t go “up” to the “heavens” where did he go?
The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, answers the question of Jesus’ location this way: “Jesus was raised into the coming kingdom of God.” Might we say: “Jesus was raised into the coming “kin-dom of God.” Jesus has done what he came to do in history. In his Incarnation and earthly life, in his death and resurrection, Jesus has disclosed the life of God to humanity. Jesus has shown God to be self-offering love. In the Ascension, humanity is brought into the life of God. The very hands that were scarred are lifted into God’s reign.
Moltmann, unlike Sagan, isn’t calculating an astronomical location. Jesus is not headed off for another star or planet. This isn’t a vertical liftoff. The Ascension is not physical, but metaphysical. Jesus’ Ascension gives our innate longing a direction. Like his preaching, like his healings, like his birth, his death, and his resurrection, the Ascension points us back to his promise: the kin-dom of God. Jesus’ Ascension gives us hope that we too, even us humans, will come into God’s kin-dom.
The hope is real, but the longing can be difficult. My mother tells a story from when I was about two and a half. She was preparing to go off to a movie with a friend. My dad was going to be in charge of me and my baby sister for the evening, which was not an uncommon event, but nonetheless I was prone to separation anxiety. So with all the sense of a two and a half year old supposedly I looked at my mother and said: “Don’t leave. I’ll cry.” My parents liked to quote this line at me anytime I tried to get my way at home growing up.
I wonder whether the disciples had a similar kind of thought. Why do you have to go Jesus? There’s still work to do. You’re leaving us behind? The longing is understandable. But, as Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels: he goes to prepare a place for us. His going gives a direction to our longing. We are to seek after the kin-dom of God.
I know that’s a long answer to a short question. Our tradition teaches that Jesus ascended, and it just took me roughly 1500 words to say where to. I’m not sure if any of our confirmation students would be satisfied. Luckily I have until next Fall until I teach another round of confirmation classes. Still, the Ascension gives me reason to say: “If deep in your heart you feel a longing, you’re on the right track. Keep looking for Jesus. Keep looking for God. Seek first the kin-dom.”