May 16, 2021
Weekly Prayer List Recording
Sermon audio from Mark+
So What’s Next?
The function of imagination is to construct meaning out of events that are not directly observable to the human eye – and yet – events that nonetheless can be life changing.
It’s normally not possible to directly apprehend God, yet we experience the presence of the divine in our lives and in the events of the world around us. Religious imagination builds pictures that identify core values by which we live and bring into sharp focus choices to be made and directions of action to be followed or avoided, as the case may be.
There’s a problem, however. Traditional religious imagination is difficult for the modern mind. So conditioned are we by the tendency to assess truth claims only on the basis of observable and measurable data. Theology – that is the study of our experience of God in the world – privileges inferences felt but not seen. Between inference and experience – imagination builds a bridge.
With the Ascension the pivotal transition point is reached – when the ministry of Jesus becomes the work of the Christians community. It’s Luke who gives us the most explicit picture of Jesus’ ascension – painting the ascension as an event in the chronological sequence of events – from Jesus’ birth, through his death and resurrection to the inflating of the community of his followers with his Spirit at Pentecost.
We are presented with an image of Jesus ascending heavenwards. Jesus leaves the stage of the world of time and space to make way for what’s next in God’s ongoing work of creation.
So back to religious imagination. In the second book of the Kings, we have the story of the prophet Elijah’s ascension in a chariot of fire. To what extent this colored the way Luke imagined Jesus‘ ascension can only be conjecture. Yet there are two elements in the Elijah story that Luke also emphasizes.
The first and obvious likeness between the two stories is the image of ascending – though Elijah’s ascension out blockbusters that of Jesus by a factor of ten. The second likeness concerns what next. Elisha, Elijah’s disciple is given a double measure of Elijah’s spirit – symbolized by Elijah’s mantle falling upon his shoulders. Elisha can now continue his master’s prophetic ministry in Israel. Luke pictures Jesus instructing his disciples to go back to the city and wait to be – like Elisha – clothed from on high.
Luke’s real concern in his imagining of Jesus Ascension is -so what’s next?
Religious imagination offers multiple possibilities. For instance, when we look at the collects for the Ascension, we find there are two, not one set of images offered – each picturing a divergent priority for Christian action.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ
ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:
Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his
promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end
of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory
Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your
only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended
into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend,
and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
These collects pose opposite directions for what’s next.
The first collect stresses that after his ascension Jesus now filling all things will continue to abide with his people in this world. Whereas the emphasis in the second collect is on our pining for an unrequited longing to follow Jesus into the heavens where with him to dwell. The contrast is between the Spirit of Jesus living on and equipping the community of the church collaborate in God’s divine plan for salvation – and – a frantic plea to beam us up Scotty and to hell with this fallen world.
Reference to beam me up Scotty aside – in our contemporary religious imaginations the spatial images of up and down are more successfully replaced by those of side by side. Heaven and earth are replaced by a notion of God-Space and Our-Space as parallel dimensions side by side and crucially – occupying the same place and location.
Our modern imaginations are more shaped by quantum theory science fiction imaginings. The untenable imagery of the Middle Ages of Jesus floating up into the clouds is replaced for us by an image of side by side dimensions – an image that paradoxically brings us closer to how the writers of the New Testament understood the relationship between heaven and earth – not as heaven up there and earth down below – but as heaven alongside earth. For the early Christians God was everywhere and nowhere. An encounter with the energy of the divine was to be expected as an everyday occurrence in time and space.
Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ ascension can be thought of as a movement between parallel dimensions of Our-Space and God-Space – not distanced but occupying the same location. Heaven is right now, right here – not an up there of future hope. The physical Jesus crosses over into God-Space from Our-Space as the dynamic energy of the Holy Spirit moves back in the opposite direction.
This interdimensional movement of Jesus has another important result. In the birth of Jesus, the Creator came to dwell within the tent of the creation. In the ascension of Jesus – now pictured as an interdimensional movement, God embraces the fullness of our humanity within the divine community. Jesus’ humanity is not jettisoned as he passes through the dimensional boundary. God does not only receive back Jesus’ divine spirit. God crucially embraces to the fullest extent Jesus humanity – incorporating it into the heart of the divine community. The human now comes to dwell within the community of the divine.
Of course, this now has profound implications for our role in what’s next in God’s work of renewing the creation.
Jay Sidebotham, whom many of you may remember from his time as curate at St Martin’s during Dan Burke’s rectorship – in his most recent weekly Monday Matters piece entitled What Next wrote:
As we navigate emergence from COVID:
- How can we stay together in community, counting on each other for support? What community can you count on these days (even if it’s still on zoom)?
- How can we hold prayer at the center of our forward movement, recognizing our need for God’s gracious help? What will be your prayer? What will you ask for?
- How can we express our trust in the living Lord who promises that we will not be left alone? What promise from Jesus sustains you?
Somewhat tongue in cheek – he concludes:
If we can do these things in this unusual season, maybe we can celebrate Ascension Day by saying that things are looking up.