Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Sunday after Ascension
“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them
and was carried up to heaven.” (Luke 24)
Language is a tricky thing. If, for instance, I were to say to you, “Drive on the right side of the road,” you would most likely understand that to mean that you should always keep to the right.
If, however, I were to say to someone in England, “Drive on the right side of the road,” that person would understand me to mean something quite different: that one should always drive on the correct side of the road, which in fact is the left side.
Same words, same sentence, two very different meanings.
The trouble, of course, is that in order to function, we have to act as if words have pretty fixed meanings. Otherwise, we would not be able to communicate with one another at all. In a technologically based society, especially, we assume that concepts can be communicated pretty clearly and unambiguously: we all know the reference of words like app, device, mobile, and so on.
Which is precisely why, when it comes to religious language, we moderns struggle so much to grasp what is being communicated. We look for a literal correspondence between the words and their meaning, when most often the meaning is only obliquely indicated.
Take the gospel lesson today. The text says, that “Jesus withdrew from [the disciples] and was carried up to heaven.” When we hear that, we immediately start trying to picture what being “carried up to heaven” could mean, and so come up against the fact that such an event makes no sense to us whatsoever (knowing what we do about the skies above), and so we rather quickly dismiss the whole episode as preposterous.
That skepticism is enshrined right here in the church, for in the cycle of nine windows that tell the life of Christ, there is no ascension window—the story just stops up there with the risen Christ, which of course simply begs the question of “What then did happen to him in the end, and where did he go?”
Today and next Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, we are going to wrestle a bit here in church with the question of language, as it relates to religious faith—and in particular, with the question of how we speak of God. If such a simple statement as “Drive on the right side of the road” can have so much intrinsic ambiguity, then how much more so the words we use to describe a God who is by nature ultimately unknowable, indefinable, and indescribable. In short, religious people live inside a constant paradox: How does one speak, of that which is inherently ineffable?
Which brings us back to the ascension. Let’s focus in on that story for a moment. What has been happening is, that since Jesus’ death, the disciples have continued to have over and over powerful and vivid experiences of Jesus’ continued presence among them. At first skeptical of one another’s accounts of these experiences, by now they have all felt the power of Jesus, and share a common awareness that his death was a beginning, rather than an end. Each of the four gospels has different ways of telling the story, but the thread running through them is the same: Jesus is still very much alive, and they feel the power of his presence.
Now, however, we come to a moment when that power seems to be transposed. The disciples notice that it is less his personal presence that they feel, and more the power of God working in them as an abiding force—the presence the Holy Spirit (which we will celebrate on Pentecost). It is as if Jesus has withdrawn, and left in his wake a new and even more vivid spiritual gift.
So the disciples face a dilemma: how to describe their awareness of that shift, that change in their consciousness that something has happened?
Well, the answer comes in the same way that all spiritual realities are described in the Bible: in terms of story. The Bible is not a book of doctrine. It is not a book of philosophical speculation about the nature of God. It is not an app into which we can type where we want to go, and then have a voice tell us how to get there. It is however a book of stories, poems and songs with which we must wrestle and struggle our whole life, if it is to reveal to us who God is in relation to the creation, and who we are in relation to God.
So what the story of the ascension wants to convey to us, is that we are related to God through a Jesus who has not only come among us to dwell with us, but also as one who has returned to God, been “carried up to heaven” (as the text puts it), to show us the way.
If you think about it, even we have a manner of talking about someone’s death as “passing away.” More than just a euphemism, that phrase tries to get at the fact that at the death of a loved one, we are often aware of something more going on than a mere cessation of breath and heartbeat. If you’ve ever sat with a dying person, perhaps you too have experienced the sense of the giftedness that is in that moment, the giving back to God of the life that God first gives to us. It truly feels like a passing on, a passing over, a passing away.
So how much more did the gospel writers struggle for language that would indicate something even more dramatic in the case of Jesus: not just his “passing away,” but his ascending into heaven! The ascension narrative thus becomes one bookend on Jesus’ life that is there to help us make sense of it: the other bookend is the account of the virgin birth. But just as the ascension story has nothing to do with a physical account of a person’s ascent into outer space, so too the virgin birth has nothing to do with a biological account of Jesus’ nativity. Just like the meaning of the phrase, “drive on the right side of the road,” is entirely dependent on where it is said, the meaning of “born of the Virgin Mary” and “ascended into heaven” are likewise dependent upon the larger role they play in conveying to us the nature of who Jesus was, and who he is.
In each case, the point is that there is something unique about Jesus that distinguishes him from ordinary human life, even while immersing him it. And to communicate that “both/and” idea, his entrance into and exit from human life are narratively described in ways that remain distinctly human, and yet are also quite ethereal and otherworldly.
The Chinese science-fiction writer Ken Liu put it this way: “Overly literal translations, far from being faithful, actually distort meaning by obscuring sense.” The challenge for us, as religious people, is to recognize that in one degree or another, every thing we say about God is an overly literal translation. The idea of God, the meaning of God, is always beyond our language. And yet, as the Bible writers knew only too well, language remains one of the few tools we have to convey that sense. We must simply remain cautious and mindful of the ways in which we use it.
And that is a good place too leave off for today, as we look ahead to next Sunday, when our worship will explore both some of the limits, and some of the opportunities, that language gives us as we seek to express the true depths of the mystery of God. So, to be continued …