Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ascending With Jesus: Seeing With Different Eyes

As we continue our journey through the Church’s liturgical year, Easter and the resurrection fades in the rear-view mirror, and we pass onto the road less travelled. If you are Orthodox or Catholic, chances are you have some familiarity with this part of the year, but on the whole, Protestants do not. If we follow the trail-map laid out in the lectionary, we find that the next mile-marker to be aware of is an event that takes place 40 days after the resurrection (June 2 this year, and observed in church on June 5) called the Ascension. It marks the day when Jesus was taken up from the disciples[1]. So far as we know, it’s the last time the disciples or anyone—with the possible exception of Paul—ever saw Jesus “in the flesh”. (Ten days after that, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on a group of Jewish believers in Jerusalem, and ushers in a whole new chapter of God’s Story as the Church is born and becomes the means through which the Message of Jesus will spread around the world.)

Despite what the Gospels say, I can’t help but think that for the earthbound disciples, the Ascension was probably a bittersweet day. I mean think about it, they are just beginning to wrap their brains around the astonishing fact that there friend and master has risen from the dead—a feat no other person had accomplished before nor has been repeated sense—and now they have to say good bye all over again. It had to feel like emotional whiplash.

Jesus tried over and over again when he was alive to explain to them what was going to happen. He told his followers, and showed them by his example, that it is better for them, and more importantly, for the world, that he departs from them. He has also assured them that he will not leave them alone to face the world. On some level, the disciples may have been beginning to understand this, but keep in mind we’re only talking about a little over a month since the resurrection. If it were me, I think I would still be a little dazed and confused after all that had happened recently. I would think they still would feel a sense of loss as they stood on that mountain and watched Jesus disappear. Did they really believe the promises that Jesus had made? Could they possibly have fully understood them at that point? Maybe… but I think it’s more true to life to assume that they were probably were still struggling with quite a bit of unbelief and uncertainty about what was going on.

These men and women have become intimate friends of Jesus; hey literally did life together for the past three years. Up until now, whenever any of them wanted to talk to Jesus, they went to him and spoke with him face-to-face, the way you and I converse with our friends—remember, no e-mails, texting, or Facebook back then! Now, all of a sudden, Christ is no longer with them in bodily form. The physical separation had to be difficult at first. It might not be unlike what you and I feel when we lose a loved one to death.

Of course Jesus wasn’t dead; he was very much alive. In fact, he’s now more alive than ever! For a time the Second Person of the Trinity voluntarily chose to limit himself to a human body so that he could set us free to be all we were created to be as human beings. Now, however, that time has past! The Ascension marks the moment in time when Jesus returns to his rightful place in heaven and resumes the form he has had since the Beginning. Jesus now exists as he always existed; he reigns over Creation as Spirit, and spirit is every bit as real as the physical body.

The problem is that, like most human beings, the disciples aren’t used to interacting with a Spirit. We typically interact with other human beings who also have bodies just like us. But now they have to learn to cultivate a relationship with a real Person that they cannot see with their eyes. I can imagine that it might have been difficult at first. They had to adjust their vision to a new reality. It took time… and practice but eventually they began to see—in fact they came to “see” Jesus with clarity they never had before.

This, more than any other fact, probably accounts for the transformation we see in the disciples between the Gospels and Acts. We see disciples who denied, betrayed, and abandoned Jesus changed into bold and courageous preachers and evangelists who spread the Gospel all around the Ancient World.

As we begin to see and experience the fullness of who Jesus really is, we can begin to “see” and experience the fullness of all we have been created to be.

In your Ascension,

May I also ascend,

To give my full attention,

As your servant and your friend.

— “In Your Crucifixion”, Brian McLaren

I certainly seek to experience that “fullness” in my life but if I am honest, at times it seems elusive. I think I relate a little bit to what these men and women must have felt after the Ascension. It’s fair to say that I too have been struggling to “see “ Jesus lately. All that we have lived through over the past few years has taken its toll on me. Life experience and theological reflection have converged and resulted in soul-searching in recent days. I’ve been challenged to think about what I really believe. I have changed and while it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it has certainly impacted my faith and my experience of the divine. I don’t feel blind to God’s presence, so much as I feel like my vision has been blurred. I find myself in a new place (both theologically and experientially) and I am still adjusting my vision to the new reality.

Some of the old ways I used to connect with God don’t seem as effective as they once were and I seek to discover new ones that work in the place I now find myself.

I do see glimpses of new things God may be doing in my life but I struggle to gain clarity about my specific role in the process. I try to move forward hoping to gain clarity as I journey and it’s happening but it’s not a fast process. It takes time… it takes patience… it takes practice. And like the disciples in the presence of the risen Lord, I don’t think I always trust what I’m seeing.

As I have wrestled with my beliefs and struggled at times to “see” God, a song has spoken to my spirit. Perhaps the words that resonate the most are from its second verse and chorus.

In oceans and hills, and in ancient skies;

Hidden in faces and pain and delight; glory is here,

And I get a glimpse of You.

In silence and prayer; in bread and wine;

Somehow the common become the divine.

You’re making me new.

I’m starting to see You.

Our praises arise.

As we come to recognize.

Jesus is near.

Glory is here.

Glory is Here”, Michael Gungor Band

I like the song because it challenges me to see God in places where I might not be accustomed to looking for God’s presence… but it also lifts up some places and spaces where I have often sensed the divine presence—e.g., nature, other people, contemplation. It affirms that God is in all things, not an impersonal force of nature, but a brooding Spirit that enlivens all living things and equips them for their specific role in the ongoing drama of Creation. My challenge is to learn to “see” God in all the places, faces, and spaces along my journey where his Spirit dwells.

[1] The Synoptic (meaning they are similar) Gospels all briefly mention this event [Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:19-20 (the longer ending of Mark); Luke 24:50-53] as does Acts 1:6-11. Interestingly John’s Gospel doesn’t really mention the Ascension per se.

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