Midweek Musing: Moving from resurrection to living

These were my thoughts for the Wesley congregation, worshipping at 9 am and 10:30 on Sunday 13 May. 

Biblical stories: The Ascension of Jesus from Juke 24:44–53 and Acts 1:1–11 




I am not so much interested in the empirical details of what may or may not have happened in the ascension of Jesus to heaven. I am interested in what the disciples felt, what they understood, and how that changed their empirical, actual, living and being. We get a sense of that in the breathless quality to this story, as with so many of the stories of Jesus resurrected. We also get a sense of the impact on the disciples in the very fact of the story being told for long enough that it became part of the foundational stories of the Christian faith movement.



More to the point, however, I am interested in what we feel, hearing this story, and how our encounter with the story, and with God, with Jesus, through the story, will change our living and being. This is a story of transformation and of action.



The story of the ascension forms something of a transition from the experience of Jesus resurrected to the living of the reality that is proclaimed by Jesus’ resurrection: the reality of new life and a new way of being. Easter is a season of such transition for us. Each year we enter again on Easter day the breathlessness of disciples discovering that death has been undone, then pause to linger here for these seven weeks in the awe and wonder and mystery, before we lose our breath again in the story of Pentecost, as the Breath Wind Spirit, the ruach of God knocks us off our feet then puts a fire in our bellies to the crack on with living into the resurrection.

Pause



If we are to live the resurrection, we must know it, know its story well enough that we can embody it. If we are to know a story, understand it well, we must encounter the story again and again. I don’t usually like to explain stories, but rather to let them speak for themselves. But that works better when a story has been composed and presented to an audience with that audience in mind. We are not the audience the author had in mind, and we have none of the cultural capital of that original, intended audience, so there are gaps when we hear it and we can’t fill them on our own. We do need some exploration and explanation, or at least to name our questions. And of course, if you’ve walked out of a theatre or cinema after a play or a movie, you’ve unpacked the story with your fellow audience members, told your own stories that were evoked by the characters and their story, wondered at motivations and plot developments,

So let us wrestle with the details of this story of the ascension of Jesus as told by the author known to us as Luke (he wrote both the gospel and Acts).



Luke tells us that Jesus opened their minds. Was this a magical moment, like a Vulcan mind meld or Jedi mind trick, or are we to picture an unfolding understanding through conversation over a number of hours?

Or perhaps this encountering of Jesus as Divine, with the spiritual presence and ability to be anywhere, as they’ve always known God to be, finally makes sense of the person they experienced as an embodied human being, and now their minds have been opened?

There is a continuity of the Jesus they know from pre-death and resurrection to post- resurrection but there is also a discontinuity from that earthly being in this new mode of being. This is an idea to which I will return.



The emphasis on Jerusalem and the Temple is important to note in the story. Jerusalem is synonymous with Judaism: the new creation, new age that begins with the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, begins here with the set aside people of God, the ancient nation of Israel. This new age does not discard Israel for others. But the story of God Most High is no longer limited to one people only, but is opened up as a story for all. And it begins in Jerusalem. The story, too, continues as much as it experiences some discontinuity from what has been.

As Luke expands on the story in Acts, Judea, Samaria, and the whole earth are named for the telling of this story. The new age embraces not only Gentiles, who are the classic other to the Jews, but also Samaritans – example of the enemies of the Jews.

We want to note in the story an obedience in the disciples as they return to Jerusalem to stay as Jesus commands them. So that when the men in white in Acts – angels? – remind them to stop looking to heaven and instead trust that Jesus will return, with the implied challenge to crack on with their living into the resurrection opening of the story of God beyond these old borders, we assume that they will again obey. The Acts of the Apostles tells that story. And, intended or unanticipated audience, we are to follow suit. We will consider in a moment what the story of the resurrection is that we are to take from this liminal space of awe and wonder into our ordinary every day.



Jesus lifts his hands in blessing, and this where I can tell you one way my story, and indeed our story, is evoked by this story – there is a liturgical richness I experience when I lift my hands in blessing among the gathered people. There is an openness to this stance, both to God and to you, an opening of myself to give and to receive with you and with God. Can you see Jesus standing, open, in blessing his disciples, his friends?

The disciples are said to worship and to bless God – I find that a strange notion, that I would bless God. It feels like that is the province of God, to bless, or perhaps we may bless one another. But in that stance of openness, receiving and giving, perhaps it makes sense, that, receiving blessing from God, we offer blessings in return. And we bless God when we bless each other.



Jesus withdrew and was carried up. In Acts, Luke adds the detail of a cloud that took him. Is Jesus’ withdrawal a simple, practical, stepping back to make space for heaven to embrace him in that moment? Is it part of the being carried up, that he was now finally leaving his earthly way of being to fully enter his resurrected mode of being? It is a withdrawal. Which may feel like a contrast to what Jesus says at the end of the gospel according to Matthew – I am with you always, even to the end of the age. There is a very real sense of paradox about Jesus and how he is present with his followers now: here, but not. Of our God, Holy One, Holy Three, we have known Wisdom or Word differently through Jesus the human person. We have also known the Creator differently, with the name Abba, Father, important for Jesus the human first century Jewish person. Now, after the resurrection, we get to know the Spirit in a new way, too, helping Jesus’ followers to experience encounters with Jesus in his new mode of being. The Divinity of Jesus is pronounced in these encounters with him, resurrected.



In the resurrection appearances, the disciples encounter the Sacredness of Jesus that they know to be qualities of God – a spiritual being, able to be anywhere, not bound by the flesh. But he is still fundamentally Jesus – his life lived on earth matters. Which helps us to affirm our continuing life on earth, the continuity of the old age. But life lived on earth for followers of Jesus is life lived participating in his resurrection, which brings about the beginning of the new age, new creation, and so there is a discontinuity with the way things have been, even if it is only in glimpses, and promise, and hope.



In resurrection, Jesus continues to be the person he was, recognisable to his friends, but who lives is not Jesus in that shared human form, but Jesus the Christ, the Divine. Jesus has been transformed through the resurrection into a different mode of being.



We know the resurrection not only by knowing the story well, but by living the resurrection. By living in a new mode of being that bears witness to the new age that has begun. Just as the invitation to be part of the people of God has not dismissed the original exclusive people of God, the Hebrews, Israelites, or Jews, so too God has not abandoned creation by sweeping it entirely away for the new. Resurrection life is like a seed transforming into a flower, the same and yet radically different. This is what Jesus calls us to live: creation is still good, as God declared in the beginning. It is being transformed from within, dying is being undone, and new life offers hope and promise and glimpses of the new creation unfurling.



Jesus’ resurrection is completed in the ascension into heaven. Whatever we believe about the physical empirical actualities of the events and experiences of the resurrection and ascension, these stories invite us to participate in the breathtaking hope of a new mode of being.

But for resurrection to take place, and although the final death has been undone, a kind of death still must happen. This has been the subject of much of our musing through Lent and Easter – seeking a deeper understanding of death and its necessary part in life. And we remember that Christian spirituality is a constant movement through some kind of dying, letting go, transformation, to new life.



And now we move from the stories of Easter and Jesus’ appearances as the resurrected Christ, towards the anointing of the community of resurrection life. Our next move will be with the disciples, to look forward, offer our blessing, our worship and our obedience, and crack on with living the resurrection, living life on earth as it is in heaven.



So,


Why stand you there, looking heavenward?
In a cloud he left you, in a cloud
he comes again: the cloud is you.
'You will be my witnesses,' you heard
him say – crowd in around the story,
shout loud the invitation from the hills,
the time is now and always, see heaven
here, be heaven here on earth.

Amen.



[praythestory.blogspot.com]

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