The Ascension never happened. It was not an historical event. If a tourist with an iPhone had been present at Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. Jesus ‘going into God’ has always been a theological statement.
The important question for most biblical scholars therefore is not whether it happened but what it meant. And given what it might have meant, is that the only way of conceiving of God?
The Ascension meant firstly that the heart of Jesus is for all time in the heart of God, because the heart of God was experienced in Jesus. Luke symbolises this with the going-up-into-the-clouds scenario. The disciples’ experience of Jesus was so overwhelming that they saw in him ‘the human face of God.’ All Christian understandings of God derive from this initial experience of Jesus.
Secondly, given that Jesus was now dead and gone yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the early movement used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them. Luke paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up [the Ascension] and a windy, fiery spirit coming down [Pentecost]. John’s Gospel doesn’t have Jesus going up at all. Rather Jesus is already ‘one’ with God, as per our text today (John 17:11). Heaven is now. To receive the spirit Jesus simply breathes on his disciples and tells them to receive it. For Matthew and Mark the bequeathing of the Spirit doesn’t happen. They just expect believers to get on with it.
The formulation of the Trinity three centuries later would pick up these Ascension and Pentecost themes. However it would be a different painting altogether using Greek colours to radically revise the Jewish canvas.
Both the understandings of the biblical authors and the 3rd and 4th century church shared a common belief in a three-tiered universe. Earth, the middle tier, was flat. God lived above on the top floor, and Sheol or hell was in the basement. That’s why Jesus went up – up was where God was said to be. That’s why traditional Christian liturgies still use the flat-earth language of God up top sending Jesus down then taking him back up in order that the Spirit might come down in order that believers might be able to go up.
I think the notion of a God up top speaks to our human longing to be rescued. There are many people who have felt like they are drowning in pain, misery, depression, and/or isolation. They have cried out for help. The life support of family, friends, and caring agencies haven’t always met their needs. They don’t feel they have the resources within themselves. They pray for an up top God, especially a friendly-looking Jesus God, to come and save them.
I understand that prayer. I empathize with those who pray it. I just don’t think it’s an accurate depiction of the oneness of God known in Jesus. That God, to continue the metaphor, was in the troubled waters with those drowning rather than plucking them out, in the form of you and me. That God did not and does not defy the laws of gravity but rather encourages people to swim and help those who can’t.
To be a little simplistic for a moment, there are two primary notions of God in the scriptures. One is an up top God, who has power, directive power, and like a feudal king determines policy and requires our obedience. The other is a god energy or spirit, which is known in acts of mercy and justice. This god does not so much require our obedience as our creative participation in doing these acts of mercy and justice.
The up top God is named in categories of power: like Father, King, and Lord. The other god is named in categories of giving – compassion, love, and loss. The up top God was developed when the three-tiered universe was understood as a fact. Whereas today we would say there is no top floor and basement. There is just this beautiful, wondrous universe in which the energy of love lives, moves, and has its being. Such earthed theology gives rise to an ethic that treats fellow humans, other creatures, and our environment compassionately and respectfully, even if it is to our individual personal detriment.
On the other hand theology with God on top, above and over us, gives rise to an ethic of trying to live up to what that God wants - as interpreted by an ecclesiastical elite. The heavenly rescuing God will only save us, they say, if we are good and do and believe what we are told. Those elite often collude with the political and economic elites in the name of ‘stability’; and the poor stay poor, albeit with some charity, and the rich stay rich, albeit with some tax breaks.
The Ascension story says Jesus is not here. He’s gone, gone for good, gone into G-o-d… gone from our sight, and gone from our control. So don’t go looking for him.
The historical Jesus was a window frame through which we could understand God. Now, with the metaphor of ascension, we view God without the frame. If Jesus showed us the meaning of God is love, and – as Meister Eckhart said, the best name for god is Compassion - then the divinity of Compassion can be found and experienced in all sorts of wonderful and strange places, among all sorts of wonderful and strange people, among people of faith or no faith, of high morals and no morals. Ascension theology says there are no limits on divinity. Divinity is beyond our control. Our task is simply to be compassionate, and in this way to be one with the god called Compassion.
The Hebrew scripture text for today (Genesis 32) is from the legend of Jacob. We know he’s a trickster, and has cheated his twin (but first born) brother out of his inheritance. Now, many years later, they are to meet up again. Esau has always been physically stronger than Jacob, and now Esau has many more armed men than Jacob. So Jacob is scared. He also calls out to the God up top to save him (reminding God of past promises in case God has forgotten). On hearing nothing from the deity Jacob then sends gifts to Esau to hopefully pacify him. Indeed Jacob sends all his possessions ahead of him (including his most cherished – his wives and children), until he is alone.
Then, frightened and alone, Jacob has a dream. Or is it? He wrestles all night with a man, a messenger from God. Or is it god Jacob wrestles with? Is he wrestling face to face with Yahweh? Or is it, putting on our best counselling/psychotherapy glasses, himself he is wrestling with? Is he looking into his past, his identity, his need for power and fame, and struggling with it? He asks for a blessing, but receives a new name instead. And a limp. Maybe it is actually his now permanent wound that is the blessing. And although that crisis with Esau would pass (due to Esau), Jacob didn’t from that moment on have a blessed life. He continued to make screw ups.
Naming something is problematic in that by naming we might assume we have a handle on it. Like we know what we are dealing with. Like we know the nature of it, and therefore it is predictable. It has long been acknowledged in theological circles that language is a problem. How do we talk about that which is beyond language, like G-o-d?
This story from Genesis 32 I would suggest shows one understanding of G-o-d as the up top all-powerful saviour that one cries out to in distress. But the text also shows another understanding of divinity which wrestles with us as we face ourselves; and which wounds us. The blessing is not gain (not more power over a brother), but loss (and maybe more peace in oneself). Maybe this God is known in the struggle to be at one with oneself and with one’s circumstances.
Mechtild of Magdeburg (who lived from about 1210-1280) talked about sinking into, or dissolving into, God. So, the Feast of the Ascension which traditionally celebrates Jesus going ‘up’ into God can be thought of as Jesus dissolving into the god/love who/that is all. But Mechtild is not talking about this sinking or dissolving as something that happens just at death, but is using this metaphor to talk about the spiritual life now.
This is the understanding of many of the mystics that we are in God; that God is not a being but being itself. So to be in G-o-d we both open our spiritual eyes to the reality of a different way of conceiving god and we choose to participate in godding by acts of mercy and justice. To use Pauline language, ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God’, so we become one with love by freely choosing to place ourselves on the side of love. As Julian of Norwich said, “The ground of the compassion is love, and the working of compassion keeps us in love.”
Or as those messengers/angels in the Acts version of the Ascension effectively said: ‘Don’t look for Jesus or God in the clouds, but follow the Jesus spirit in living out his vision of compassion.’