A Transforming Moment

[]We are at the end of the Easter season and Jesus' earthly life and ministry are now over. We have gone through many seasons and we begin again next Sunday with the season of Pentecost. But things are now different, and things were different for those disciples. It is interesting that in the early church when the writers were telling the story of who Jesus was, not every group heard the same stories. In fact, only in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles (which scholars believe was also penned by the writer of Luke's Gospel) do we find the story of the ascension. Interestingly, though the same author may have penned both stories, there are slight differences. In the Acts of the Apostles, it says that Jesus was with his disciples for forty days. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus' ascension is the same day as the day of resurrection…Jesus appears to them throughout the day and then in the evening ascends to heaven. How can we explain this difference? Was the ascension on the day of resurrection or was the ascension after forty days?

The audience reading or hearing the Acts of the Apostles may not also be reading or hearing the Gospel of Luke at the same time. It is a summary of the end of Jesus' life and the beginning of the church. The church that forms and receives the Spirit and then goes out and tells the story was a mixture of all kinds of people, Hebrew people as well as gentile people. For the Hebrews, it would be important to understand a period of forty days. For Christians, we remember Lent as the period of forty days when Jesus was tempted and was being prepared for what was to come…and that was his trial, crucifixion, death and ultimately his resurrection.

But if you were a Hebrew and you heard about forty days, it would also signify to you something else. If we remember the story of Noah, it rained for forty days and forty nights, a period of cleansing and preparation for the earth to begin anew under God's instruction through Noah. When the Israelites left Egypt and went through the Red Sea, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, a period of preparation. The people sinned against God and were angry with God for leading them out into the wilderness and giving them only manna to eat, and they had to stay in the wilderness for forty years so the next generation would be prepared to move into the Promised Land. So if you were a Hebrew, hearing this story of Jesus and wanting to understand this new church, hearing that would give you comfort because there is some sense of divine nature in the number forty. It is a special and holy number. So for those Israelites or Hebrews who were hearing the story, that would be part of the convincing proof that Jesus was who the Christians proclaimed him to be, and that maybe this was a church they should be part of.

Another difference we hear between the two stories is that in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus ascends from Jerusalem, and he tells the apostles to stay there. "Stay here in Jerusalem and wait for the promised Holy Spirit." In the Gospel of Luke, it doesn't happen from Jerusalem, but Jesus leads them out to Bethany and Jesus ascends from Bethany. I can't tell you what the reason is for the two different locations, except that perhaps the location wasn't as critically important. Perhaps when Acts was written, they were reflecting on Jerusalem being the holy city and it might seem more convincing and more appropriate that Jesus would ascend from Jerusalem, the place of the holy temple.

The stories are different and yet, in a profound way, they are the same. In both stories, Jesus is with the disciples and he is talking to them, explaining to them, and even blessing them up until the very end, and then he makes his ascension into the heavenly realm. In one passage, it is with a cloud. In the other passage, Jesus is just speaking to them, blessing them, and he just ascends and goes up into heaven.

For those of us today, with the eyes of faith or the heart of faith, we can say, "Okay, we can embrace that." This was Jesus, wasn't it, the Son of God? Of course, Jesus who had been resurrected and exalted would go up into the heavens in the presence of the disciples so that they could see and be witnesses and be that much more certain about the task at hand and who it was who was sending them. But for our modern sensibilities, this doesn't seem very rational, does it, that someone would lift up bodily in their presence and go up into the heavens? But here again is something we must take on faith. What we understand as the existence of this world is not the same when it comes to God's kingdom, which is much greater than this world. What we see as the 'temporal' in this life is 'infinite' in God's realm.

If Jesus was able to raise the dead to life and to heal people, could he not also be exalted in such a way? It is a profound thing for us to think about. As a child growing up in Sunday School, I never questioned that one bit. "Okay, Jesus went up into heaven right there in their presence. It makes sense to me. The same man could touch people and make them speak who could never speak, or make them hear who could not hear, could make the blind see, and could even raise someone from the dead." After embracing all of that as a child, how could I not embrace Jesus ascending into the heavens? And really, it wasn't until critical study and realizing, "Gee, this isn't present in Matthew, Mark and John; why is that?" that I really had to stop and think about it.

Does it mean that possibly this did not occur? I don't know; I wasn't there. But we trust the word of the witnesses who were there. We see that the power of that transcending moment that gave them such joy is what spurred the church forward all these centuries to what it is today. This holy experience transformed them and those around them. It is a moment that we have to think about and pray upon and realize that, for God, anything is possible. It also reminds us that, with our rational minds, things we think are impossible may not be impossible. It opens us to a whole new reality of how God's presence in our lives can be much greater even than we may suspect or expect. And for me, that is exciting.

If I were there and saw this happen, I would have felt the extreme joy that the disciples felt. Imagine being in the presence of Jesus all that time, going through the highs and lows of his ministry to the point of being afraid for your own life because they had seized Jesus, nailed him to a cross, and killed him. But then Jesus appears before them alive again, reminding them of his predictions of his passion, reminding them of what God had said in the Scriptures centuries ago, showing them that all these things were planned and promised to take place. "Here I am, and here is the proof, the nail holes in my hands." In some passages, Jesus even sits down and eats with them, assuring them that he was not a ghost. He actually ate with them, drank with them, and walked with them. And here is Jesus in his earthly form ascending into the heavens, transcending what we know to be the limits of this earthly existence. And yet even as Jesus is leaving the disciples, and we might think that they had great fear, there is the excitement of knowing that prophecy had been fulfilled after thousands of years, that they had been witnesses to what would be one of the most amazing events in human history. They got to witness the Messiah and to be present until the very end when he ascends to the heavenly realm to be exalted. What a great joy!

And to calm any fear they might have, Jesus promises, "Wait here. The Holy Spirit is coming, and that will be your guide in my absence. You don't need me here. Remember what I have said. Go and do what I have taught and let the Spirit be present with you to guide you." And that Spirit comes next week on Pentecost. These apostles, these twelve, and others who also followed Jesus will be filled with the Spirit, and the church is born. And the church will go forth with great joy and excitement with an amazing story of God's love, with an amazing story of the Messiah having come after promises in Scripture over thousands of years. "He has come. We were witnesses of these things. No longer do we have to be bound by the fears of our earthly existence because rationally we know one thing, but we have seen the other and know that there is much that is amazing in God's kingdom. We are to go and preach and teach the good news to everyone so that they too can have this joy, to be freed from all of their worries, to be freed from all of those things that make us fearful in life, to know that God is there and present."

So the Spirit comes and the disciples are so excited that they go forth. We owe them a debt of gratitude because if they had seen Jesus ascend to the heavens, received the Holy Spirit, but then not proclaimed the good news, we would not have our faith. But they were transformed in that moment and they realized that they transcended what we understand to be possible. And we inherit that from them; we inherit that same Spirit. God is an amazing God. And though what we have heard about and been taught for many generations has inspired us, there is even more to come. And the Spirit will be our guide for that.

Though we live in the temporal world, there will be transcending moments when we experience the holy. And when those moments come, they are moments of profound joy. Seize the joy that the disciples had in these moments. Realize that, for the people of Israel who had been waiting for the Messiah, the promise has been fulfilled. This is good news, and we have to go out and tell everyone. That is what they did; that is what we are to do.

So think and pray on this story and see how it might transform you. Remember those moments in your life when you experienced the holy or transcended, even for just a brief moment, the life that we know in this existence. If you can remember that, it will be a moment of joy. So seize it, tell the story, and let us wait again for the Spirit to come.

May 24, 2009

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