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The Promised Spirit

Preached:   May 5, 2013  (Ascension Sunday)
Scriptures:  Acts 1; Luke 24

He ascended into heaven – where have we heard that line before?  Apostle’s Creed.

The book of Acts was written from a first-century worldview in which most people believed in a three-tiered universe.  Imagine a cosmic sandwich.  One tier was the surface of the earth.  A second tier was a shadowy underworld beneath the earth’s surface.  The third tier was heaven, which was understood to be above the sky.  In this three-tiered cosmology, the sky was the barrier between earth and heaven.  The sun, moon, and stars were thought to be stuck into the dome of the sky.  From the perspective of a three-tiered universe, it made sense to talk about Jesus being lifted up on a cloud, the apostles looking up toward heaven, and Jesus descending back down from heaven in the Second Coming.

When European missionaries came to South Africa, they were faced with a theological conundrum. The indigenous people, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana believed that “God” who they named The Biggest One or The Way Opener lived in the ground. Caves and holes were sacred spaces.

The European missionaries recited the creed that God lived in heaven located up in the sky, and also that there was a place called hell deep in the earth. They attempted to change the psyche and shift the paradigm of Africans from believing the God of the deep to believing the God of the sky. You can imagine this created a deep conflict in the soul of Africans about where God lived.

On a flat earth it was easy to point to where God lived. God was up beyond the dome and in fact was partly the dome itself holding back the chaos that seemed so close in that early world devoid of simple scientific rationale.  it was easy to speak of Jesus ascending back to God, back beyond the dome.

Using a globe for our own perspective:  Where is up when you look at a globe?
Who decided that the north pole should be on top?
Who decided that Australia/NZ should be called The Land Down Under?

Today, we live on the other side of the 16th century and the Copernican Revolution, proving that we live in a heliocentric solar system. Heaven is not on the other side of the sky.  To make sense of the Ascension today, we have to reconcile traditional Christian orthodoxy with a more challenging scientific worldview. It is insufficient to refer to a historic creed as an answer to a theological question.  And yet,  how we might understand the ascension today without entirely dismissing the creed?

The scripture we heard read today from Acts is one of many examples of early Christians doing their best – within the confines of their first-century context – to reflect theologically on their experience with Jesus, who came to be called “the Christ.”

For today, the most theological question may not necessarily be: “How can we make sense of  the Ascension?” but rather, “How can we experience the Ascension?” We have accounts recorded in the Bible about how the early church reflected on their experiences with God.  But these second-hand accounts can never substitute for cultivating our own firsthand experiences with God today.

Before Jesus leaves them, someone asks a practical question: “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” It’s not really a faith question; it’s a political question. It’s the question you ask when your candidate wins and you’re wondering when they are going to start working on the issues that got them elected.   Jesus says. “Stop worrying about that and wait for something else – a power from the Holy Spirit is coming. A gift is on the way. Wait for it.”

We are to await the coming of God’s Spirit that comes from encountering the Holy.  Finished with his teaching, Jesus ascends to heaven, and the disciples are left gazing into the heavens until an angel asks, “Why do you stand looking toward heaven?”

The disciples are reminded that their mission is right here—in their own time and place not some far off sphere.

We don’t need to look to the heavens to find inspiration either. The ever-present God is right here, giving us all the guidance and inspiration we need. Our mission is here—to heal, to embrace, to welcome, and to love.  We don’t need to wait for a far off day of perfection and rapture. If God is always with us, then right here and right  now can be the day of transformation and fulfillment.

When it’s all over, those early disciples were worshipping with joy.