For Ascension Day 2016.
Luke Skywalker has vanished.
These are the opening words of the opening crawl of the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.
Luke Skywalker—Jedi Knight, conqueror of the evil empire, redeemer of his father Darth Vader—has vanished. If you have seen the film you will know that this vanishing has been wholly bad for the galaxy: in his absence, a new empire, a new Death Star, and a new dark lord have arisen.
Luke Skywalker has vanished and the galaxy is suffering.
The gospels also tell the tale of a vanishing and vanished hero. The original ending of the gospel of Mark has the women come to Jesus’ tomb only to find it empty. Jesus has vanished and this leads to shock: the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8).
Mark’s version of the resurrection of Jesus certainly reflects the Christian experience of his time. Faced with the persecution of the new faith by Nero and the shocking destruction of the Jerusalem temple, many in Mark’s community no doubt cried out as had Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The letters of St. Paul make it clear that from its very earliest days, Christianity believed that Jesus had risen from the dead and that he had re-appeared to some of his followers, but while they may have had faith in this story, Mark’s Christians wondered just where this vanished Messiah had gone to and if he would ever return to deliver them?
Matthew and Luke later codified the reappearances of Jesus but their stories still lead us to a second disappearance, the eventual ascension of Jesus into heaven. According to Luke (Acts 1:9), some forty days after his resurrection Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Jesus had vanished (again), this time seemingly for good.
Where is he? Will he ever return and what are we meant to do in the meantime?
There are answers to these questions but they will require us to look at the story as theology rather than history, at least history as understood in an absolutely literal way. In the words of Karl Barth, we are not meant to imagine that Jesus went up into the sky like a balloon. I do not believe that God reveals himself to us in the absurd. Miracles, yes; absurdities, no.
Ascents into heaven are a motif we often find in the Old Testament. The coronation Psalms speak of one who sits on God’s right hand, who, like the prophets Enoch and Elijah, is lifted up into heaven. In the ascension, Jesus is thus exalted by God.
The presence of the cloud as the vehicle of Jesus’s ascension is further suggestive of this fact – the Bible often speaks of God’s presence being covered by a cloud. In other words, Luke is trying to convey the idea that Jesus is in some profound way now with God and is not, in bodily form at least, any longer on the earth.
The gospels go to great lengths to describe the resurrection as a bodily resurrection – Jesus was alive after death in the flesh. The ascension narrative thus simply points out the obvious: where once we could touch and eat food with a resurrected Jesus of Nazareth, we rather obviously cannot now so do.
Except we kind of can and herein lies the paradox of a vanished God who has not, in fact, really vanished. The body of Christ is very much here on earth: it is in the community of believers who help make known the reality of God in their lives of holiness and service; it is here in the bread and wine of communion which become the body and blood of Christ.
And as Luke’s community came to understand, it is here in the ministry of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promises he will send to his disciples. The feast of Pentecost remembers the day that the Holy Spirit was received by the disciples as tongues of flame and in a rush of violent wind. From that day on, God was as fully present with them as he had been in Jesus on the shores of lake Galilee. Jesus – God – had not vanished.
What is this Holy Spirit? In Hebrew, it is the ruach Elohim – the breath or wind of God. It is the person of God here now. One can in fact say she is the person of God here now as the Hebrew word is feminine. The Holy Spirit—this ruach Elohim—she is in the feeling of holiness many of us experience as we sit here in this beautiful building and are moved by its beautiful music. She is in the hope kindled by the teachings of Jesus.
She is, as St. Paul, has written, the bringer of good things to human hearts:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” a kind of first century version of our school values, don’t you think?
Has Jesus, like Luke Skywalker, vanished? I do not believe so. In beauty, ritual, community, and goodness, Jesus, God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has emphatically not vanished.
To whom is this goodness in particular, these fruits of the spirit, available? Everyone. Just as the wind cannot be tamed or confined, so the fruits of the Spirit are not the exclusive province of Christians, or a particular type of Christian.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
If we are Christians, we believe that these values have their source in God, their personification in Jesus, and their promulgation by the Spirit . . . but they are in no way Christian values alone. God’s breath of life is breathed in all: Christian, Jew, Hindu, Humanist . . . human.
So to finish, let us take just one fruit of the Spirit: self-control, something which we in our educational journeys could all do with cultivating (because learning is hard!). Our Buddhist friends know of this fruit better than most. From the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha and which form part of the Pali Canon of scripture:
Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.
Self-conquest is far better than the conquest of others. [No-one] can turn into defeat the victory of a person who is self-subdued and ever restrained in conduct (103-105).
In this effort, and in all things, may God’s spirit be with you. Amen.