Listen to the sermon from Sunday, May 8, 2016 titled “Christ Nowhere = Christ Everywhere” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
We come again to that great moment of transition in the gospel story: the ascension of Christ. After the trauma of the crucifixion and the glorious day of resurrection, Jesus appears across forty days to the disciples convincing them he is alive, reconciling those who abandoned and denied him, and commissioning them to God’s work of reconciliation. Then he ascends into the sky and disappears from their sight.
Through the centuries artists have imagined the scene in various ways. An ivory book cover from fourth century Rome has shows Jesus marching up the Mount of Olives into a cloud.
Giotto pictures Jesus riding a cloud from earth to heaven, the parallel angels in heaven and saints on earth suggesting a thin separation between the two.
Rembrandt also shows a glorious Christ riding a cloud into heaven worshipped by the disciples and welcomed by angels. Because the Christian faith took hold in the West, Christ is imagined in the ethnicity of the artists, which is to say, white European. I have told you before how hard it is to find a more historically accurate picture of Christ as a person of color.
Later artists seem to be fascinated with Jesus’ feet, almost whimsically, giving us the disciples view like Hans Süss von Kulmbach who wants to turn our eyes to the sky, too.
Salvadore Dali likewise shows us Jesus’ feet, but moves towards a less literal reading of the story, reflecting more modern views.
The German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann pointed to the clearly mythological elements of the Ascension story. Paul and John reflect no knowledge of it. Only Luke tells the story, in his gospel – “While he was blessing them, (Jesus) withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 9:51) – and in his Book of Acts – “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:9-11).
Luke’s accounts reflect a pre-scientific worldview, in which heaven is up and hell is down. Bultmann said we cannot live in two worlds and expect modern people to believe ancient understandings of the world. He believed modern Christians needed to demythologize the New Testament stories to fit modern understandings, though in reality he was remythologizing them into the modern worldview, which is as likely to be superceded as the ancient understandings.
Still, it helps to have other ways of imagining the scene that fit the world as we understand it now. The deeper meaning of the story, though, is not the specific means of Jesus’ disappearance. It is the fact that he appeared after his crucifixion, and then disappeared. Why didn’t Jesus continue to appear here and there, now and then, down through the centuries right up to today? But in our time, Jesus is nowhere to be seen.
On the top of the Mount of Olives stands a Crusader era chapel. It is a mosque now, but mainly visited by thousands of Christians each year because it supposedly stands on the location where Jesus last stood before ascending into heaven.
Beneath the chapel is a rock venerated since the fourth century which is supposed to show the right footprint of Christ imprinted as he launched himself into the sky. Some Christians need this visible evidence, however dubious, that Jesus did indeed walk this earth.
Like some kind of “Where’s Jesus?” game, we long for the grace of an actual sighting which the first disciples received. The demand for such proof of faith shows a lack of faith, but we can understand it in an age of doubt.
We long to see the face of Christ ourselves like the one based on the shroud of Turin, another relic of dubious historicity. Many Bibles give us illustrations to help our imaginations along, mostly the white idealized images of the Northern European artists.
We aren’t as likely to find the picture of jesus based on modern forensics from skull samples of Jesus’ time, which in addition to being speculative is spectacularly unheroic.
To be accurate our Bibles should offer the same image you see in High School yearbooks which substitute for those youth who were sick on picture day. But any image of Christ misses the point of the Ascension story that Jesus is nowhere to be seen. Next week we will celebrate Pentecost, when the Spirit of Christ came into believers gathered from every corner of the world. That is the point of the Ascension and its call to each of us. Christ is nowhere so he can be everywhere, wherever two or three gather in his name, wherever he sends us to those who need him. This nexus of the Ascension and Pentecost is the moment Christ in one body disappears so he can rise into the body of Christ, the church.
So this is the image our Bibles should use to picture Christ, or perhaps a mirror, or perhaps a picture of our gathered congregation. The heart of Christian faith is the incarnation of God in Christ. As Athanasius of Alexandria observed, “He became what we are so he might make us what he is.” Samuel Wells believes the character of God, the identity of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit are set forth in four words: “God is with us.” And as God is with us in Christ, we are called to be God with the world in its glory and in its suffering. This is different from “doing for,” though it may sometimes include that. “How do we celebrate the good news?” Wells asks.
By being with people in poverty and distress even when there’s nothing we can do for them. By being with people in grief and sadness and loss even when there’s nothing to say. By being with and listening to and walking with those we find most difficult rather than trying to fob them off with a gift or a face-saving gesture. By being still with God in silent prayer rather than rushing in our anxiety to do yet more things for God. By taking an appraisal of all our relationships and asking ourselves, “Does my doing for arise out of a fundamental commitment to be with, or is my doing for driven by my profound desire to avoid the discomfort, the challenge, the patience, the loss of control involved in being with?
God with us is the fundamental meaning of the Ascension. Christ nowhere equals Christ everywhere as we his people become the presence of Christ with each other and with the world. Community, relationship, incarnation. Being present, attentive, caring, forgiving. Being God with.
Jesus gave us a ritual to remind us of our mission in life, which is also our salvation. Earth’s grain is crushed, the individual sheaves broken and rejoined as one, the broken again and shared among many who become one. The individual grapes are crushed and blended together into one, then divided and shared by many who become one. When you do this, Jesus said, remember me. Remember – literally “re-member” – put the broken body of Christ into a new being a new unity, a new community which brings Christ alive as God with us always. Then let us come to his table and re-member Christ that he might live in us as we continue his embodiment of God with us everywhere he sends us. Amen and amen. May we pray?
Everlasting God, Living Christ, Abiding Spirit,
With the disciples we feel lost and confused without your visible presence to guide us. With the disciples we wait in prayer and hope for a fresh outpouring of your Spirit. Rise within each of us, move among us, lead us to be with each other in unity of purpose and our rich life together. Then send us into a world to be with those still so desperately in need of knowing you are God with them too. Amen.