JESUS AND A SPACEMAN
Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68, John 17:1-11
May 16, 1999 by Tad Mitsui
During the sixties, the Soviets were ahead of the U.S. in the space exploration. They had shot up a few satellites, and with them, one at a time, a dog, a few men and a woman into the space, long before Americans did. One of the Soviet Cosmonauts had declared that God did not exist. He said, "I went into the heavens and looked everywhere. But I did not see God." Whenever I hear a gross misunderstanding of the Bible like this, I feel strongly that we should be more clear about how we should read the Bible.
None of us take everything in the Bible literally. But we should not be intimidated by an accusation that we don”t take the Bible as the words of God. Even the most ardent believer of the literal truth of the Bible, for example, would not stone his child for speaking against the parents. Although this is prescribed in the Book of Deuteronomy, all of us know that it is not be taken literally. None of us have a problem distinguishing between the words to be taken literally and the ones to be taken figuratively. When you say you have something by the "tons", you really don”t mean tons. You mean lots of it. A nice person went to Africa as a volunteer and made many good friends. As she was leaving, she said tearfully, "I love you all. I would love to see you again very soon." Some time later, she got a phone call from the airport. "Here I am, I came to see you." Someone took her words literally, saved all his money and bought a one way ticket to the States. This is a true story. If you don”t know how to use or hear terms of endearment appropriately, you will have big problems in your life. Some people may take it literally.
Our language is limited. When you want to say something you feel very deeply, you can never find the right words to express it. To resolve the limitation of our language, the human race has developed many art forms, such as music, painting, poetry, metaphors, parables, and story telling, etc. to express things for which there are no adequate words. Especially the matters of God and the spirit are so deeply and strongly felt that they were almost always described and expressed in the figurative language. This is why the ancient Hebrews did not feel right to name God directly, for example. God is too great to be restricted by a name. This is also why the Bible speaks of the whereabouts of God in many ways such as one "in Heaven", who "abides with us" or is "in us", even in the dark "shadow of death". God is simply too immense and too majestic for us to name or to locate.
Did Jesus go up into heaven and become a forerunner of astronauts? The answer, of course, is "no". What then did Luke mean when he described the scene of Christ”s going up and disappearing into heaven? There must be more to this story than I can handle this morning. But I will mention two points. The first is the notion of Christ leaving us behind. And the second is that God is incomparable, better, greater, and superior than anybody and anything.
The notion of "God going away and leaving us behind" is a recurring theme in the Bible. The point is about our maturity and responsibility. God is not like a parent who can not let go of her child, not allowing them to grow up and to be independent. God goes away like an landowner leaving his land to his tenant farmers, a rich man who entrusts his stewards to look after his wealth expecting them to invest it wisely, or like a father who lets his son go far away with his fortune. The most loving gift that God has given us is his trust. He trust us so much that he gave us freedom and responsibility. All loving parents must learn from this. They must let their children enjoy freedom, learn to be responsible, even allow them to make mistakes so that they learn, by going away.
So Jesus Christ went away. When the disciples kept looking towards the heaven where Jesus disappeared missing him terribly, two angels appeared and said to them, "Why are you looking towards heaven? He”s gone. He will come back, but in a different form – as the Holy Spirit." Grow up and be responsible. It is now your job to spread the Good News among people everywhere.
Secondly, many cultures possess the idea that heaven represents what is ultimately the best, the greatest, or what is beyond us. It comes from the idea that God is beyond our reach. It does not necessarily convey the notion of location or direction. In China, heaven is the same word for God. There is a famous requiem written by the 6th Century B.C. Chinese philosopher Confucius when he lost his most promising disciple. It opens with a line, "Oh Heaven, why has thou forsaken me! Heaven has deserted me." If the word heaven is substituted by the word "God", it sounds almost like the Psalm 22, doesn”t it? "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!", which was repeated by Jesus on the cross. In Japan and in Southern Africa, the word for God is "Kaki" or "Molimo", which simply means "up". All of those words have the sense of "someone beyond our reach."
The disciples experienced a deep and strong feeling that Jesus they had known intimately was now with God. It suddenly dawned on them that He was indeed greater and superior than any living person or creature. He was indeed God who came to live among them as a man. They must have stood in awe realizing that "I was with God." How else could they say except somewhat inadequately, "He went up into heaven."
I hope that it is now clear that the ascension of Jesus was not a story about the first man in space. It is about the greatness and godliness of Jesus Christ. It is also about our God given freedom and responsibility, and God”s trust in us. Let us thank God that the pioneers of our faith did their best to record their experience, no matter how inadequate their language might have sounded. Let us also learn from them to be bold in our expression of faith without being shy about our inadequacy. And let us trust that future generations will come to understand what we mean.