JESUS WENT UP AND OUT OF SIGHT
– Myth or Truth –
I Peter 4:12-14, Psalm 68 #7, Acts 1:6-14
May 19, 1996 by Tad Mitsui
Last Thursday was Ascension Day, which some European countries and churches celebrate as a holiday. It was the day, according to the words of the Acts of Apostles, when Jesus "was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." While the disciples were gazing up toward heaven, two angels appeared and asked them why were they looking up towards heaven. They said that it was a wrong direction to look for him. This sounds like a similar comment that Mary heard when she was looking for Jesus by the tomb. The Angel asked her, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?" It was a wrong place to look for the resurrected Jesus. Up toward heaven also is a wrong direction to look for Jesus. Jesus does not live in the sky. He lives among us, as Spirit in each of us.
In early 1960”s, the Soviets were ahead of the Americans in the race toward space. They had sent up a dog, two men and a woman, one at a time of course, into space long before an American astronaut John Glenn became the first American in the space. I remember the comment one of the Russian Cosmonauts made, after he returned back to the earth. He not only made fun of the Americans who had thus far not reached space, but also as an atheist he made fun of religion. He said, "I went up into heaven and looked around, but I did not see God." This comment is so typical of superficial human beings, who are dazzled by scientific achievements, and are no longer capable of seeing ourselves in depth.
Science and technology have given us so much and have made our daily lives much easier and richer than before. But meanwhile, some of us in the process have become poorer by neglecting the emotional and spiritual aspects of our lives. Scientific thought has taught us to value straight forward empirical thinking above all else. Many of us do not appreciate myths any more, and dismiss it as mere fantasy or superstition. Some of us do not distinguish a poetic expression from a description of facts. In this thinking, truth is equated with facts: something we can see and measure. This is why it is difficult to deal with an event like Ascension. It sounds ridiculous as a factual event. Yet, we don”t want to appear to dismiss a Bible story. So we avoid it. We must recover our ability to see truth expressed in mythical and poetic language, not only in numbers and visible matters.
You see, we are likely the only life form who knows that life inevitably ends and dies. This is because we have something more than a mere biological and involuntary survival instinct. We have the premonition of things beyond the visible, which we call a spiritual reality. We can not quite describe it by our limited vocabulary. So we resort to myths and poetry to express our emotions and thoughts about spiritual experiences. It is pointless to analyze them with scientific methods. It is like trying to measure happiness or sadness with a measuring cup or a scale. It is therefore impossible to prove or reject with science what is expressed in a mythical or poetic language. The Bible is full of poetic expressions. A fertile land becomes the land of milk and honey. A love song in the Bible sings about a lover, "You are beautiful, your eyes are like doves. I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys." And our search for God is described as a deer which thirsts for a stream of sparkling clean water. Certain realities of our lives can not be described except in metaphors and stories. This does not mean they are less important than those things that science can prove. We are certainly richer materially than our ancestors of centuries ago, but by losing the ability to express truth in mythical language, we may have become poorer.
So it really does not matter if Jesus did not actually go upward to heaven. Even though we do not stop people believing in the story of something which really happned, that upward movement was not the point. The whole story of Ascension is written in mythical language, because our fathers and mothers in faith simply adopted the only way they knew to describe their spiritual experiences of, and their belief in, Jesus Christ. It does not mean their experience was less real. They saw a very significant transformation of Jesus in the event now known as Ascension. So what does it mean, when Jesus was described to have gone upward and disappeared in clouds? What were the disciples trying to say to us about the particular aspect of their belief in Jesus Christ?
For one thing, it is certain that their message was not the fact that Jesus went upward like a space shuttle blast-off in Cape Canaveral. The comment by a Russian Cosmonaut about not finding God in space is quite inappropriate. Heaven in the Bible is not a place you find in the sky. Besides, what is upward to us is downward in China anyway. An up-and-down definition about heaven does not make any sense at all. I pointed out to you some time ago, that in the Bible, heaven and the Kingdom of God are synonymous. When they spoke about heaven in the Bible, it means a realm of authority. It is the realm of God, where God”s will is the supreme authority. It does not have a notion of geographical place. It can be here, it can be there, it is everywhere where God rules.
Another interesting point is; the clouds took Jesus out of sight of the disciples. Cloud often indicates the presence of God in the Bible. God spoke to Moses out of the cloud, or descended in the cloud, or guided the Israelites in the desert with a pillar of clouds, or from the cloud a voice said "This is my Son, Beloved." etc. In other words, the disciples saw on the day of Ascension that Jesus Christ”s earthly appearance disappeared and joined God”s company.
A discouraged and pathetic band of Jesus” followers were revitalized through their experience of encounters with the living Christ. Now this time, on the day of Ascension they had to be weaned of Jesus” company all together. Jesus now became invisible. He joined God. He has disappeared. There is no point in continuing to look upward. Angels appeared before the disciples and said, "Why are you looking into heaven? He has now joined God. He is gone until he comes back in spirit." You must start living by yourselves. Jesus will join you soon in another way. That was the message.
It is important in our lives to learn to accept changes in the nature of our relationships from time to time, if they should mature. It is unhealthy for a child to cling to the parents like a baby for too long. That is childish. The relationship must mature as a child grows older. Likewise, parents must learn to think of their child as a person gradually growing up to be an independent. You can not hang on to your children as though they are your possessions. There must come a time when parents and children become friends, no longer the possession of either. In the Ascension episode, Jesus disappeared physically. The disciples had to get on with their lives as Apostles, spreading the good news they experienced, on their own. Ascension is about the change in disciples. Disciples, meaning followers, had to become Apostles, the ones who go their own ways with a sense of mission. They had to return to Jerusalem, where Jesus was killed, and enemies still abounded. They had to get out to the people to start speaking about their experiences. They had to get on with their jobs.
And they began to get on with their lives as the witnesses of the great events and started to tell people the stories of Jesus. When they began to do that Jesus joined them in Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, Jesus came back in the form of spirit. That will be celebrated next Sunday.