Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for May, 2017

Ascended to Where?

The Ascension of Christ, Salvador Dali, 1958

Open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

We are here in no small part because of the power of the story Jesus. That power permeates the words of the story and extends far beyond them. It is a power that defies the rules of logic and science. The touchstone confessions of our faith are mind-boggling: a spirit impregnation, a virgin birth, a life of miracles, revelations, divine appearances, transfigurations and voices from heaven, a brutal but ultimately ineffective execution, a resurrection, spontaneous post-mortem live physical appearances while walking through walls and closed doors. And now, an ascension to heaven, not one but two—the story in Luke is earlier than the story in Acts, in fact it is set on that very first Easter Sunday evening.

This festival of the church celebrates the triumphant power of Jesus whom neither death nor earth’s gravity could hold. The ascension is a truly astonishing display of divinity. I love that the story has the disciples gazing up into the skies—I imagine with their mouths hanging open—until a messenger from God asks them how long do they plan on staring up into the sky. If their answer had been recorded it might have been something like, “Until this all makes sense…”

Try to wrap your twenty-first century mind around how the followers of Jesus wrapped their first century minds around Jesus ascending to heaven on a cloud. Maybe they knew the ancient Hebrew stories, that Enoch walked with God and was not for God took him, that God swung down a sweet chariot, stopped and let Elijah ride. And they had already seen Jesus perform so many miracles. But this was simply eye popping and jaw dropping.

Try to imagine what they knew of the skies above them. They may well have thought the stars were angels of God or other gods. We know Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn as planets, but those are the Roman names of gods; folk in the ancient world identified the lights in the sky with those gods, even if they didn’t worship them themselves. And, it’s not entirely clear if they would have known the difference between a star or a planet, let alone that stars are balls of fire like our sun and planets are balls of dirt like our earth.

As you contemplate the mystery of this miracle, consider whether all we know about space, from moonwalks to the Mars rover and Hubble telescope leave us any better prepared to explain what they saw. Where did Jesus go? Our knowledge of astronomy—and maybe science fiction—tell us he went somewhere more than just up. Many if not most of us fly in, through and above the clouds on a regular basis and we know that’s not where heaven is, at least not in a physical sense. Now, I’m not about to claim Jesus was some kind of inter-dimensional being, but I’m not prepared to rule it out.

The Feast of the Ascension calls us to figure out what it is we mean by “heaven.” I believe that heaven is a place that is as far beyond us as the moon was beyond the imagination or literal reality of the disciples. There is no technology that we can use to get ourselves to heaven, no more than they could build a tower to the moon. Heaven is the realm where God resides and reigns, and whatever that means about the stars or astral plane, God brought heaven to earth in Jesus. Now heaven is as much with us and in us as it is beyond us.

And yet there is at the same time a realm where God exists beyond our imagining. The Rev. Broderick Greer, an Episcopal priest in Memphis says, “The Ascension isn’t about Jesus literally ascending to a literal physical place called “heaven.” It is Jesus being swallowed by love.” The Ascension bears witness to the mystery and majesty of God, by refusing to answer all of our questions: Where is the physical place of heaven? Where is God apart from us? Where does she live? Where exactly did Jesus go? What do you believe and what are your questions?

The disciples in the story certainly had questions: Now that you’ve got all this power and are using it to do supernatural stuff, are you going to use it on the Romans and return Israel to self-rule? And Jesus said, “Mind your beeswax. It is not for you to know…” God has plans that are bigger than any one nation. Sometimes we forget this. At times the church has tried to be a nation, kingdom and empire, conquering and killing, colonizing, converting and enslaving. The Ascension reminds us that ultimate power is God’s. And God’s plans for God’s power don’t resemble our plans.

God’s plan was to gift the same power by which Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven to the followers of Jesus, to bathe us in it in a holy fire baptism that will burn within us but not destroy us. God’s plan is that we be in communion with God and each other, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit to love as God loves. The Ascension is a sign, pointing towards what is to come. The church, God’s body on earth, will be filled with the Holy Spirit, the love of God incarnate in Jesus, and the world will never be the same.

Look up. Look inward. Look into your neighbor’s face. That is where God dwells, with us, among us and within us. Amen.

Luke 24:50 Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (NRSV, adapted)

Acts 1:1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the realm of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6   So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 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.” (NRSV)

Naturally I used the Star Wars Eucharistic Prayer C:

“God of all power, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of glory and praise.
Glory to you for ever and ever.

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.
By your will they were created and have their being.”


She is God

Annunciation Tryptich by the late Robert Moore of the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas where it hangs in Philadelphia PA.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! For fifty days the Jewish and Gentile Christians of the early church told the stories of Jesus, his life, his death and his life-from-death over and over. Jesus was raised from the dead as he said he would be. I imagine everyone knew someone who had seen him, touched him, broken bread with him. They kept telling the story to those who knew and loved him, and to those who knew him not. The story was just too good not to share.

Here in our fifty days of Easter, many of us have lost track of the days. Some have forgotten that it is still Easter. Perhaps we should mark the days. In Judaism you count the forty-nine days from Passover to Shavuoth, the Festival of Weeks, and mark them with special prayers and meditations. That fiftieth day, called Pentecost was a huge festival with pilgrims coming from all over to observe the holy day. This year, this first year of the newly born church, was going to be different, so different that the day of Pentecost would become a holy day for Christians.

While some in the church were counting the days to Pentecost because they were still, like Paul, Jews, others were waiting. Jesus made some promises before his death and now that he had risen from the dead there could be no doubt that his word was true. Our gospel takes us to one of those promises, back before Jesus’s arrest, back before his agony in Gethsemane, to the Last Supper after Judas had gone to betray him. There John’s gospel has Jesus make a farewell speech.

In it Jesus says, If you love me, keep my commandments. In the gospel of John, Jesus only gives us one commandment. Just before his farewell he says: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (Jn 13:34) Shortly after he repeats it: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 15:12) And Jesus says repeatedly before and after: If you love me, you will keep my commandments… You are my friends if you do what I command you… I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (Jn 14:15; 15:14, 17)

That’s all Jesus asks of us, that we love one another. What could be simpler? Jesus calls us to love. Well, if you know the church, you know we made it complicated. But Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows his flock so he knew we cannot even love faithfully and consistently—without preconditions and caveats—on our own, so Jesus promised that we would not have to try to love or do anything else in our own strength. The Spirit of God who is with us, who was already with the disciples, would now be with them—and us—in a whole new way. The gospel says the Spirit is with us already but now will be in us, a deep and intimate bond that can never be broken.

This Spirit is the Spirit of God; She is God. She is the fullness of God without limits, the Font of Creation, the Fire of Sinai, Water in the Wilderness. She is the one who hears the cries of the battered, abandoned and betrayed, and she is the one who guides and accompanies, saves, heals, and delivers. And, she is the one who folded her majesty into the womb of the Ever-Blessed Virgin and brought forth a life that could not be extinguished by death.

It is she who is with us, with us and in us. And yes, She. Jesus spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, and in those languages the Spirit is only “she.” Translated from my Hebrew New Testament our gospel says: This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees her nor knows her. You know her, because she abides with you, and she will be in you. This is what Jesus said. Grammatically it was impossible for him to say it any other way.

In the Greek of the gospels, the Spirit has no gender. A more literal translation of the text would be: This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees it nor knows it. You know it, because it abides with you, and it will be in you. There is no masculine pronoun for the Spirit in Greek. It is simply not there.

So consider that in neither of the biblical languages is God’s Spirit ever male. A couple of hundred years after the gospels were written, literally centuries later, they were translated into Latin which used male pronouns for the Spirit of God. And since Latin became the language of the church we—well, not me—the church uses male pronouns as in the creed and most of its liturgy and wrote them into the scriptures.

Some might say it doesn’t matter. Any pronoun will do because God is beyond gender. And she is, but we are not, not yet, though we may be on our way. I want to suggest that it does matter and that how we see and describe God has everything to do with how and whether we love one another as Jesus commanded. It matters that we can see God in us and us in God, which is the point of the incarnation. God became human, to be like us, to be with us, to live as us, to love us to and through death, as Jesus commanded us to love each other.

As long as we do not see each other as fully the image God we cannot love each other as Jesus commanded us to love. And the measure for whether we truly see each other as the image of God is whether we can conceive of God in each other’s image. If your God cannot be female, feminine, or femme because that is too weak, unfit for power and leadership then your love for God and humanity is constrained by your love for masculinity and male power. And anything you love more than God is an idol.

Sometimes it is hard to see the image of God in others or even ourselves because the church has deified whiteness, even to the point of largely rejecting the historical Palestinian Jewish Jesus, for pale imitations. Can you see yourself in the images of God: on the walls, in the windows, and in the words of liturgy? What about in the Bread? It has been important to me that the body of Christ I proclaim is at least, sometimes, brown like me.

The insistence that God is male and only male in spite of all of the places scripture paints a broader and more nuanced picture served and serves to buttress patriarchal power and baptize it as the natural order and God’s will. In Deuteronomy God is the father who creates and the rock who gives birth. (Dt 32:6; 18) In Job God is the one whose womb birthed the seas and the frost and the ice and, God is the father of the rain and dew. (Jb 38:8; 28-29)

God’s womb is the source of her love for us. Over and over again the scriptures proclaim God’s love using a verb that means both the womb and the love that springs from it. The love that Jesus commands of us is an extension of that love. God is Love. We who love God love each other with the love of God within us. And in that love there can be no hierarchy, no domination, no bias, no privilege.

Any system of domination that subjugates one group of humans to another is not love. The love that Jesus calls us to is incompatible with patriarchy and sexism, just as it is incompatible with racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

We are in difficult days as a nation and around the world. The shouting we hear in the streets and on the news is not hallelujah. Not everyone is counting the days until Jewish or Christian Pentecost. Many are counting down to the next tweet, scandal or tweet about a scandal. Even in this we are commanded to love. It is here that we see love is not weak, does not condone or cooperate with evil. Love speaks truth, unwanted, unwelcome truth. Love holds accountable. Love resists injustice at any cost. And when necessary, love leads to death that others may live.