“…he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension has never been high on the lectionary calendar as adopted by the Presbyterians during the 1960’s revival of Protestant/Roman Catholic relations. It actually was to be celebrated last Thursday which would have been the 40th day after Easter and but most churches, which still follow the Catholic lectionary, will just observe today as the last Sunday in Easter. Yet the idea of “ascension” is one worth consideration as it is a very old concept from thousands of years ago.
What does Jesus’ ascension mean to you? I noticed you said the 4th Century Apostles Creed last Sunday which says of Jesus, “He ascended into heaven.” Was it something like a blast off of a man with a jet pack attached to the body? Did he stop by at the moon and look back down upon us? Was there smoke, fire, or just a “whoosh” and he was gone?
Such literal concepts, as you may realize by now, are absolutely foolishness to me. As I have written and spoken, the Bible is a book made up of mystery stories from previous centuries seeking to describe our spiritual natures and ways to experience the Christ Self as one of its names of our divine essence.
Ascension is the ancient concept of growing in the awareness of our Christ or God Self. “Ascension of Christ conveys the promise of our own spiritual ascension and return to the Light!” Ascension becomes the goal of one awakening to the presence of the Kingdom or of God within.
In ancient times, people who gave evidence of such growing awareness were considered guides and “ascended masters” for those of us left behind. Perhaps they are angels or what the church had in mind by designating certain deceased teachers as “Saints” worthy of our praying to for guidance.
Next month I will be traveling to Wheaton, Illinois for the annual meeting of the Theosophical Society of America. One of its earlier leaders in America, a woman named Madame Blavasky, wrote a book titled “Ascended Masters” in which she contends that such people as Paul the Apostle and others were Ascended Masters on the other side who continue to guide us along our paths toward love and wholeness.
The Church in the 4th Century, however, literalized these stories of Jesus along with the miracles he was purported to have done, including the story of his ascension. Again, I believe it resulted in excluding many to the deeper essence of the Jesus teachings. Thus today we still have people trying to figure out literally when Jesus will return to restore the kingdom, just as they did in our story from the Acts. “Is this the time?” they asked.
Like the followers in the story, we have a hard time thinking in non-body, non structural forms. To think of ourselves as “spirit” seems at times impossible. So we judge God’s blessings on our lives by the health our bodies enjoy, or the material blessings we receive, or the growth of businesses such as physical organizations called “church.” We expect God to make our country the “perfect form” on earth. There is no perfect form on earth; it’s all transitory and ephemeral where as God, Spirit, our Essence, the Unseen, is eternal.
The first step in experiencing our own “ascension” toward this awareness is to understand ourselves, our basic “I-ness” as spirit. Everything else is passing, time bound, dissolving. When I stand to conduct a funeral or commend a soul to God after the body’s death, I think not of the body but of Spirit. When I think of my true self, or anyone else, I try to remember we are not bodies but in essence Spirit, little Gods as part of the One God.
The task then is to reinforce this memory so that it becomes our constant identity over the ego-body identity. Paul in the Bible records of this task; he is at constant war with what the Spirit wants and what the body/ego wants. You and I will find this same battle in our lives. As disciples of the Christ, we take up our “crosses” and each day, deny our ego selves and follow the Christ.
The word for “disciple” means “discipline.” Yet we hardly know what this discipline means or looks like. In our Reformed Tradition, John Calvin suggested we stop to pray seven times each day as a way to keep ourselves focused on our Christ Center. Indeed, throughout Christendom, seven times daily has been a basic course of discipline.
We can join with others to participate in prayer retreats. Jesus tells the followers in our story to go back to Jerusalem and wait in prayer for the power of the Presence of Spirit to be felt. Such prayer times are almost unheard of or practiced in most churches. Yet they are key to discerning and sensing the Presence of Spirit.
In the 1 Peter reading, we are warned again of the awful mental and emotional struggles we are to have in this life. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” This is the life and the world in which we live. It can tear us apart. Just read the morning news, and the noon, and evening, and late night! “Like a roaring lion, your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour!”
How do we overcome? Prayer, returning to our Identities! “I am eternal, I am love, I am Spirit, I am on a journey here of awakening to my Self from which I can forgive all for their illusions as I do myself!”
A recent report from the Consumer Report’s Magazine rated the best diet plan for overweight and unhealthy Americans, the most overweight country in the world. Probably Medicare programs would have a surplus if enough Americans quit eating what advertisements tells them and follow a healthy diet! Anyway, Consumer Reports rated six of the top diet programs to help people lose weight and live a healthier life and experience, I might add, a “healthier death!” The winner was the Jenny Craig plan. It basically has the same food groups and amounts as the other five diets so why does it work? The answer, “Structure!”
When it comes to losing weight and living more healthy lives amid a constant barrage of temptations, we need structure! How does the Jenny Craig plan then work? To enroll, one must eat their prepared foods for six months and be monitored by a nutritional guide! The goal is that after six months, you can be weaned off the guide and be ready to shop and choose your own nutritional foods to prepare in the ways they coached. It works better than any of the other plans, plans with very similar foods but no mandatory guide and structure.
When it comes to our spiritual “ascending” to higher and more loving planes, most of us need structure and coaching. Historically, I believe that is what clergy are supposed to be, guides for people who want to grow past their constant daily self attacks; un-forgiveness, unhappiness, suicidal, and bi-polar states. And if I were your guide, I would advise and ask you like “spiritual doctor” to practice prayer and meditation five to seven times a day for a few years! I would want to make a “call on you” occasionally, not to talk about vacations and gardens but your progress in love and joy through prayer and meditation.
Ascension day? A time of evaluation, or renewal and forgiveness of past failures. As God’s children, we all have the right to peace, love, hope, joy and freedom. Not to experience it is usually a matter of identity confusion, lack of discipline in prayer, and support from a mentor. Anyone can experience this freedom but priorities and commitments must be made.
Last week I posted a little movie of Tony Melandez, a Nicaraguan man born without arms who now lives in San Diego. When 16 years old, Tony wanted to play guitar. His family and friends were shocked but got him a guitar. Today he plays concerts in parks with his toes while he sings songs. In 1987, he played and sang a song for Pope John Paul II when he visited Los Angeles. All because of a commitment to learn, to practice hours and hours, week after week, year after year!
Make this a year of growth, of moving up the ladder, of ascending toward the full experience of living with love, peace, and joy in your heart and soul. Make this year’s ascension a true process of “climbing upward” to the realization of your God’s Self!
Presented at the First Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, 2085 Union Road, West Seneca, on June 5, 2011, the Anniversary of Rev. David Persons 40th Anniversary of Ordination as a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament.