“…a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth…”
The Book of Acts begins with Luke’s account of the ascension of Jesus: “He withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Up into heaven. For many modern believers this is a problem. This whole matter of UP. In a world such as ours in which scientists speak of multidimensional models of space and time that have no up and down, this kind of language seems irrelevant, and a literal interpretation of this story hard to accept. William Barclay points out that no artist has ever succeeded in painting the scene of the ascension of Jesus without having it look somewhat strange, even ridiculous. One of the most interesting illustrations of the ascension is found on the ceiling of York Minster in England. All you can see are the soles of pair of feet with the hem of a robe forming a circle around the feet and beyond that the upturned faces of Mary and the disciples, all looking up. In Peterborough Cathedral you will see a carving the outline of the soles of Jesus’ feet rocketing skyward on Ascension Day. Up. He was carried UP.
Too, this is one of the hardest things to portray in a church pageant. I read about one church that performed an Easter pageant, the climax of which was to be the ascension of Jesus. In this final scene the actor playing Jesus was to be slowly hoisted out of view through an opening in the ceiling. As they cranked him up higher and higher, he stretched out his arms and said, “Lo, I am with you always.” As he was disappearing from sight, approaching the ceiling he said, “Even unto the end of the age.” But then suddenly the stage crew briefly lost grip of the rope, and it began to rapidly unwind, dropping Jesus almost to the floor. They caught the rope just in time, with the soles of his feet only inches from the stage. A gasp went up from the audience. The disciples looked on in horror. Amazingly, he stayed in character, calm and benevolent, with his feet dangling inches from the floor. He said, “Oh, and one more thing: Love one another.” And then they yanked him up into the ceiling and out of sight. Up. Upstairs. The Man Upstairs. Please don’t hold this against me, but this image of God doesn’t work for me. Not since the 3rd grade.
How critically important it is when we read stories like this in scripture to remember that they were written in an era that was pre-scientific. People spoke in images, figures, metaphors, using the language of poetry, to describe the indescribable inspirations they were having, to explain the inexplicable things that were being revealed to them, to convey experiences of transcendent reality beyond comprehension. Theologians have compared this to the way scientists today portray atoms and electrons as small colored balls, or the way the phenomenon of light is sometimes pictured as tiny bouncing particles, or the way electricity is portrayed as a jagged line. No one believes that they are actually colored balls and bouncing particles or jagged lines, but without such models, it is impossible for you or me to imagine these invisible realities.
So it was in the time of Jesus, when the scriptures were being written, and then later when the creeds were being written, and for centuries until the 16th, when Galileo, Copernicus, and Columbus came along. Pre-scientific people had no other way to describe the indescribable. Remember too that they believed in a 3-story universe, with heaven above, earth in the middle, and hell below. God was at the top of this vertical, hierarchical, organizational chart. And if you think that sounds primitive, you have only to recall what you probably learned as a child: that God is a man, an old man, an old white man, and old white man with a long beard sitting on a throne high above all creation, ruling in majesty and power. But for most adults, this image of God as the Old White Man Upstairs presents a problem, so much so that countless, thoughtful people I know have rejected faith altogether because of it.
For this reason, in 1961, J.B. Phillips wrote his now classic book, Your God is Too Small, in which he so brilliantly described at least a dozen images of God which have prevailed in Christianity: Resident Policeman, Grand Old Man, God-in-a-Box, Mr. Meek and Mild, Managing Director, Parental Hangover, all of which are “too small.” For many women in my generation the images of King and Lord and Father are too small. I have reached a point in my life where even the image of Mother is too small. The bestselling book about God, The Shack, features God as an African-American woman. In the movies God has been portrayed by George Burns, Morgan Freeman, and Alanis Morrisette. Some of us think of God as transcendent and incomprehensible, while others think of God as best friend, closest companion. Is God near or far, big or small, young or old, male or female, black or white? None of the above, all of the above? How do you imagine God?
And how do you reconcile your image of God with some of the most important discoveries science has made in the past century?–that we live in an expanding universe so vast that light from its frontiers takes more that twice the age of earth to even reach the tip our telescopes. That the universe operates not so much like a mechanistic clockwork, but more like a multi-dimensional web of relationships in which all things are connected, in which nothing, not even the flutter of your eyelashes is without consequence. A universe in which nothing is negligible– even the movement of an electron at the outer edge of a galaxy can have ramifications for a bird on a limb somewhere deep in a South American rain forest. Even a baby’s hiccup sends a shiver across the vast, intricately woven web of creation.
Maybe Paul was right after all when he wrote—we are members of one body; if one member suffers we all suffer. Maybe Jesus was right after all when he said every hair on your head is indeed numbered, and that not even a tiny sparrow cannot fall to the ground without infinite notice. No choice, no action, is without impact. Everyone of us will change the world whether we intend it or not. I look at photographs of outer space—galaxies, nebula, planets, stars—and then I look at photographs of inner space—cells, neurons, synapses—and they look related, alike, kin. When I read about revolutionary discoveries of this century, DNA, the double helix, the theory of relativity, quantum physics, the science of chaos, and now the evidence of an elegant order beneath the chaos, traceable patterns in the web without, in the web within, a hidden symmetry, I find that it is not inconsistent with my faith in God. On the contrary, it only serves to fill me with awe and wonder.
This past week I reread Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Luminous Web, her beautifully written book of essays on science and faith in which she describes the universe as a “infinite luminous web of energy flung like a net across the vastness of space, across which light moves, like a pulse moves through veins.” She asks, “Where is God in this picture?” And she answers, “God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—God is not somewhere, but everywhere, the God who may be prayed to in all directions at once. A God who is beyond all directions. A God who passes all understanding. A God in whom everything abides…” And where are we in all of this, she asks? Part of the web. Interrelated. Interconnected. Interdependent. One with all. One with God. Paul was right: “Nothing can separate us…[from the One] “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Tom Mahon, author of The Spirit of Technology, puts it like this, “Instead of picturing God as a medieval monarch on a marble throne, imagine God as the living awareness in the space between the atoms, “empty” space that makes up about 99.9% of the universe. Thinking of God that way gets us past some of the great theological divides of the past. Is God immanent or transcendent, internal or external, composed or compassionate? Like the question of whether the atom is wave or particle, the answer is: yes.”
The first time I read this I could not help but think of the language of Ephesians, some of the most beautiful Greek ever written, with the longest run-on sentences ever written in Greek, as though Paul is stretching the confines of speech, reaching for the stars, grasping for some sublime word to express the inexpressible, to describe the indescribable. All through Ephesians he says things like,
in the fullness of time
to unite all things in him, things in heaven, things on earth
that you may be filled with the fullness of God
one body, one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith,
one God and Father of us all who is above all and through all and in all.
who ascended far above all the heavenly places that he might fill all things
and in our verses for today he speaks of
the fullness of him who fills all in all.
But the beautiful thing about the Christian faith is that it makes the claim that this One who is “above all and through all and in all,” is not neutral, not indifferent, not impersonal. On the contrary, deeply personal. This One who is “all in all” cares—cares whether you live or die, cares whether you make it or not, cares about every hair on your head, every neuron in your brain, every electron in your being, for the One who is “all in all” is Love. Nothing can separate us, not even death, from this Love.
This is how I have come to understand the Ascension of Jesus—the life that was so alive in him was a life that could never die because was not separated from the eternal life of God. His disciples were witnesses to the way they tried to nail him down to a cross, how he was cut down, laid down in a tomb, the tomb sealed with a stone, but the web could not be broken, the connection could not be severed, and he who had entered each of their lives so powerfully was now everywhere they turned– above all, through all, in all, in them, in you, in me. Always.
I am telling you all this because one day you are going to feel it—we all do from time to time—like a motherless child, cut off, insignificant, lost, alone, afraid, wondering where in the world is God. When that happens, imagine God. Imagine God not a “medieval monarch on a marble throne”—but the all in all, the living awareness in all things, everywhere, the luminous web, the soul in all, through all, above all. Love.
Oh yeah, and one more thing: Love one another.