by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“While blessing them, the Savior withdrew from them and was carried to heaven. And the disciples worshiped the risen Christ and returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy.” — Luke 24:51-52.
Have you ever gone someplace that you know that you had never been before and yet you feel like you are right at home? Have you, even though you know you had never been at that place, felt like— in some frame of reference, in some time/space continuum that defies mere logic, someplace that logic on its own cannot describe— have you felt like you, in fact, had been in that very place at some point?
I admit I have felt that way a number of times. Let me offer two examples which stand out in my memory, tow personal memories. I entered Bangor Theological Seminary in January of 1992. The first official function I attended was, therefore, January Convocation, just before the start of Spring Term classes.
At that Convocation the first preacher I heard from the pulpit in the chapel at the Seminary was the Rev. Dr. Avery Post. As you may know, Post was the pastor here in Norwich from 1952 to 1957.
I cannot tell you with any stretch of my memory what Avery said. I can tell you I felt comfortable. It was like I was sitting there listening to a friend and that friend was inviting me to come home. Little did I know four and a half years later I would follow in the footsteps of Dr. Post and come here to Norwich.
But the fact that the preaching of Dr. Post was exquisite or I wound up here is a side note. More to my point is my level of comfort. To me it felt like that place, that space in the chapel, that atmosphere was quite familiar.
It was strange— I knew it had all never happened before but it felt like it had all happened before. What’s more, it felt like I knew all of it, the place, the space, that time, on an intimate level. It felt like I was reacquainting myself with a piece of myself that I had lost and now had found. (Slight pause.)
A second example rom my personal history. I have often regaled you with stories, either publically or privately regaled you with stories, of how Bonnie and I met on an island off the coast of Maine. And yes, that week the Maine fog set in and we, along with about 25 other people, were stuck on the island for a couple of days. The rest is history— or at least our history— and I’ve told you about that.
But what I have not often said is the year we met was not my first time on the island. I first set foot on that island two years before Bonnie and I met. Further, that first time I was on the island— and I cannot explain why this is true— the rocks, the dock, the vista from the shore, the cabins— all felt familiar.
To be clear: not only had I never been on that island. I had never set foot in the State of Maine before. I was a city kid. Maine was not exactly a part of my vocabulary.
However and similar to my Bangor Seminary experience, to me the island felt like I, in some frame of reference or in some time/space continuum that defies mere logic, had been there before. The sense of that place, that space was quite familiar to me.
What’s more, it felt like I knew that place, all of it, on an intimate level. It felt like I was reacquainting myself with a piece of myself I had lost and now had found. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in Luke/Acts in the section of that work commonly called the Gospel of Luke: “While blessing them, the Savior withdrew from them and was carried to heaven. And the disciples worshiped the risen Christ and returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy.” (Slight pause.)
Earlier, before the reading from the Gospel, we heard those words from the Gospel introduced this way (quote:) “The work known as Luke and the work known as Acts are two volumes of the same work by the same author written at the same time. Hence, it’s clear the same author writing at the same time gives two different versions of what is commonly called the Ascension.” (Slight pause.)
This should, indeed, be evident even to a casual listener or reader: the stories are similar but they are not the same. That leads us to an obvious question: why? Why would this work— and scholars insist these two books of Scripture come from the same source, written at the same time— why would these works offer two versions of the same incident? (Slight pause.)
Well, let’s back track a little and ask a different question, two in fact. First, ‘what is Resurrection?’ And, having asked that question, the companion question needs to be asked: ‘what is Ascension?’ (Slight pause.)
Every Easter Sunday I invariable say these words (quote): “It needs to be noted Resurrection is not reanimation nor is it resuscitation. That has never been a Christian belief. Resurrection is what it says it is: Resurrection.”
A similar statement can be made for Ascension: Ascension is not a movement to a place, a location on a map. A G.P.S. will not take you to a destination called Ascension. That Ascension means a movement from one location to another location has never been a Christian belief. Ascension is what it says it is: Ascension.
Equally, Ascension does not indicate the reality of the Risen Christ is diminished, that Christ is no longer alive, that Christ is no longer with us, that Christ fails to be present to us here, now. This brings us back to the obvious question the two readings present: “why would this work, Luke/Acts, offer two versions of the same incident?” (Slight pause.)
I think one of the ways we often fail in our reading and our understanding of Scripture is we tend to think the writers were stupid. We insist they were so stupid that they could see things only through a literal lens. Because we get these two stories with different details from the same source, clearly there is no intent on the part of Luke and Acts to depict the Resurrection or the Ascension by using a literal form.
You see, if we take the reports we find in Scripture of the Crucifixion as realistic and disturbing (and we probably should), then the reports we find in Scripture of the Resurrection and the Ascension insist we must take them as metaphysical and disturbing. You can’t have one without the other.
To be blunt, for me there does seem to be an insistence by what we find in Luke and in Acts about the Resurrection and the Ascension that the report not simply metaphysical and, therefore, is only abstract, not tangible. To take these words as only abstract would be to inject a possibility into the meaning that the Resurrection and the Ascension totally lacks any kind of reality.
So yes, I think the words we find in Scripture are meant to be seen as and to describe a conjunction of time, place, and space— a continuum. And I also see these words as a revelation about the intense love God has for humanity. I also see these words as a revelation about the intense longing for God that humanity has— an existential longing or God. And all of these sentiments are real, tangible.
I think this is an important point: we must not see the great revelation of God in Jesus as simply being about an event as if it is a big, important ball game. Oh well, you’re looking forward to the Super Bowl here. How about the World Series? No! That’s not what it’s about.
When we do that, when we take that read on Scripture— we relegate the God events which happen in the life of humanity and in our own lives to simply having a beginning and having an end. To do so limits the possibility of an eternal God.
Indeed, the Resurrection and the Ascension are not about a beginning and an ending. The Resurrection and the Ascension are about God Who loves and about God Who is with us now. The Resurrection and the Ascension are about God Who loves and about God Who lives.
The Resurrection and the Ascension are about God Who loves and about God Who acts in our lives. The Resurrection and the Ascension are about God Who loves and about God Who is real. (Slight pause.)
And yes, I believe there are God moments in our lives. Sometimes God moments happen when we find ourselves in a place we’ve never been before but a place we somehow already know in an intimate way.
And yes, sometimes God moments happen with the death of a loved one. And yes, sometimes God moments happen with the birth of a child. The situations are numerous. God moments do happen.
And often God moments are not about the specific beginnings and endings we experience at specific times. God moments are about the presence of God in our lives, the presence of God in our lives now and the presence of God forever. The Resurrection, the Ascension are about the presence of God in our lives forever and for now. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Huston Smith, now 96 years old, is a religious studies scholar. A book he wrote, The World’s Religions, which has sold over 2 million copies, is mandatory reading for seminarians and probably should be for everyone. This is what Smith has said about the relationship of logic and religion: ‘Rationalism and Newtonian science has lured us into dark woods, but a new metaphysics can rescue us.’ Or as I like to say when we spake about God what we are addressing is theo-logic.”
BENEDICTION: We can find the presence of God in unexpected places. God’s light leads us to places we thought not possible just moments ago. God’s love abounds and will live with us throughout eternity. The grace of God is deeper than our imagination. The strength of Christ is stronger than our needs. The communion of the Holy Spirit is richer than our togetherness. May the One Triune God sustain us today and throughout the infinity of what is commonly called tomorrow. Amen.