Thursday, 14 May 2015

Ascension Day: Transcendence and Immanence

I know I usually restrict the readings I'm working from to just one, but actually, just for once, I refer to both of them in this.  So here goes...

Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 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; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.’

Luke 24:44-end
Then Jesus said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

God 'over there' or 'over here'?
My Dad is a great traditionalist. He understands the need for new forms of worship such as Messy Church, All-Age non-Eucharistic services and the like, but they don't help him to worship. He's very happy for them to be taking place, just so long as he doesn't have to be there! When we've talked about this we recognise that the real conversation that we're having here is about the different ways in which we approach God.

Essentially there are two different cultures at work. In his, somewhat more traditional model, he would say that there is greater emphasis on reverence for Almighty God. He finds that the language of the prayer book is helpful for him precisely because it is not the language of everyday. It is a special prayer language, reserved only for conversing with God.  Now I have no problem with this per se. However, as a member of a different generation, I find that an over-emphasis on reverence also has a tendency to put a distance between God and me. God is Almighty, so he's somewhere 'over there', dwelling in a place of unapproachable light. Yet within that reverence I don't want God just to be 'over there', I want him to be fully present 'over here'.  I want to know him as a friend and mentor too; as the One who is at my side, present in all things, all places and all times. So for me, too much of a concentration on traditional language reinforces God's distance, not his presence.

It is the difference between those two positions that Ascension Day challenges us to consider.

The reason for that is that Christ's ascension poses us with a theological conundrum. Throughout Old Testament Biblical history we have had a sense of God that is more in tune with the more traditional model I've just outlined, that God is somehow 'over there'. He is not quite 'here', he is elsewhere. The technical word for this is 'transcendent'.  What it means is that here is the creation that God made, but God is outside his creation. God is more than this creation. God is greater than this. God, somehow, is elsewhere; 'beyond'. Now for reverence purposes this suits our traditional language. When we say, 'thee' and 'thou' from a position of kneeling it is to someone far greater than us who is separate from us. God is great, and God is somewhere else.

But there is a negative side to this. 

It is not just about reverence, it is also about absence, and in religious terms absence does not make the heart grow fonder. If God is 'there' and not 'here', then somehow 'here' feels like a safer place to conduct our business. He can't see what we're getting up to...

The perceived distance between us and God allows us to feel more at ease with saying and doing what we like when we're not at prayer. It also allows us more freedom with our philosophy of God because if he's 'there' and not 'here', then how can anyone know any real truth about him?

But then, according to the Christian tradition, God changed the rules. 

 The one who was separate, outside, above and beyond creation said, 'I will empty myself and step into creation', in the nativity story that we enjoy with all ages at Christmas. He says, 'To the people of earth I will no longer seem separate. They will know that I am present.' The technical word for this is 'immanent'. And so God, who was over 'there', became instead the God who is over 'here', God-with-us; 'Emmanuel'. And so, for thirty or so years, Transcendent God, God the Father, gave us Immanent God, God the Son, and he was 'here' not 'there', a part of us, not above and beyond us.

But now I want to let you into a secret. God didn't really change the rules, it's just that he showed us the reality in Christ. God has always been 'here' as well as 'there'. Acts 17:28, St Paul declares, “In him we live and move and have our being.”  And in his letter to the Colossians St. Paul writes in 1:16-17, 'For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.'

So God has always been 'here' as well as 'there'. God has always been immanent as well as transcendent. It's just that we felt we could ignore him because we couldn't see him. So instead of being immanently present in his Spirit, indwelling all things, in Christ he became immanently visible, touchable, holdable. God would no longer allow us to ignore him and pretend he was somewhere else.  God showed his hand. In Christ, God says, “This is what I am actually like.” 

So we stopped ignoring him. 

Instead we killed him to make him all transcendent again. 

...and we can go back to worshipping him at a distance again, pretending he's not present in creation, making him according to our image and no longer being challenged by his true nature any more. Only God didn't stay dead. He rose from the dead. God with us again. Except it didn't last very long. Just forty days, and then comes the ascension, the event we celebrate today, and God-with-us becomes God-not-with-us. He's returned to heaven, leaving creation. Now he's transcendent God again. 

So does that mean we can go back to worshipping God from afar? 
Is it safe to come out now? 
Has he gone?

No. Creation still has its being in God, and we can still choose to ignore God. However, aside from the story of Pentecost, which we'll come to in ten days time, the Ascension actually accomplished something very profound.

In Jesus we have God-with-us. He was fully divine in every sense but he was also fully human in every sense. I know that's hard to get our heads around, but it is vital we take it on board. Jesus got tired. Jesus became irritable. When someone told a joke, Jesus laughed. When one of his closest friends died, Jesus wept. And when they crucified him he suffered pain, and he did all of those things as human and as divine. When he died, God experienced death. Jesus, God and human, died. And on the third day, Jesus, God and human, was raised from the dead.From the moment of his conception we have a unique being, one whose nature is an inseparable, intertwining of divine and human. 

And here is the key point around which all of this turns; that dual nature did not change when he ascended into heaven.

Jesus did not shed his humanity and leave it in a little heap, surplus to requirements. He took his whole integrated, enmeshed, intertwined being into the presence of God the Father. And that means that a rather interesting exchange has taken place.

Jesus was 'God-with-us.' But now he is 'Us-with-God.' 

Our shared human nature has been treated to transcendence. And because, as St. Paul says, 'All things hold together in him', so you can argue that he has carried all of creation into the presence of the Father in himself. The created has been incorporated into the divine.

So what then does that mean for us? How does that translate into everyday life? I think theology is pointless unless it accomplishes something in our lives that makes better sense of how to live them, and to me it seems like an intertwined presence, a reality that holds in two locations, here and heaven, where they are joined by Christ, the Son of God who has lived in both.  We need, however, to learn the stillness in our spirits to sense this. We often say in our liturgies that we are 'In Christ', so if Christ, with out humanity, is in the Father, then 'in Christ', so are we. Our prayers, made in the name of Christ, are spoken in the presence of the Father through him because of the ascension.

And we need never again doubt whether God understands our pain when we pray because in the midst of the Godhead stands Jesus, the One who we know understands what it's like to be human, to undergo treachery, to experience joy, simply to walk in flesh and blood.  There is a bond between earth and heaven, with both held side-by-side in Jesus, preparing for their final union and remaking.

The ascension of Christ is not a stand-alone part of the Christian faith. Instead it is but one essential movement in the great symphony of Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, leading to the second act which was ushered in by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

It is in this second act which we currently reside. We have been made present to God, and God to us through the events of the first act. But this act, too, will draw to a close. Christ's ascension has made this possible, and so we can look forward to the reunion of heaven and earth. Remember these words from the angels:
...why do you stand looking up towards 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”.

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