Preached 18 May 2014

I suspect that very few, if any, sermons have ever been preached in Unitarian churches about the ascension of Jesus. Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday and, for some reason, Non-conformists in general seem to distrust feasts of the Church year which do not fall on a Sunday.
Ascension Day marks the day when Jesus, after having risen from the dead and appearing several times to the disciples, finally returned to heaven, from whence he had come before being born as a man, so orthodox Christians believe. Unitarians may be excused for thinking it all too far-fetched to be worth consideration.
Well, in those days, the universe was seen as having 3 layers, one above the other: heaven, earth and the underworld (where the dead dwelt). So going from this world to heaven meant going upwards. We might describe it differently; I will come back to that. In the gospels, the episode of the Ascension of Jesus is only described in any detail by one person, Luke (although it is alluded to elsewhere). Luke writes two accounts: at the end of the gospel and at the beginning of Acts. Unfortunately, the two accounts are different! One takes place on Easter Day, the other at Pentecost - 40 days later. One has a cloud and two angels, the other does not. Even though the two accounts are reputedly written for the same person!
Although not a historian in the modern sense, Luke is a good story-teller and, as every good story-teller knows, there has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. The infancy story is the beginning, so there has to be a better ending than the empty tomb, which lacks closure. What happened to Jesus after the Resurrection? When did he die? It is a mistake to try to be too literal when dealing with writing of this period. Rather, we should ask "What does the ascension mean?" "What did it mean to the disciples?" "What might it mean to us?"
One of the problems with Christianity is that one reads the stories and makes a value judgement about them without having an adequate background of how people thought at the time and what other stories were in circulation when the gospels were written. We read about the miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension ... and our first thought is that this is not true of anyone else. Therefore Jesus is unique; he must be divine. This is a logical sequence and this is what orthodox Christianity would like us to think. However, the contemporaries of Jesus would not have thought he was unique.
There were other similar stories in circulation. In any case, it was the Greeks and Romans who saw ascension to heaven as a proof of divinity (just as a virgin birth was considered essential).
In Judaism at this time, stories about the ascensions to heaven of Moses, Elijah, Ezra, Baruch and Enoch were popular. All of these people were taken up to heaven bodily. So Jesus was not unique; he was one of a group of men. No women at this stage, although I do wonder where the Assumption of the Virgin Mary came from. What did these men have in common? They were all prophets. All Jewish ascension stories are about prophets. Now Jews believed that when they died, they would "sleep in the dust" until the general resurrection, when they would be raised from the dead to be judged. But a very few people of special wisdom and insight were raised to heaven instead of dying, there to be made angels (or sons of God, as the angels were called), until the time when they should return to earth as agents of God. John the Baptist and Jesus were both asked if they were Elijah or another prophet returned to earth. What Luke is saying is that Jesus had also been elevated to the status of a son of God (a concept sadly misunderstood by the Greeks and Romans and persisting to the present day in the mainstream Christian churches). Perhaps the purpose of the Resurrection story was to ensure that there was no permanent corpse, since Jews believed that body and soul were inseparable, and the body would be needed for the ascension to heaven.
Jesus certainly claimed to be Son of Man. The Sons of Man (note the plural) were angelic beings who sat on thrones with God. They had royal power and would sit in judgement on the world at the last day. Ezekiel called himself Son of Man. So did Enoch. Neither of them was claiming to be God. No Jew would do so, for it was blasphemous. Nor did the disciples of Jesus see him as God; neither of the terms "son of God" and "son of Man" were equated with being God or being divine. When Jesus talked of sitting on the right hand of God and coming on the clouds to judge the world, he was only saying that he believed that God had appointed him to take this role of judge at the Day of Judgement. He certainly claimed a great deal for himself - Son of Man and Messiah - but he did not claim to be God. He emphatically did not want to be worshipped.
The messiah whom the Jews were expecting would be a human being who was given special power and anointed by God to usher in the world-wide reign of peace: God's rule on earth. He would be an intermediary between earth and heaven; he could intercede with God for humankind; he would be able to heal and to exorcise the forces of evil which had infested the earth until then. Jesus and his disciples do not seem to have believed that evil, sin and sickness were caused by the fall of Adam, but by demons. Jesus was convinced that he was the man for the job.
Much of this was incorporated into Christianity, but in a distorted form. The cross was magnified out of all proportion to its real significance, and made into the source of Jesus' power to intercede for us, a power which he had possessed while still alive. Luke himself saw the cross neither as a sacrifice, nor as an expiation for sin. Early Christians believed that all the baptized would become angelic and would have everlasting life, hence their white baptismal robes. Because Jesus, a human being, had been taken up to God, we can be also: not in a literal, physical, sense, but spiritually.
Some ascension stories feature a living person who remains alive afterwards (e.g. Muhammed). These are references to mystical experiences. The Book of Revelation and Dante's Paradiso contain such accounts. For Jesus, everyone could have a direct experience of God, as he and some others had done. The Alister Hardy Research Centre has recorded many accounts of the mystical experiences of ordinary people. Those of any religion or none (Unitarians too!) can have a vision of heaven, that state of perfection, where there is no evil, only peace, without having to believe in Jesus, or the Atonement. God is a God of love - he longs to draw all people to him, never mind what they believe, never mind how imperfect they are.
But let us return to Luke's ascension story. In his version in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples are reprimanded by two angels for standing and looking up to heaven, and are sent away to do something practical instead; just as Jesus had rebuked Mary Magdalen for trying to cling to him at the tomb. We must not cling to Jesus.
But I don't think that the disciples were simply looking upwards because they wanted to hang on to their rabbi for as long as possible. Think of Elijah, and how Elisha was told that, if he could see his master as he was being taken up to heaven, then he would receive a portion of his spirit. Jesus' disciples wanted to inherit his spirit and his power to heal and to exorcise and to work miracles, so that they could carry on with his work of love and compassion, and so help to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God.. They needed his strength to do God's will. That was why they returned to Jerusalem with such great joy. We are all inheritors of that spirit. In the words of the Anglican priest Austin Farrer, "It is God himself who rises in our here wait for his loving kindness; we listen for it. The God within lifts us to the God above."

Comment (Adrian Worsfold)

I don't disagree with most in this; however, I wonder if there is mileage in Jesus thinking he might be preparing the way for a messiah, not himself, and only later possibly intensified his own claims (as he became closer to what the suffering servant required), but that after his death it was either him or nothing for the followers, for which then comes rapid and continuous escalation of his titles and status. Once Paul has him as God's key and only worker towards the coming kingdom, then the focus turns on to him as the effective binitarian shared object of worship.
It's a given for me that Jesus himself is different from the post-Easter person of rapid escalating titles, and focus, among Jews as well as salvation-seeking Gentiles. However, Jesus is just as supernatural and strange in his beliefs compared with how we think today.
One must send a social anthropologist back in time and to live among the people and beliefs of the time. It is a world of short lives and demons causing illness and death, of favoured people and otherwise, of a Greek common culture, language, religious elements with Rome's too, and travelling Zoroastrian and Buddhist beliefs down trade routes (as Christianity was to use them in its expansion), and of Roman 'other' occupation, and a self-contained Judaism regarding beliefs on their prime entry into the Kingdom and the sweeping away of Roman power by Godly supernatural end-time dictat. Jesus is within the Jewish world - yet another messianic figure either by predicting another person coming through the clouds or being raised to those powers in person. The gospels are written after his death, when the choices are starker and messianic status surer, and with the influence of cross-cultural Paul all over the place. The Jewish Church hardly gets a look-in and proto-orthodox groups have their central thrust with resistance and accommodation to some Gnosticism (that was more than Christian).
Whether on Easter Day or forty days later, the purpose of the Ascension in my view is to restrict the window of resurrection appearances and make them authoritative. It is a Christian innovation among the available faith-language of Judaism. It tells the early Christians why Jesus is not making resurrection appearances any more, and that there is a period of waiting before Jesus for sure comes sweeping down and in


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful