I recently came across a story about a fisherman out in the Pacific who was caught in a storm and shipwrecked on an island for a few years. Think Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway. When his rescuers arrived they were amazed to see the tools he made for hunting and fishing, his little house made from bamboo and leaves, the fire pit, and a couple of other structures, one which had a cup and saucer, a wooden cross and even a wood replica of the Bible on a log bench! When asked, he said that this was, of course, his church. The second structure looked exactly like it, with the cup and saucer, cross and Bible on a bench, and when asked, the castaway said with a sneer, “That’s the church where I used to go.”
Obviously, this is an old joke, and I think it was Jewish in origin where it’s a synagogue and not a church, which tracks, historically. We Christians tend to get our best material from our Jewish s ancestors. Like most of the Bible, for example. At any rate, while the story isn’t true on account that it didn’t happen, it is true in a larger sense. While it pokes fun at the creation of so many schisms and sects of Christian denominations, indeed all religious institutions, it signals our universal, human need for change. We are all too easily bored, and have a lust for novelty. Something exciting and different. Paradoxically, change is also one of the biggest things humans fear and actively resist.
As many social theorists and psychologists have laid out in elegant theories, humans are…strange, complex. And so are our stories. Like the one we’re focusing on today, the Ascension of Jesus Christ, which is also about a spectacular change. Jesus the human becomes Jesus the Christ when he flies up to heaven and takes his eternal place at the right hand of God the Father. This is how the Book of Acts starts, it’s a great opening, and the rest is an account of the disciples spreading the word, indeed, being made in the image of the Word made flesh, and performing spectacular acts of faith. Hence the name of the Book of Acts.
But the first action they took was doing nothing. In order to receive this gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ instructs them to stay in Jerusalem and wait. They ask if he’s finally going to restore Jerusalem and he says it’s not for you to know the day or hour – it’s above your pay grade, essentially, so just wait and trust me. I’m heading into Princeton Theological Seminary soon and the new president, Jonathan Lee Walton, gave his book “A Lens of Love,” to all incoming freshman, and in it, he encourages us to interpret the Scriptures by noticing the vulnerable in the stories, so looking at the Ascension with the lens of love, I feel like the vulnerable ones are the disciples. The ones who are left behind. It must have been hard for the disciples to be abandoned once again, watching their rabbi ascend to heaven while they remained in Jerusalem with targets on their backs. So they sat and waited in the uneasy, anxious space of hope and faith inter-mingling with confusion, pain and loss, not only the loss of Jesus, but remember their brother Judas Iscariot’s very recent betrayal and suicide must have fractured their sense of cohesion and coherency, causing trauma responses like blind rage and bleak depression. But in due time, they were able let their desires for Jesus’ earthly reign wash away, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, to become something greater than themselves.
We modern disciples can look to the ancients and be encouraged to mirror their efforts by first by letting go of our tendency to possess things and people we love so dearly, including our idea of Jesus. Every denomination has their personal Jesus and of course their Jesus is the best one, but we have to admit that whatever perception we have of him is too small. Christ is bigger than any of our ideas of him, so every time we think about God, we have to be open to changing our image of him. We have let go of something precious in order to receive something greater, which is why the original title I had for this sermon was, “Let it Go, for Christ’s Sake!”
For the sake of Christ, literally, let it go. Jesus the human willingly chose to let go of his desires for self-preservation in order to receive something greater. That’s what the whole scene in the garden asking to have the cup taken away from him is all about. Resistance to let go, followed by willing acceptance, voluntary self-sacrifice, resurrection and glorious ascension. As Richard Rohr points out in his book, “The Universal Christ,” the Ascension is when Jesus of Nazareth, the particular human from a particular place in time and history, becomes something totally different, the Word made Flesh, Jesus the Christ (meaning the Anointed One, or the Chosen One), who transcends space and time, who always already was and always already will be, the Holy Spirit of God.
The rest of the Book of Acts is an account of how this Holy Spirit works through his disciples, and is basically a highlights reel because there’s simply too much to record. You could say that every disciple since then has been working on a sequel to the Book of Acts, including us, as we receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism and experience gifts in little “God moments” every day. The Book of Acts has never finished. Makes me wonder, as a disciple, what would my personal Book of Acts look like? What would yours?
Admittedly, my Book of Acts would probably be pretty slim compared to my Book of Thoughts and Words, and it’s a daily practice to get those thoughts and words into action, and it usually starts with that first paradoxical action of doing nothing. Slowing down. Being still. Waiting and letting go of my presumptions of absolute knowledge. Letting go of my resistance to change. “Resistance,” is the term Steven Pressfield gives in his book, “The War of Art,” to that feeling of self- doubt that arises whenever we attempt to do something creative, something to better the world or ourselves. The minute we think, “I’m going to do this thing and it’s going to help,” we are met with “resistance,” a voice that says, “Whoa, whoa whoa! Hang on a minute, did you forget you’re incompetent? You couldn’t! Even if you tried! Even if you accomplish something, it’s never as good as you want it to be, so settle for minor accomplishments that are never really good enough.”
Pressfield calls this force “Resistance,” and we Christians call it, The Accuser, the Enemy, or Satan. That voice coming from within that defeats us before we even get a chance. German philosopher Martin Heidegger calls this phenomenon being “thrown” into the world. We are always already ahead of ourselves, throwing ourselves back down and limiting our potential. I’m not sure we can ever totally overcome this force, meaning it will always be here, it’s part of the package of being alive, but since it comes from within, maybe we can cultivate an inward awareness that first recognizes and accepts this force in ourselves and others, and then follows it up with recognition and acceptance of the other voice, the still, quiet voice of the living Holy Spirit who is also always already there, in ourselves and in others.
For example, if we took a second right now to look around with a lens of awareness, we’d notice the space we’re in. How it sounds and smells. The temperature. The light. How it reflects off the wood. How it exposes the forms and functions of architecture. The artwork. The people around you. The beauty. The imperfections, which are somehow actually perfect. We might look inward and notice how we’ve been breathing this whole time without thinking about it. Our hearts doing the same, beating to the unforced rhythms of grace as Jesus says in Matthew.
We are alive. We exist. Together, and somehow connected on a deep level. Out of the unseen myriad causes and unseen myriad effects of seemingly random biological processes, somehow, you and I exist together. Here and now. If we push past resistance and allow ourselves to feel it, this deep connection with ourselves and others, feels like love. The grace of God. This is where it gets tricky. Because as soon as we are aware of our inter-connectedness, our inter subjectivity, and feel a love for it, we are aware of our responsibility to each other’s well-being, and also aware of life’s temporality. That it could go away at any moment because it’s outside of our control, and we despair. We love it so much it makes us sick, and we don’t want to let it go. Our love takes a turn into something possessive.
As Nietzsche, another gifted German philosopher wrote, love can be a “most angelic instinct,” and the “greatest stimulus of life,” but he lamented that it too often manifests as possession. A greedy desire that leads one to secure its object of love by any means necessary. This twisted love is also represented by J.R.R. Tolkien’s character of Golem in the Lord of the Rings books and movies: A once peaceful soul attracted to a shiny, magical ring and is soon contorted into a fearful, jealous little monster hiding in a cave, forever hunched over in a protective posture while referring to his possession as, “my precious.” This is the temptation we have with “our” Jesus, our friends and family, and even our own lives.
Jesus says in Matthew 16:25, one of my favorite paradoxes, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Lose my life? My beliefs and perceptions, my entire identity and even my own self? Yes. Yes. Yes. All these things that are clung onto with too much attachment as we take on the posture of Golem and jealously guard them from being taken away or from changing in any way, even if the change is in a positive, ascending and Christ-like direction.
Because here’s the truth. We have a responsibility for each other’s well-being and are asked to be faithful stewards, justice seekers and caretakers for ourselves and our communities, but none of it is mine, or yours, to possess. None of it.
We’re all guilty of loving ourselves and others so much we become possessive. From personal experience, especially when loved ones die, or when a relationship or a career ends. But there’s always hope when this happens. A hope that love is as strong as death, and in good time, this hope and faith in love will open up a space in your heart to light a candle that grows slowly from within to shed light on all the tiny little moments you shared with the things you loved, and you feel a gratitude for the whole experience. A gratitude that enables you to give it all back to the mysterious Source from which it all came.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection and he says, “Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” I was struck by the phrase, “do not hold onto me.” It reminded me of a poem by William Blake entitled, “Eternity,” He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy. / He who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise, and I can imagine Jesus saying it with tenderness to Mary Magdalene: She who binds to herself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / She who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise. “Prayer of Relinquishment,” by Richard Foster – From his book, “Prayers of the Heart”
Today, O Lord, I yield myself to you.
May your will be my delight today.
May your way have perfect sway in me.
May your love be the pattern of my living.
I surrender to you
Do with them what you will, when you will, as you will.
I place into your loving care
Care for them with a care that I can never give.
I release into your hands
my need to control,
my craving for status,
my fear of obscurity.
Eradicate the evil, purify the good, and establish your
kingdom on earth.
For Jesus’ sake,