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Easter 7/Ascension, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 24, 2020

Luke 24:45-53


‘The God dimension’

In these distressing times I draw comfort from envisioning the moment just before Jesus ascends into heaven. In it we move from the close-up of the apostles lost in disorienting waves of emotion hardly able to grasp what is happening. Then as Christ tells them “all has been foretold” we zoom out to a bird’s- or drone’s-eye view of that moment. Here we now see that distressing time for the apostles as just one or two frames in a divine cycle: Christ as part of the Trinity, his birth in a human body, his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Paradoxically, Christ’s transcendent form is then what allows his continuing presence on Earth. While I can’t zoom out like that in my life, bounded as I am in the present moment, I find the reminder of God’s eternal presence and plans in the revelation of the full trajectory of Christ’s life very reassuring.  

However, there is a caution in the story of the ascension, which relates to a dualistic cosmology where heaven and earth are understood as separate realities and then allocated different values. In essence, the base nature of the material earth limits the abilities of those born in it to enter the divine heavens. The outcomes of this separation and assigning of value are described by Michael Beachy (after N.T. Wright, 2014) as the creation of “an escapist dream, to be held out as a carrot to make people better behaved”. This popular dualistic cosmology is critiqued in the lyrics of John Lennon’s song “Imagine” (1971), where he calls for a reimagining of a world beyond those harsh divides when he sings: “Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us, only sky, Imagine all the people, Livin’ for today …” The world Lennon pictures is beautiful and what he sings aptly critiques a misguided reading of the place Christ leaves from and ascends to. However, there are other ways to understand what Lennon is critiquing and the common divisive reading of heaven and earth (and hell). Beachy, for example, suggests that heaven is better understood as “an extra dimension, the God dimension of all our present reality”. Heaven and earth intersperse each other so allowing us to permeate and be permeated by both through this “extra” divine dimension alive in the present.

How might we start to feel this “God dimension” particularly in these challenging times? For while we know there is a divine overarching plan it can be hard to draw comfort from that when we are tossed around by constant change, and when we, our loved ones, and those around us are scared, sad and suffering. This can start by envisioning heaven as that “further dimension of our world, not a place far removed at one extreme of our world. It is all around us, glimpsed in a mystery in every Eucharist and every act of generous human love” (Beachy). With this in mind I have found it helpful to return to that moment after the resurrection and before ascension when Jesus, in Luke 24, introduces the idea of a preexistent plan with the words “when I was still with you”. Initially I was confused by these words because how can the Jesus who has just eaten with the apostles and shown them his crucifixion wounds, be present and not? Reflecting on this further I realised that the resurrected Jesus already inhabited the “further dimension” that Beachy speaks of. He is existing in a state of “between”, not corporeal or incorporeal, and therefore ever present.

For me there is a strong two-part message in the ascension that helps me navigate the turbulent seas of this current life with the coronavirus. Firstly, knowing through Christ’s teaching before his ascension of the scale of God’s plans, despite not always knowing the entirety of these plans, and secondly, the indication through Christ’s words of an extra dimension. This then provides a non-dualistic way of reading heaven and earth founded on an understanding of his continuing presence in the world via this dimension. Interestingly, both can become apparent in moments of blankness and shock as illustrated by the moments when Jesus appears to his apostles and again as he ascends, leaving them behind. The latter is depicted in the painting by Hans Süss von Kulmbach (1513) where we see their shocked expressions, possibly incomprehension, as he is now somewhere “between”, and worse still when, as we are told in the first passages of Acts, he is hidden from them behind a veil of clouds. I think this must have been a terrible moment for the apostles. Their shock and despair, the sense of not knowing, of being blinded, of the nothingness, and of being in a world they had never been in before. These are certainly feelings I have had over the past months and may be similar to those you have felt or are currently experiencing. Nonetheless, it seems these extraordinary moments offer us a chance to feel the in-between or “further dimension”.

So how might we gain an embodied sense of this other dimension, the divine in-between? In a teaching to one of his students the 15th-century Indian mystic and poet Kabir Das asks and answers: “Student, what is God? He is the breath inside the breath”. Here we are told of that further dimension we might discover between breaths, with breath the name for spirit in many languages. The in-between found amid each breath, or realised in bare moments of shock with no horizon such as the ones we entered through the coronavirus or seen in that time the apostles lost sight of their saviour as he was obscured by clouds. You might like to seek it now between your in and out breath. Place your attention on your breath and without changing it watch for the space between one breath finishing and another starting. It is subtle, so watch again for that gap as one breath finishes and another starts. This can be understood as a brief moment of the between, the moment where Jesus was veiled by the clouds as he ascended so that he is now constantly present.

I pray that any fear or anxiety you may be feeling is eased by these words and God’s eternal presence in your life. Amen.


References:

Beachy, Michael (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014). ‘Heaven and Power’: N.T. Wright on Jesus’ Ascension (Part 1 of 2). Retrieved from http://eerdword.com/2014/05/28/heaven-and-power-n-t-wright-on-jesus-ascension-part-1-of-2/

Kabir (1914, 2004). Songs of Kabir (R. Tagore, Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

von Kulmbach, Hans Süss (1513). The Ascension of Christ. Retrieved from MetMuseum (2000-2020). https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436835


Dr Patricia Morgan


Homily by Dr Patricia Morgan