Well today on the Christian church calendar, we are celebrating what's known as Ascension Sunday. We are celebrating Jesus's ascension into heaven. This is the very last week of the season of Easter. And the readings that we read from this morning are actually from this past Thursday's lectionary for the Ascension. The Ascension is always celebrated 40 days after Easter Sunday, so it always falls on a Thursday.
But because we're not here on Thursdays, we're celebrating the Ascension today. As most of you know, Lent is the 40 days before Easter, and the Ascension is 40 days after Easter.
So why 40?
Why did the church come up with that number? Well, you know, we hear 40 a lot in the Bible, don't we? So we know the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. We know that Moses was atop Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights receiving the ten commandments. We know that Jonah was in Nineveh for 40 days and nights that in the Noah's Ark story, it rains for 40 days and nights. And of course, we know Jesus spent 40 Days and nights alone in the wilderness before beginning his ministry.
This is not an accident. It's not a coincidence. The writers of Scripture were using this number symbolically. The number 40 in the Bible is not to be taken literally. The Scripture writers understood numbers symbolically. And what 40 symbolizes is a time of spiritual completion. It's the time it takes for the workings of the spirit to become manifest, so that there can be new growth and new life.
Some theologians have speculated that that number came about because pregnancy is 40 weeks long, the time it takes for new life to emerge.
Now, if you've been with us during the season of Easter, you know we've been hearing stories about Jesus's appearance after his resurrection. And after his resurrection, after the disciples discovered the empty tomb, Jesus appears to them several times during a symbolic period of 40 days. And during that time, as we heard in our first reading from Acts, he is opening up their minds. We heard in our gospel reading today, Jesus opens their minds to understanding the Scripture. He needed to do that before he could ascend.
Now my question for you is, if the Bible stories are supposed to be taken literally, why wouldn't the disciples understand those stories? I mean, Adam and Eve, and Noah's ark, and Moses, and the burning bush… If we're just to understand those at surface-level, they're not difficult stories. Jesus was trying to get the disciples to understand Scripture symbolically, from a higher level, from from a higher place of consciousness. I've shared this quote with you before, it's one of my favorites, and it does bear repeating. It's from John Dominic Crossan. He's one of the leading progressive Christian theologians in the world today. And he said, “My point is not that the ancient people wrote stories, literally. And now we're smart enough to understand them symbolically. My point is that the ancient people wrote stories symbolically, and now we're dumb enough to understand them literally.”
The Bible is not a literal history book. These are stories, symbolic stories, spiritual stories. Jesus is trying to get his apostles to understand these stories from that higher level. And that's why we're gathered here every Sunday, to also open up our minds to Scripture.
Jesus needed to do that so that this Spirit could come upon the apostles, and that's why we're doing it. We're doing it so that we too, can be filled with the Spirit. Now notice in the Gospel story for the Ascension, after the disciples finally “get it,” Jesus raises his hands to bless them. And as he's blessing them, he rises up into the sky. And they watch in astonishment as his body lifts up into the clouds.
There are so many beautiful and famous works of art depicting this, hanging in museums.
But did that really happen? Did Jesus really defy the law of gravity?
You know, Bishop John Shelby Spong, who passed away last year, was one of the greatest theologians of our time. He once said somewhat sarcastically to a congregation, “Now do you suppose that Jesus went up past the moon and perhaps took a right at Mars?”
And our friend Father Richard Rohr, who wrote our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning said, “We shouldn't believe in a Rocketship Jesus, that the ascension is not a “Beam me up Scotty” moment.
Now we say here many times that we don't ask you to check your brains at the door before coming into church. Okay? We understand, as modern people, the laws of how the universe works. We're not asking you to believe in a Rocketship Jesus.
Now, is it possible that Jesus, bodily rose up into the clouds? Sure. All things are possible with God. But my point is, I'm trying to let you expand your thinking, and to look at the stories from scripture from a higher perspective, a spiritual perspective. When you look at the Ascension from a spiritual perspective, then it becomes about your own spiritual transformation. It's not just the fact that 2,000 years ago, a man ascended, it's that you are to spiritually ascend. So let's look at this story from a spiritual perspective. 40 days after they discovered the empty tomb, the disciples have experiences of the risen Christ in their midst, they feel His presence and power in a very real way.
And during that symbolic 40-day period, when the Spirit is doing its work in them, they begin to understand things from a higher perspective. They awaken, they arise, the Christ becomes pregnant in them, they become pregnant with the Christ light, and then they are able to give birth to it.
That's where Jesus ascended. It says he ascended into heaven. Where did Jesus say heaven was? He said, The kingdom is within you. The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. That's where Jesus went. That's where he ascended.
The Christ isn't up there or out there. It’s in here. The purpose of our being, the purpose of our spiritual journey is to awaken to that, to arise to that consciousness. Many people are not dwelling there. They're dwelling outside the kingdom. Our purpose for being is to dwell within the kingdom. And we do that in prayer and meditation, gratitude and mindfulness practices.
So, instead of dwelling in hate and conflict, I'm dwelling in peace. Instead of dwelling in lack and limitation and fear, I'm dwelling in wholeness and abundance. Instead of dwelling in dis-ease. I'm dwelling in health, instead of dwelling in darkness, I'm dwelling in light. I'm living from that, that kingdom within me that Christ light.
Now, if you look up the word ascension, in the Merriam Webster dictionary, it says, the process of rising to a higher state, we are rising to a higher state of being in prayer and meditation. That's what we're doing. And it's a process. It doesn't happen overnight.
This happens throughout our lifetime, we awaken more and more to that place of higher consciousness, that higher state of being.
So how do we know if we're progressing along the spiritual path? How do we know? Well, one of my spiritual teachers recently shared the 12 symptoms of spiritual awakening. And I'd like to read them for you this morning. It says:
I love those 12 symptoms and signs of spiritual awakening. And I see those signs in many people here at Douglas UCC, so I know that you are spiritually awakening. And I also see these signs globally. I do. That might seem like a very strange thing for me to say, during this week in which we have seen so much violence and hatred. But I do believe that we, as a human race, are rising in consciousness.
I know when you turn on the news, that may seem hard to believe. But when I think about my lifetime alone, just in my lifetime, there's been civil rights and women's rights and gay rights. More and more people just in my lifetime alone have been awakening. Their minds are expanding, their hearts are expanding, they're rising in consciousness.
So my friends, please do not despair, or give up hope. I promise you there are way more people around the globe who are for peace, love, and justice than are against it.
So do not stay low. Awaken. Rise. Ascend. Because when you ascend, you help others to ascend.
So on this last week of the Season of Easter, the season of new life, may we awaken, arise. May we find time each and every day to enter into the kingdom within us, that Spirit in the sky, so that we can heal ourselves and heal our world. So that we can truly bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, here on Earth.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
By Richard Rohr
Everything that happens to Jesus must happen in our individual souls as well. The Incarnation means the divine indwelling is not “out there.” It happens within us. This movement from Jesus to the Christ means that the same anointing that was given to Jesus is given to all of us. That’s why Jesus didn’t say, “Worship me.” He said, “Follow me.” We’ve projected more onto Jesus than he ever asked for. Also, Jesus didn’t move from Jesus to the Christ without death and resurrection, so we ourselves don’t move from our independent, historical body to the Christ consciousness without dying to our false self. We, like Jesus himself, have to let go of who we think we are, and who we think we need to be. We have to become the naked self before the naked God. That will always feel like dying. We need to know, experientially, that our naked, undecorated self is already and forever the beloved child of God. Jesus’ life is also our life. Carl Jung called Christ the archetype of the soul. Jesus came forth from God, was initiated in baptism, went through a normal growing up, then he developed a ministry, was rejected, suffered, died and ascended -- returned back to where he came from. We all go through that journey of transformation that returns us to where we began but with a freer consciousness. Unfortunately, we’ve turned Christianity into that evacuation plan for the next world. The term “cosmic Christ” reminds us that everything and everyone belongs. We’re indeed the body of Christ. God’s hope for humanity is that one day we will all recognize that the divine dwelling place is all of creation. Christ comes again whenever we see that matter and spirit coexist. This truly deserves to be called good news.
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