The Christian Church celebrates what's known as Ascension Sunday. We're remembering that story of Jesus ascending into heaven. It signifies that the Easter season is coming to a close. And next Sunday is Pentecost, the beginning of a new liturgical season. The readings that we heard this morning are actually not the readings from today's lectionary. They're from Thursday's lectionary because the Ascension is always celebrated 40 days after Easter Sunday. Many of you know that Easter begins with Lent, which is 40 days before Easter Sunday. And it concludes 40 days after Easter Sunday with the Ascension. Now why – when they were putting together the church calendar – why did those early church fathers decide on these 40 days?
Well, we know that 40 appears a lot in the Bible. So we know for example, that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, that Moses was atop Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, that it rained for 40 days and nights in the Noah's Ark story, that Jonah was in Nineveh for 40 days. And of course, Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and nights before he began his ministry.
This repetition throughout the Bible of the number 40? It's not a coincidence. It's not by accident.
The writers of Scripture were writing symbolically, and the ancient people, the Hebrew people understood numbers to be symbolic. So when you read 40 in the Bible, it's not a literal number. It's a symbolic number. And symbolically or spiritually, what it represents is a time of testing, a time that it takes for the spirit to do its work, for the Spirit to be made manifest.
And some theologians have speculated that they came up with that number because pregnancy is 40 weeks long, the time it takes for new life to be birthed. And that, of course, is what the season of Easter is all about. These 40 days have been about new life.
If you've been with us since Easter Sunday, you know that every Sunday, we've been hearing stories of Jesus's last words to his apostles before he ascended into heaven. He's giving them his last teachings. And as we just heard, he needed to open up their minds to understanding scripture. Because the apostles, after all this time with Jesus, they still don't get it.
This leads me to think that, once again, Scripture is not to be understood literally. Because if it was, the apostles would certainly understand the stories. I mean, stories like Adam and Eve and the snake, and Noah's Ark, and Jonah in the whale. Those are the Bible stories we tell children, who understand them at a literal level.
Jesus needs to open up the apostles’ minds to Scripture because they're still understanding it from a childish way of thinking. And he needs to open their minds to understand these stories symbolically, spiritually.
And once the apostles finally get it, then Jesus can leave them. As he's blessing them, a cloud comes and envelops him. And he's lifted up into the clouds as the apostles watch on in astonishment.
Now, did that really happen? I mean, did Jesus really defy the law of gravity? Did the apostles really see his body go up into the sky?
Well, the late theologian Bishop John Shelby Spong once said in a sermon somewhat sarcastically, “I wonder if Jesus went up past the moon and perhaps took a left at Mars.” And our friend, Father Richard Rohr said, we shouldn't believe in what he called “a rocket ship, Jesus.” This isn't a “Beam me up Scotty” moment.
Now I know we, as modern people, know the laws of the workings of the universe more than the ancient people did. So it's hard for us to think that Jesus really physically rose up into the clouds. It is possible, of course, all things are possible with God. But my point today isn't to argue with you about whether this actually happened or not.
What I'm trying to do is what Jesus was trying to do with his apostles, open up your minds to understand the stories from scripture, not literally, but symbolically, spiritually.
So let's look at the ascension story spiritually.
The apostles, on Easter Sunday morning, discovered the empty tomb. And for this 40-day period afterward – again, not a literal amount of time – this time of testing, this time of pregnancy, if you will, they are discovering who Jesus really was, what his teachings really meant. And they're also discovering their calling, and their purpose.
And during this time, they become filled with the Spirit, which we're going to celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost. So the ascension, you see isn't just about Jesus rising up into the sky, it's about the ascension that happens within the apostles, how they grew in spirit.
Now, the first reading, as we heard, the famous story of Jacob's Ladder, is also about ascension. Jacob is alone in the wilderness, and he has a vision of a ladder connecting earth to the heavens. Now, where is this ladder? How do we find it? Well, the first century Saint who's known as St. Isaac the Syrian, he said the ladder to the kingdom of heaven is within you.
Dive down deep, and you will discover the steps with which to ascend.
He wrote that in the first century. Now, I know I get accused a lot on YouTube of teaching New Age spirituality. This is not New Age. Okay? This is old age. First century. The wisdom of the ages.
The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is within you.
Jesus told us that, but somehow we still don't get it. That's the place that connects the earthly with the spiritual. And as we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, Jacob's Ladder had seven steps – 7, like 40, is also a very spiritual number in the Bible. It represents the steps or stages it takes for spiritual completion. So for example, God created the world in seven days, and there are seven steps to our spiritual ascension.
And it's not a coincidence that our eastern Friends – the Buddhist and Hindu traditions – talk of the seven chakras, which are the energy centers that run along the spine. In prayer and meditation when they're sitting in the lotus position, the root chakra is the one that's touching the ground at the base of the spine. The top chakra is known as the crown chakra, the peak of the head. It's why monks of old would shave their heads up there. And why Jewish rabbis would wear a yarmulke, to protect that sacred space.
Those seven energy centers. The purpose of prayer and meditation for our eastern friends is to align those energies of the earthly with the spiritual – to connect them.
And it's the same for us as Christians.
That's what Jacob's Ladder is all about. The angels ascending and descending in Jacob's Ladder. You know angels are messengers from God. That's that flow of energy between the earthly and the spiritual that happens to us during prayer and meditation. Isn't that fascinating?
Now, in Merriam Webster's Dictionary, if you look up the word ascension, it says that ascension is the process of rising to a higher and more powerful position. It's the process of arising. Our spiritual path, my friends, is a process. Some of us on the spiritual path, we're at the first rung of the ladder. Others of us are at the fourth or fifth rung.
It's not a competition. It's not a race. Where you are is where you are. But here's the important thing: We must keep climbing. We have to keep ascending. That's the purpose of the spiritual life.
How do we keep ascending? How do we get to the next rung? Prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, Bible study, selfless service to others. When we do these things on a regular basis, when we practice them, we ascend, we arise, we have a greater spiritual understanding, our minds become open. And we feel more fully that connection with the Divine.
And so that's what I want to invite you to do in this last week of the Easter season. Find time each and every day to enter into the kingdom of heaven that is within you. It's why Jacob says when he makes that discovery, he says, “How awesome is this place? God is in this place, and I didn't know it. This is the gate of heaven.”
My friends, find time each day to stand before that gate of heaven, so that you can experience God's presence more fully, so that you can awaken and arise to that discovery of the divine light that is always with you. And within you
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Rev. Thomas Shepard
In today’s reading from Genesis, Jacob has a dream in which he envisions a great ladder reaching up to heaven. This is a wonderful and important image—both for Jacob and for us. Jacob, having manipulated his father Isaac to bestow on him the blessing that by law should have gone to his brother Esau, is fleeing from his brother's wrath. He is forced to leave all the material things—money, authority, power—that he had been struggling to claim as his own. He is alone in the wilderness, and only now can he 'remember' his true identity as an expression of eternal Spirit. Since the ladder has seven steps, many spiritual teachers have suggested that the ladder represents the seven chakras, which our Eastern brothers and sisters believe are the energy centers which run along the spine and lead towards enlightenment. Like the seven chakras, the seven rungs of Jacob’s ladder lead you from earth to heaven by raising your consciousness higher and higher. There are indications throughout scripture—from the seven days of creation to the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation—that there are consistently seven stages in our spiritual development while we are here in mortal form. We move consistently upward as we become more and more expressive of our true Spirit nature. In Jacob’s dream, angels not only descend to him from God, but also ascend in the other direction. It's important to realize that the energy, like the angels, flows in both directions. We don't leave our lower charkas behind; we transform them through the spiritual awareness we receive as we move higher.
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