The whole of humanity is taken by Jesus into the divine life
Liz Stuart, 24 May 2020
Acts 1: 4–11: Daniel 7: 9–14; Luke 24: 44–53
‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’, Juliet says to Romeo. We associate endings with partings, with goodbyes. Even in happy-ever-after stories we know that the story will ultimately end in a parting, in death. Luke appears to end his gospel with a parting: Jesus withdraws from his disciples and is carried up into heaven. The reaction to this parting is odd; it’s hardly Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter! The disciples respond to the departure of their friend, their teacher and their saviour by worshipping him, returning to Jerusalem with great joy and continually blessing God in the Temple. ‘Goodbye Lord, you’re great. We are off to have a party!’
Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, explains this odd goodbye. It’s not really a goodbye at all but a consummation of the gospel, of the Incarnation. It’s the beginning of a new reality, the new reality Jesus came to inaugurate. This is why Luke tells the story again at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, his second volume – the beginning of the story of the Church. And it’s why the disciples are happy, not sad. Because it’s not a goodbye; it’s a new hello.
Acts tells us that Jesus withdraws from his disciples into a cloud. When he does that, he takes humanity into the shekinah, the presence of God, which took the form of a cloud while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness of the desert. (Interestingly the shekinah, this presence of God in the form of a cloud, is always referred to in female terms in Jewish tradition.) The shekinah also manifests as light, with wings, and as fire. She will appear again at Pentecost.
This is why the disciples rejoice, because Jesus has taken us into the presence of God, into the life of God. Now, between God and us there is no ‘between’. Through and in Jesus we are in heaven, at one with God, taken deep into the shekinah, the divine life. Nothing, nothing can separate us from God. We are encompassed in his life. We are in him and, more than this, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, he is in us. That gift will be poured out at Pentecost. We tend to think of Jesus’ second coming in highly dramatic terms, such as we’ve heard in our reading from the Book of Daniel. But Luke makes clear that Jesus will return as he went, in the shekinah. And that is the form in which he returns at Pentecost. Bruised, broken, battered, humanity and God are one. No wonder the disciples want to celebrate. It’s not a brief encounter; it’s perpetual relationship.
But we don’t really believe it. We stand looking up as if we are separate from God, as if God is far away from us. How would we be if we really believed it, if we really believed that we are in God and God is in us?
I have been re-reading Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son, and he argues that the only authority God claims for himself is the authority of compassion. To live in the reality that the Ascension inaugurates, then, is to live in, and out of, the relentless, infinite, inexhaustible, all-encompassing compassion of God. It is to stand in blessing to the world, and that blessing is compassion. The shekinah, the presence of God, is compassion, the divine life is compassion, and it is into this life that Jesus take us, and it is this life that is poured out at Pentecost: the fire of compassion will come upon us. So compassion should be the yardstick by which we judge ourselves as Church and as individuals, judge how authentically we are living out of the life of God.
To live in the reality that the Ascension inaugurates is to live in, and out of, the relentless, infinite, inexhaustible, all-encompassing compassion of God.
It is easy to become cynical about the world and, indeed, to despair, but I learned a new word this week thanks to Twitter, and that word is ‘respair’. It means to recover from despair. Covid-19 has revealed extraordinary levels and acts of compassion. I feel respair for humanity because of it. It reminds me that the whole of humanity is taken by Jesus into the divine life – not just his friends or his followers, the whole of humanity. We as Christians have no monopoly on God’s life, which is often lived more authentically outside the Church than in it. No one can keep the shekinah on a lead. Our joy as Christians is that because we live in the life of God, we’re able to recognise that life as it manifests itself in compassion around us. We can see what God is up to and we can join in.
Between God and us there is no between. Between heaven and earth there is no between. Between life and death there is no between; all is one in the divine life. Malcolm Guite has put this so much more beautifully than I have in a poem about the Ascension:
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.