We live in the age of meta-stories. We call the “franchises”.
- Star Wars
- Harry Potter
- Lord of the Rings
- The Marvel Universe
These franchises have nearly taken over the movie industry. Check out the numbers on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Why the outstanding commercial success? Why are people so drawn to this?
In many ways these have become sub-religions in the world today
- We indoctrinate our children into them through movies and merchandise
- The values within these stories both reflect and instruct
- Fans are zealous about new offerings not breaking canon
In many ways all of this is a response to the major world religious that functioned similarly and unself-consciously through most of human history. The rise of secular skepticism about larger stories not only threatens to bring decline to major religions, but changes them too.
This same skepticism also informs and changes stories in the superhero genre. Consider for a moment the issue of flight.
Why Superman Movies Struggle
This website identifies 16 superheros from various “universes” who fly. In our contemporary context a superhero movie needs to have a degree of believability. Even though we all “get” that these stories are fantasy there needs to be a reason for the spectacular things the super heroes are doing.
- Ironman has technology
- Thor has his hammer, and can’t fly without it.
- Many flying superheroes have wings
- Super heroes that look borrow from the Hindu family of religions look to their religious convictions that the visible world is illusory, so Dr. Strange and Neo from the Matrix can just manipulate reality. Star Wars appeals to “the force”.
Superman remains a problematic figure for movie making. He’s too strong and the kryponite, yellow sun things has just kind of fallen apart. Superman just isn’t as compelling as Batman or other characters whose powers feel more accessible to us. We love Ironman because anyone could wear his suit and be a superhero. None of us were fortunate, or unfortunate to have been born on Krypton.
What is with Jesus Flying?
This week we have the most important Christian holidays that is nearly forgotten and mostly ignored. Ascension Day.
Ascension Day has fallen on hard times partly because we have have lost touch with the canon of the story and how it all fits and works together. What I hope for us today is that we will discover how Ascension Day fits into the rest of the story, the history of the world, and how hopefully we can live within this story in a richer way.
Why did Jesus Fly Up?
We want to begin with a series of questions to help us understand the Christian canon and how this stuff works together.
- Why did Jesus fly up?
- Why did almost every culture in the world believe in astrology except the Jews?
- Why do we, still in our language talk about “the heavens” as up?
The answer is simple. Ancient peoples assumed a number of things.
- Events on earth are controlled by powers in “heaven” or “the heavens”
- Because of this by watching the heavens you could predict events on earth. This was like watching storms over the Pacific Ocean and being able to predict the weather in California.
Jesus’ ascension had a definite meaning which was vital and important for the everyday life of ordinary people. It was not so different from imagining that your friend is going to the White House or Congress or the seat of power in your world. Your personal relationship with this person was a source of excitement and great anticipation about your future.
Up is important in the Bible in lots of stories.
- In Bethel Jacob sees a stairway going up to heaven in his dream
- The smoke of sacrifices go up to heaven to God
- Fire is associated with heaven as is light. Fire is also associated with sacrifices and the presence of God. (the burning bush, “I am a consuming fire”, etc.)
- Blinding light is commonly associated with heaven as is lightening.
Now before we get too bent out of shape with our science informed worldview theologians have long known that the only way God could communicate with us is by using the assumptions and the culture furniture we possess. God would use the stock elements of the culture He is engaged with in order to communicate what he wishes.
Yet we must not be snobs simply because we’ve seen the earth through a camera from the moon. CS Lewis helps put this into perspective for us.
The real and pernicious period of literalism comes far later, in the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century, when the distinctions have been made and heavy-handed people try to force the separated concepts together again in wrong ways. The fact that Galilean shepherds could not distinguish what they saw at the Ascension from that kind of ascent which, by its very nature, could never be seen at all, does not prove on the one hand that they were unspiritual, nor on the other that they saw nothing. A man who really believes that ‘Heaven’ is in the sky may well, in his heart, have a far truer and more spiritual conception of it than many a modern logician who could expose that fallacy with a few strokes of his pen. For he who does the will of the Father shall know the doctrine. Irrelevant material splendours in such a man’s idea of the vision of God will do no harm, for they are not there for their own sakes. Purity from such images in a merely theoretical Christian’s idea will do no good if they have been banished only by logical criticism.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). Miracles: A Preliminary Study (pp. 257–258). New York: HarperOne.
Why Didn’t a Chariot Carry Jesus?
If you read in the Old Testament there is a story of the great prophet Elijah going up to heaven instead of dying.
2 Kings 2:11 (NIV)
11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
The elements of this story are important. He will travel up but the normal question is “why does he get there?” Angels only occasionally in the Bible have wings. Wings are a way for creatures to go to heaven. Elijah couldn’t fly because people have no wings. If God wanted to take him He needed to give him a ride so he provides a “chariot of fire”.
Jesus, however, is not picked up by a chariot. Why not?
What else do we know about Jesus?
- Jesus can still a storm
- Jesus can multiply bread and fish
- Jesus can change water into wine
- Jesus walks on water
- Jesus is transformed into a bright figure
All of these miracles are given to show us who Jesus is and what the kingdom of God is like.
The question we are led to ask is what is Jesus’ relationship to the material world. The answer we are led to believe is that he is the master of materiality. This kind of points us in the direction of Neo or Dr. Strange but not quite. These “super heroes” manipulate the illusion that these Hindu family religious assert the material universe is. For Jews, Christians, and western science the material universe is real. Jesus isn’t manipulating an illusion or a computer program, he is master of reality. He is the author of creation 1.0 and in the resurrection he embodies Creation 2.0, or perhaps 1.5 because the new creation is a remake of the old.
When 1 Corinthians talks about Jesus having a “spiritual” body, it does not mean an immaterial body, but rather a body that is obedient to spirit, unlike our current world in which our bodies are in rebellion against God’s Spirit. In the new creation Nature will once again be our servant as well as our sister, not the rebellion it is in within the age of decay.
The Unification of Heaven and Earth
We should now turn to the passage we want to look at. Acts 1:1-11.
Acts 1:1–11 (NIV)
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
There are a few items I want to draw your attention to.
First, after the resurrection Jesus was with them, as before, yet not quite. He was changed but his change didn’t mean that he was less fully with them, but in a strange way he was more.
Second he told them not to do too much until the Holy Spirit came. We’ll get to a lot of that next week.
The question of the disciples both reveals to us how clueless they remained about his mission but also how he sets them up not only for Pentecost (again, wait until next week), but of the relationship between what we imagine to be ultimate things and where Jesus wishes to point them.
The Dull Pre-occupation of the Disciples
If you read the Gospels you can’t help but see the pervasive misunderstanding between the disciples’ assumptions about Jesus ministry, his Messiahship, his identity as the Son of Man and the one Jesus is trying to give them.
In all fairness to the disciples Jesus is trying to give them exactly what all of us want. We want to be fed, we want to be secure, we want to be happy, we want to have our dreams for money, power and sex to come true. As if the experience of every living human being who has had the greatest access to this is not enough for this illusion to be exorcised from us Jesus himself can’t seem to do it unless and until the Holy Spirit comes.
This is the constant human condition. Augustine dealt with this.
Now, everyone wants happiness, Augustine argues. For pagan thinkers, happiness—true human flourishing—is found in our lives as citizens of some human city, such as Rome. This is effectively a morality of patriotism. You exercise your virtuousness— your kind of manly power; this is really addressed to men here—to gain imperium—rule, or domination—which gives you and your city gloria—glory, or splendor.
Again, this remains a view which many if not most people today share, that human happiness is the product of this-worldly striving, and that to advance such striving, governments are established as one central vehicle for empowering it. Happiness is realized by worldly achievement. But Augustine thinks this is both historically and psychologically deluded. First, consider history, particularly the physical evils experienced by the Romans—the physical sufferings and deaths that eventuated from their rise to domination over the known world. These are clearly part of the cost of Rome’s rise to greatness. There have certainly been enough of these, he thinks. The civil wars that Rome has suffered over the centuries were more ferocious and bloody than any barbarian sack. To hold on to their belief that the way to be happy is through civic greatness, the Romans are compelled to forget their own history.
Notes from Great Courses City of God by Charles Mathewes(Page 123).
The disciples are caught within the grip of a similar illusion. Israel’s exaltation at the expense of all the other nations is what they desire.
Jesus changes the story.
- He promises that they will receive the Holy Spirit
- They will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth
- He ascends.
What does the Ascension Mean?
- The Ascension, his ability to govern matter by spirit in making air, wind, cloud and gravity his servants, shows us that He is Lord.
- His renewed flesh, the future of our now fallen, rebellious flesh, now in itself breaks the barrier between us and the throne of God that separated us from Him since our rebellion.
- Our Lord, friend and brother now governs the created order, though it still be mixed with rebellion, and will one day, even though his work and ours, bring it to the same completion that he bears in his resurrected spirit-empowered body.
NT Wright sees it this way.
What Luke and the other writers who describe the risen body of Jesus are saying, rather, is that Jesus is more than ordinarily embodied, not less. His transformed body is now the beginning of God’s new creation; and in God’s new creation, as we know from passages like Revelation 21 and Ephesians 1, heaven and earth will come together in a new way. Jesus’ risen body is the beginning of that, the beginning of a heavenly reality which is fully at home on, and in, this physical world (‘earth’), and the beginning of a transformed physical world which is fully at home in God’s sphere (‘heaven’)
Wright, T. (2008). Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (pp. 3–4). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
In the Ascended Christ You Will One Day Make Our Imagined Superheros Look Frail and Withered by Decay
The joy Christians have found in the Ascension is that in it Jesus brings us one step closer to what the disciples were asking for if they had only known what to ask. Their desired merely better homes, safer streets, richer foods when Jesus was preparing to give them all of heaven and earth.
We live in the stories of our age because they widen our imaginations, but even these stories are like the too small dreams of the disciples.
- Ironman’s technology pollutes and breaks down
- The Hulk can’t get beyond his anger issues
- Captain America has made the nation his god and it keeps letting him down
- Dr. Strange and Neo finally live in illusory worlds.
We are promised far, far more and invited to begin living strangely in it now in an ironic cruciform way. The gospel actually helps us live both in this world and the next, not in distraction, avoidance or denial but in joyful anticipation from one to the next. CS Lewis captures it well here.
And what, you ask, does it matter? Do not such ideas only excite us and distract us from the more immediate and more certain things, the love of God and our neighbours, the bearing of the daily cross? If you find that they so distract you, think of them no more. I most fully allow that it is of more importance for you or me today to refrain from one sneer or to extend one charitable thought to an enemy than to know all that angels and archangels know about the mysteries of the New Creation. I write of these things not because they are the most important but because this book is about miracles. From the title you cannot have expected a book of devotion or of ascetic theology. Yet I will not admit that the things we have been discussing for the last few pages are of no importance for the practice of the Christian life. For I suspect that our conception of Heaven as merely a state of mind is not unconnected with the fact that the specifically Christian virtue of Hope has in our time grown so languid. Where our fathers, peering into the future, saw gleams of gold, we see only the mist, white, featureless, cold and never moving.
The thought at the back of all this negative spirituality is really one forbidden to Christians. They, of all men, must not conceive spiritual joy and worth as things that need to be rescued or tenderly protected from time and place and matter and the senses. Their God is the God of corn and oil and wine. He is the glad Creator. He has become Himself incarnate. The sacraments have been instituted. Certain spiritual gifts are offered us only on condition that we perform certain bodily acts. After that we cannot really be in doubt of His intention. To shrink back from all that can be called Nature into negative spirituality is as if we ran away from horses instead of learning to ride. There is in our present pilgrim condition plenty of room (more room than most of us like) for abstinence and renunciation and mortifying our natural desires. But behind all asceticism the thought should be, ‘Who will trust us with the true wealth if we cannot be trusted even with the wealth that perishes?’ Who will trust me with a spiritual body if I cannot control even an earthly body? These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage: not that we may some day be free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King’s stables. Not that the gallop would be of any value unless it were a gallop with the King; but how else—since He has retained His own charger—should we accompany Him?
Lewis, C. S. (2001). Miracles: A Preliminary Study (pp. 263–266). New York: HarperOne.