DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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EASTER
7
The Fellowship of the Way

Acts 1.9 ... he was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

The story of Jesus being "taken up to heaven" puts us on the spot as few other New Testament accounts do. The biblical evidence for it is weak. In addition, it goes against everything we know in the 21st century about how the universe works.

But the tale of the Ascension harmonises well with how the author of the Acts of the Apostles believed things work.

First, he thought that our world merges seamlessly into the next. Spirits, good and bad, swarm from that world into ours and back again. God and the angels likewise act constantly to intervene in earthly affairs. He thought that passage between the two was possible and normal. We talk to God and God talks to us. Though wonderful, the Ascension was not miraculous. Such things were possible given the nature of the universe. So even if Jesus had been taken up into heaven, the author of Acts thought it was still possible to relate to him. The spiritual world and our world could and did communicate with each other in profound ways.

Second, there was a strong tradition in his time that very holy people sometimes don't die but go straight to God's heavenly kingdom. The Old Testament (2 Kings 2.11) tells how Elijah was taken up into heaven in just this way. We know from Matthew's Gospel that some early Christians ranked Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah (17.4). Jesus had risen from the dead - and yet, like Elijah, was no longer among his people. So what we today call the Ascension must have been "what really happened".

Whatever the truth about the Ascension, all Christians must come to grips with the fact that Jesus the man is no longer with us.  

Facing up to this can be testing. For many centuries Christians have been counselled to relate personally to Jesus. Even though we can't see or hear Jesus in the same way that we see and hear other people, we are told that he nevertheless interacts with us in a way which can't be described. The end result of this relationship, it is said, is the same as if he were really physically alive and with us now.

But the time is coming, and indeed seems to have come, when Christians should question and perhaps abandon this line. Jesus really has been "taken up to heaven" - to use the ancient, time-honoured myth. He is no longer with us. He's dead and gone. Perhaps he can be related to as a person in the way that we're told. But I for one don't experience this, and I know that my experience is that of many, many others also. 

If Jesus is with us in some mysterious way, if we can relate to him just as we relate to other people, what need is there for "the body of Christ" (Ephesians 1.23)? If each of us has a hot-line to Jesus why do we need the Church? Isn't an intimate relationship with Jesus via a spiritual dimension all we could possibly require? Christians spend billions each year maintaining and sustaining a myriad of ecclesiastical structures. Isn't all this wasted if each of us can know Jesus as did his friends while he was still alive? Those who manage official Church structures are quite naturally unlikely to favour such an approach.

Of course, the Ascension story can be variously interpreted. Some may think of it as did the first Christians - a wondrous event confirming the special status of Jesus in the eyes of God. Others may discount it entirely as a useful account of "what really happened". Yet others may read into it deep and complex meanings, finding godly secrets comprehensible only to the initiated.

But perhaps those who accept Jesus as the great pioneer of their way of life may use this time to reaffirm that they need each other precisely because Jesus has been "taken into heaven". Together they form the Fellowship of "The Way" (Acts 9.2) - a Fellowship reaching far beyond artificial ecclesiastical boundaries and far more powerful than any Church organisation.

The author of that extended sermon we call John's Gospel seems to have recognised the importance of the Fellowship. In the struggle to live out the way pioneered by Jesus, John affirms that mutual support, understanding and sacrificial love are vital. 

He puts these words into Jesus' mouth:

Now I am coming to you. I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one just as you and I are one. (John 17.11)

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