Today, according to the church calendar in the United States, is The Feast of the Ascension. This day we celebrate Jesus rising up to heaven. According to the story, Jesus, witnessed by his disciples, and about 3,000 others (Peter tells us in The Book of Acts), rose up into the heavens. A lot of people have a hard time with that. In a way, I understand. It’s not something you see everyday. But what I always find strange is that many of these same people who have a hard time believing that Jesus rose up to heaven, have no problems believing that we are being visited by folks from other star systems in ships that travel at speeds that break those same natural laws that supposedly prevent Jesus from rising up into the sky.
I have read many recent accounts by eyewitnesses who have reporting seeing things that would seem to defy all that we hold reasonable and rational.I have read of men who have seen Buddhist monks run at speeds that would be, by any estimation, superhuman. I have read accounts of monks who have been seen on the same day in places hundreds of miles apart when there is no possible way for the monk in question to have traveled such a long distance. I, myself, have seen martial artists bend combat steel blades with their throats and break solid granite. None of that would seem reasonable or rational.
Many of the people who have problems with religion, have no problems with astrology, or a belief in ghosts, or other paranormal phenomenon. But they do have a problem believing in miracles. I’m not sure why. First of all, once one accepts a belief in some kind of God, some kind of all powerful creative force in the universe, it should not be so difficult to accept that same force can do whatever the hell S/He wants to do. If God is God, then God can pretty much do whatever S/He bloody well wants, I would think. But, be that as it may, it has little bearing on what Jesus did and taught.
According to Matthew, after Jesus had been arrested, tried, and executed, he appeared to his close students. And then, he brought them all to a mountain (or hill—some high place) and…but I’ll let Matthew tell it.
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to give heed to all that I have told you to do. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of time."
And then he rose up into heaven. Who knows? Maybe he appeared to them in spirit and then just disappeared. If you were a Judean from the first century, you might describe such an occurrence as rising up into heaven. This much is certain. Those guys must have really believed in what they saw because they did exactly what he told them to do. They went out to all the ends of the known world at that time taking the message of love and service to everyone they could. And they suffered for it terribly. And they accepted that suffering, even unto death, and still refused to deny the things Jesus told them and his place as the anointed one of God.
Now you might argue that those accounts were written a long time after Jesus died, and you would be right. The earliest gospel was written close to thirty years after Jesus died, according to most scholars. But those letters written by his followers weren’t. Those letters, which also make up what Christians call The New Testament, were written, for the most part, no more than twenty years later.
It is important to remember that those letters, called epistles, were just that, letters. Nobody who wrote them expected them to be part of some holy book. They were letters, written from one person to a group of people who had accepted the teachings of Jesus. And if you read the story of Jesus as just that, a story, then you should read those letters for what they are as well, letters. They are full of the opinions of whoever happened to write the letters. They are letters that give advice, based on what the person who wrote the letter had learned from Jesus. And we know how much those guys screwed up while Jesus was with them. Imagine how confused they might get when Jesus wasn’t around to guide them anymore. But still, they show that the composers of those letters clearly believed in what they were writing.
And they also show that the early churches were already beginning to have issues in following and keeping those things Jesus taught. Let’s look, for example, at that first letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Paul wasn’t even one of the original twelve disciples. In fact, during the first few years of the early church, Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus and even helped to execute one of them. And then something happened. The story is given in the book, written by the same person who wrote the Gospel According to Luke, called The Acts of the Apostles. Whether or not THAT book is true, it is clear that something major happened to change Paul’s mind about Jesus, because AFTER that life-changing event, he became probably the biggest supporter Jesus ever had.
Paul had traveled over most of the Roman Empire and had established churches, groups of followers, in most of the cities he visited. One of these churches was in the Greek city of Corinth, a very wealthy commercial town. Some time later, while Paul was in Ephesus, he heard that the followers of Jesus in Corinth were having some problems and, quite frankly, becoming something of a controversy within the Christian community. So he sat down and wrote them a letter.
You see, the people of Corinth were rich folks. They were status seekers. And it was only natural that their proclivity to acquire status would bleed over into their religious practice. Each Corinthian Christian was trying to be more holy than all the other Corinthians. So those regular weekly celebrations had degraded into occasions in which members of the community were trying to “out holy” each other. There was a great deal of speaking in tongues, supposed proof of the gift of the Holy Spirit. People would start yelling out in some strange tongue that nobody could understand, not unlike what happens at various Pentecostal churches today (not to be confused with THE Pentecostal church, which is a specific Protestant denomination.)
Moreover, the richer Corinthians were looking down upon the poor Corinthians. Food was not being equally shared among all members of the community. There was a definite social class structure, something Jesus had taught against during his ministry in Judea. So Paul wrote them a letter and told them to stop it.
“…no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the holy Spirit. There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.”
In other words, EVERYBODY has some kind of gift from God. No gift is any holier than any other. Paul goes on to list all the “gifts of the spirit”. Paul says there is the gift of wisdom, knowledge (note—they are not the same thing), faith, healing, prophecy, discernment of spirits (ghost hunters take note!), and speaking in tongues. You will notice that he puts speaking in tongues last on the list. So Paul says that every gift is important. In addition, later in the letter, he will tell the Corinthians that speaking in tongues in no good if there isn’t anybody around to interpret what the speaker is saying, because it benefits nobody if you are communicating with the all mighty but nobody knows what you’re saying.
He then goes on to tell them that just as a body has many parts, there is only one body, the body of Christ, the church. No one part of the body can say that it is any more important than any other. Is the hand more important than the foot? Is the eye more important than the ear? As Paul says, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” So quit thinking that any of you are any more important than anybody else is. I think that’s good advice in general. Look at all the bosses who behave as if they are more important than their administrative assistants. Where would the company be without its employees? If Jesus taught anything, it was that the greatest is the least amongst us. Then Paul tells them what is really important. He says, “I will show you a better way.”
“If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong, a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, love is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
This is what Paul had to say to the Corinthians. They are some of the most beautiful words in the entire Bible. It is good advice for all of us. Of course, as in any letter, he also goes on to complain about all the bad things people are saying about him. It bothers him that, just because he was an apostle come lately, he was not being taken as seriously as the other apostles. He also reminds them that they have a responsibility to help support the people who come and help them understand the teachings of Jesus with money and shit.
I think it is also interesting that he tells them he will probably stay in Ephesus until after Pentecost, which shows that as early as twenty years after Jesus left, the church already has special feast days that are celebrated. He also makes a point that he wrote the letter “in his own hand.” This shows how important it was for him to write them since Paul had problems with his eyes and also with his hands that made writing difficult and painful. The Corinthians would have known this so Paul was spreading some good old Catholic guilt. Don’t MAKE me write you clowns another letter!
What Jesus told his followers to do at his ascension is called the great commission. It is clear that Paul has taken it very seriously. I have no doubt whatsoever that Paul also added quite a few of his own teachings to what Jesus taught, a lot of it having to do with sex and women and other things that, as far as the record shows, Jesus never said anything about. Yet it is clear that he also was quite clear about the things that Jesus DID teach. He taught love and service to one another. He taught us to change our way of thinking. He taught that we are all children of God, loved and accepted. And Paul reminds us that God has given all of us gifts, gifts given to share with one another. And that they greatest gift God has given us is love. Spread the word.