My fourteen-year-old son Mark is away at Boy Scout camp this week. That’s got me thinking back to my own experience. The last time I went to a Boy Scout camp I was thirteen. One of the major activities was building a twenty-foot tower. It took our troop most of the day to lash the wooden poles in place and make platforms that were sturdy enough to hold our weight. I remember the pride of accomplishment we felt when the job was done. From atop the tower we were lords of the Earth. We wanted our structure to last forever, but at the end of the day it had to be disassembled so the next group of campers could build their own tower. I’m sure each troop thought their tower was the best, but in fact they were all very much a like. Some were a little taller than others, some a little sturdier. But they were all made with the same materials and techniques, and the differences were more superficial than substantive.
Boy Scouts aren’t the only ones who build towers. Theologians do too. They build beautiful systems, logically lashed together. Each group defends its own tower, claiming superiority of craftsmanship and fidelity to Scripture. Built on an Aristotelian foundation, these systems thrive on defining themselves against the other: sacramental vs. non-sacramental, predestination vs. free will, Protestant vs. Catholic vs. Orthodox, and so on. Such systems provide certainty and security for their adherents but they also foster a kind of theological agoraphobia, a fear of wandering outside the safety of one’s own system. Stepping outside one’s theological boundaries can be as terrifying as stepping off a twenty-foot tower.
But what if truth is greater than any one theological system? What if truth isn’t like building a tower but like triangulating on a location from different towers? What if truth isn’t propositional and logical at all but personal and mysterious?
The Bible doesn’t tell us to put our faith and trust in theological systems. We are told to believe in a person – Jesus Christ, who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Today is Ascension Sunday when many Christians celebrate Jesus’ miraculous return to Heaven. It has inspired great Christian art like the Rembrandt painting above and musical masterpieces such as Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”
If it weren’t for Luke, we’d know almost nothing about the ascension. He gives us a brief description at the end of his Gospel and an extended one at the beginning of the Book of Acts (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:9-11). Matthew and John don’t mention the ascension at all, and Mark simply says that Jesus “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19b). But this verse is in the disputed longer ending that’s not in several of the oldest manuscripts of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). There’s even a difference between the way Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts describe the event. The Gospel identifies the location as Bethany; Acts implies that it was on the Mount of Olives “about a Sabbath day’s journey away” from Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). (Why did the disciples leave Jerusalem after Jesus had ordered them not to? Acts 1:4, cf. 1:12). Acts suggests the ascension took place forty days after Jesus was raised from the dead (Acts 1:3); Luke’s Gospel makes no mention of this forty-day period and gives the impression that it took place at the end of the first Easter Day. I hope you won’t let these facts trouble you or cause you to doubt the importance of Jesus’ ascension.
The ascension completed Jesus’ journey from heaven and back again. He descended from heaven to earth and from earth to the grave – down, down, down. Then he ascended from the grave to the earth and back to heaven – up, up, up. The Apostle Paul says, “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). In his descent and ascent, Jesus demonstrated the paradoxical truth that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, 18:14). Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Through humility you may ascend to sublimity.” The way up is down!
The ascension can be seen as a metaphor for spiritual progress. Ascent was easy for Jesus because he wasn’t weighed down by sin. It’s difficult for us because our sins weigh us down like an anchor. Jesus floated up to heaven like a helium-filled balloon. We have to climb Mount Everest. Spiritual maturity doesn’t come suddenly and unexpectedly like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. It comes from years and years of hard work, through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, spiritual reading, fasting, and Christian service. How will we know when we’ve arrived? When we come to that perfect love of God that casts out fear. Love is the hallmark of spiritual ascent, because God is love (1 John 4:8b). The closer we get to God, the more the love of God is perfected in us.