Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
— John 12:24 —
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
— 1 Corinthians 15: 35-38 —
These two passages are very significant clues for thinking about the season from Good Friday to Pentecost. They help us move away from literalism to a rich understanding of Jesus the Christ and of how his resurrection is a promise for us.
On Good Friday, the first disciples were overwhelmed with the awareness that their teacher and friend, their mentor, was in fact as human as they. He dies in a particularly gruesome and humiliating fashion. No lightning bolts came to save him. He died with us, sharing even fear and pain with us. For me, this has always been an important insight, a reality that demands that we are born and that we die: some of us easily, some of us horribly. Nothing can save us. We are designed for death. But maybe we are also designed for resurrection!
When family and friends first encounter the risen Messiah, you will remember that they do not recognize him. He has been transformed. It is in relationship that his nature is revealed to followers, sometimes immediately, as in the garden with Mary; sometimes later, after he left the dinner and prayers in Emmaus. Although his presence seems concrete and corporeal, he is able to appear and disappear mysteriously. All the post-resurrection stories happen only with his followers. There is no mention of any encounters with strangers, enemies, or other friends. John Dominic Crossan has pointed out that the Eastern Church maintained its commitment to the idea of a corporate resurrection as the important idea, whereas the Western Church became focussed on personal salvation. Of course, both belong together. It is not possible to conceive of isolation together with the company of Christ. Everything happens in community, but it also individual experience.
Which brings us to the story of the Ascension, a story that is limited by a shift in our knowledge base and the literalism of our era. Buckminster Fuller calls the whole story into question with his famous perspective that in a round world, there is neither up nor down. So if not an up and down movement, than what do we make of this tale? I believe the story of the ascension has everything to do with grief and empowerment.
Many people who are grieving say quietly that they have either seen their loved one or that they experience their presence. There is a Netflix series call “After Life” about a man struggling grimly with his grief, so much that he views videos of his deceased wife, over and over. Eventually, he is able to move beyond his personal pain to acknowledge that the world still exists and instead of fighting it or hiding from it, he can be a force of compassion and wisdom.
The ascension story might be about the disciples releasing their grief and their personal sense of disempowerment in order to become the church. Unless the seed falls into the ground…. And that seed is the misdirected hopes, the keenness of feeling abandoned, the confusion around the choices that those first disciples must have felt. Also, the time had come to reassess who Jesus could be for them in the present, rather than clinging to the beloved leader of the past.
One trajectory for this story is to understand the ascension as the movement from Jesus the mortal, the man, to Jesus, filled with the Spirit of the Holy One, as the Christ; Jesus, the one anointed to show the world that death is a gateway not an abyss. The Christ who — through his transformation from the Beloved to the Christ — becomes for us the sign of inclusivity, and who combines all the knowledge of the suffering and joy of humanity with the cosmic wisdom of the Spirit of the Holy One.
Jesus, the man of history, would have been an influence but would not be such a world-shaking experience without his transformation. The disciples could not have become the church without turning away from gazing into the skies, waiting for an unrealistic dream. Instead, they look at each other, at their world, at the circumstances of their lives, and they begin to plan their next steps as the followers of Jesus, now the Christ.
On the day of Pentecost, the story of the gathering of the disciples, for the first time as the Body of Jesus, transforms them also into the body of the risen Christ, no longer limited by other knowledge, or false hope. For themselves and for the witnesses, they become people who — like Jesus himself — reach out to all people, regardless of status or ethnicity. They are filled with the wine of vision and new hope. They come to believe that they have not been abandoned at all but, like the earthly Jesus, they have been anointed for the work of transforming others with compassion, hope, and healing.
They no longer look like those first fishermen. They are no longer seeds planted in hope, but food for a hungry world.
They discover abilities they did not know they had. They become orators, motivational speakers, powerful in prayer and in the radical messages of acceptance and the destiny of humanity. The gospels certainly are about love, but about a tough love, one that has endured suffering, that has experienced the pain of becoming new, that has had to leave the past behind to grasp for an awe-filled, unbelievable promise. Through these disciples Pentecost calls: “Follow him with us and discover that death is a gate and there is so much more to life than we can know in one lifetime.”
Pentecost is the promise that if we open our minds and our emotions, we too can be filled with the new wine of promise and the courage to live our lives with openness and authenticity. Pentecost is a story about finding the Holy as an experience that comes for those who allow themselves to live on the other side of platitudes and vulnerability.
“God loves us already and has from our very beginning. The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it is about seeing what is already true: that God loves us already and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.” (Marcus Borg)
At the heart of the institutional church, the Holy Spirit still burns and stirs, no matter how deeply we may from time to time have embedded it in stone and statutes. The wild Spirit will break out and demand freedom and justice, hope and healing, compassion and vision beyond our knowing.
And from the late Judy Cannato (Radical Amazement), mystic and believer:
Our knowing what we know is an act of self transcendence, and our acting upon what we have learned will lead to greater consciousness still. . . . . We must accept accept the power and grace that is in the emerging universe. . . .This is our moment. Let us live committed and in love. . . .