Beyond Separation 

The Rev Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Acts 1:6-14.

Today is now the Seventh Sunday of Easter: or, as it is subtitled on your bulletins, the Sunday after Ascension Day, when we remember in our lessons and prayers how Jesus was exalted with great triumph to God’s kingdom in heaven, and we look forward to our hope that we too will be exalted to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.

The Ascension, however, is one of those articles of the Christian faith that has come in for some rather rough treatment in our post-modern intellectual climate. Our first lesson today, from Acts, tells the story: how Jesus promised his disciples that power would come upon them, and while he was speaking, he was lifted up, he rose vertically into the air, until “a cloud took him out of their sight,” and they were left there, alone, staring up into the sky.

For a lot of people today, that picture of Jesus going up into heaven is a difficult one. We today tend not to think of “heaven” as a hyperphysical realm just beyond the sky. We today tend to think that if you go up you go into space, out into the solar system, out where Cassini is taking pictures of Saturn, out into the galaxy, eventually out into the great darkness between the galaxies. Going up means going into the universe, not into heaven.

So here’s a different way to think about it: What the Ascension means is that Jesus is now no longer separated from God in any way. Of course Jesus was always the Word of God incarnate, Jesus was always in relationship with God in the deepest and most fundamental way, Jesus always, all through his earthly life and ministry, could say “I and the Father are one.” But Jesus was also the Word incarnate, the one who became flesh and dwelt among us: Jesus was not just fully divine but also fully human—and part of what it means to be human is to experience separation.

As a human being, part of the way I know who I am is that I am not someone else. There is a separation between me and the rest of the world. There is a part of the world that is my body, that I can feel and direct and move at my will; and there is a part of the world that is not my body, that I can’t feel and move that way, that is separate from me. That separation helps define me.

Another thing that helps define me is my separation from other people. I once saw a book called Where You End and I Begin—and it made the point that one of the signs of a healthy personality is strong ego boundaries, so that I don’t project my baggage on you and I don’t let you project your baggage on me, either. Being separate that way is one of the things that helps us be ourselves.

And we are separate from God: God is Creator and we are creatures, God is infinite and we are finite, God gives us freedom, so that we are not just passive puppets of God’s omnipotent will, but we are different from God and separate from God and can give to God a unique devotion and a unique love that is ours and only ours to give. Being separate is part of what makes us human.

But being separate also has its downsides. Separation can make us arrogant. The fact that we can control our bodies, and the rest of the world appears to us as just kind of a backdrop, a stage set, for what we do with our controlling bodies, has made us arrogant toward our environment, toward our planetary home.

Separation can make us lonely. Even though strong ego boundaries are healthy, we also long for the sense that we can really share ourselves with others, that we can really understand and love another person deeply, that we can go beyond just “I” and “you” and get to “we.”

Separation can make us spiritually small. I am glad that I’m not just a puppet of God’s will, I am glad that I’m different from God in that way; but I also know that I find it terribly easy to forget about God, terribly easy to get so caught up in my own immediate business and busy-ness that I take for granted the love and the grace and the Being that holds me in life, terribly easy to let my ego get separated from the Source who alone can make me more whole. That’s the paradox of separation: it helps us be who we are, but it also cuts us off from so much more that we could be.

Part of the meaning of the Ascension is that it points to the promise of being human without being separated. Jesus returns to the infinite and eternal glory that he had with God before the world existed—and he returns to that glory with his full humanity—with his human personality that loved and wept and joked with the disciples; with his human experience that knew pain and joy and suffering and hope; with his human body that walked the roads of Galilee, and hugged the children that were brought to him, and suffered and died on the cross, and appeared alive to his disciples after his suffering, to eat and drink with them and teach them about the kingdom and bless them to the end of the age. Jesus takes his full humanity into God, and in God that humanity is no longer separated from anything.

Because Jesus’ body is no longer located in one little bit of space-time separated from the rest of the Universe, now therefore the whole Universe is enfolded in the Body of Christ.

Because Jesus’ personality is no longer defined by ego boundaries over against other selves, now therefore all our selfhood, all our personalities, can be grounded in the true Self of Christ.

Because Jesus’ love is no longer limited to one little group of disciples long ago and far away, now therefore our love too can be coinherent and interanimated and made more whole in the love of Christ.

The symbol of the Ascension, the mystery of the Ascension, points us to the promise of a humanity that is not defined by being divided. The mystery of the Ascension points us to a way of being human where we can be ourselves without being separated from God, or from the world, or from each other.

What the fullness of that promise will be like, we cannot yet tell. The mystery of an ascended way of being in which we can be ourselves and yet not be separated is more than we can grasp in this life, it’s more than we can comprehend according to the way of being that we know now. But even now, I think, we get glimpses, we get hints, we get foretastes, of what that life beyond separation will be like. Even now, in the experience of genuine and generous love, we get the feeling of what it is like to be our own distinct selves, and yet not to be divided from each other—we get a glimpse of what it can be like to be taken up into a reality that is greater than us and yet allows us to be the unique and precious individuals that we are—we get the feeling of what it is like to be not just an “I” and a “you” but a “we.”

And the great gift of God is that we can experience that quality of love that rises beyond separation in so many of our down-to-earth, daily, ordinary relationships. This mystery isn’t just about ascending into heaven; this mystery is about where we live right now.

I see that kind of love beyond separation in many married couples, where each of them is a better person because of who they’re with. I’ve seen marriages where spouses bring out the best in each other, where both can be who they really are because they’re not just an “I” and a “you” but a “we.”

I’ve seen that kind of love beyond separation between parents and children, where parents give deeply of themselves to create the kind of environment where children can grow up to be creative and free and responsible and think their own thoughts and pursue their own goals – and the parents are thrilled, happy, overjoyed that their children are not just small copies of themselves, but persons who have included and transcended their family origin.

And I have seen glimpses of that love beyond separation in parishes as well. I’ve seen it in church communities that really strive to learn how to love in a way that cares not just about “my needs” or “your gifts” or “somebody else’s problems,” but that cares about our faith and our hope and our mission to share God’s love with all the world. The church community can be a school of discipleship that teaches us how to love in distinction without division, how to love with diversity in unity, how to love not just “I” and “you” but “we.”

And where do you see that kind of love in your life? Where have you experienced relationship that connects you deeply to someone else, yet also makes you more yourself than you could be all alone? If you have known relationship like that, then you’ve caught your own glimpse of Jesus’ ascended life, the life of a love that rises beyond separation.

May God indeed exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. Amen.