And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in
the temple, praising and blessing God.
In the church calendar, celebration of the Lord's ascension is set on the fortieth day
after Easter. Since this falls on a Thursday, it is easy to overlook, and I am glad to
have been reminded of it this year by one of our students. The ascension is, after all, a
pivotal event in the history of Christianity, a turning point for the disciples. From that
time on, they did not have the physical Christ to turn to. They were, relatively speaking,
on their own, having to make choices on the basis of what they had learned with the
guidance of the inner presence they had been promised.
The response described by Luke is intriguing. They "returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God."
Neither part of this response is exactly what we might expect. First, they must have known
that this was a final parting. What was there about it that would make them so happy? It
can only have been a spontaneous conviction, an actual experience, of the promised inner
presence. Without this, the ascension would have been experienced as a loss, and however
clear might have been their understanding of it, the reaction would have included a
generous measure of grief.
We may turn to John's gospel to pursue this theme. In the discourse at the Last Supper, we
find Jesus returning to the theme of joy. "These things have I spoken unto you that my joy
might remain in you and that your joy might be full (John 15:11)." Again, "Now I am coming
to you, and I say these things in the world so that they might have my joy fulfilled in
themselves (John 17:13)." And perhaps most tellingly, ""Now you have sorrow: but I will
see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you
This third passage deals directly with the issue of parting. The parting that would bring
sorrow was the parting of the crucifixion. They would lose the physical presence they had
come to treasure. This of course happened. Jesus was crucified, and the disciples were
devastated. The depth of their grief was the measure of the depth of their joy at the
restoration of his presence with the resurrection, but this would still seem to be a joy
that could be taken from them. By their emphasis on Jesus' eating physical food, breathing
on them, and inviting them to touch him, the gospels maintain that this was a physically
perceptible presence, and no spiritual vision. It was therefore a presence that could be
taken away, and that in fact would be taken away at the ascension.
If the joy could not be taken away, then, it must not have depended on that physically
perceptible presence. It must have had a more inward source. This is implicit in the
descriptions of it as being "within" the disciples. It is not a joy that is being "given
to them" from the outside, but a joy that is virtually part of their own being.
There seems to be another dimension to the "durability" of this joy as well, namely its
"fullness." There is nothing incomplete or conditional about it. This is not "I will be
joyful if . . ." or "I will be joyful as long as . . ." but simply "I am joyful." There
are no chinks or crevices in this joy that would admit doubt. There are no weak points
vulnerable to grief or despair. It is whole, it is full.
When the Psalmist wrote, "In thy presence is fullness of joy," the "presence" was
undoubtedly thought of as an external one. "I have set the Lord always before me: because
he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore is my heart glad." The image is
clearly of the Lord "out there," and of finding joy at coming into that presence.
What happens in the Gospels, in a way, is a reinterpretation of this Psalm. The deepest
joy, the abiding joy, is in the presence of the Lord within us. The fullness and the
inwardness go together. The physical presence could be perceived only as an external one,
subject to the laws of physical space and motion and therefore susceptible to removal.
Because of this susceptibility, it simply could not be "full." There would always be an
awareness that it could be taken away. "In--or more literally with--thy presence is
fullness of you," from a post-resurrection point of view, comes to mean that the presence
and the joy are inseparable.
Small wonder, then, that after the ascension the disciples returned to Jerusalem "with
great joy." The departure of the physical presence did not and could not entail the
departure of the inner presence. The joy went with them wherever they traveled.
So much, then, for the first part of their response, as Luke describes it. The second part
is worthy of our attention as well. They "were continually in the temple, praising and
blessing God." This reminds us of something we all too readily forget, namely that these
disciples were in fact Jews. I would be some time before Christianity would part company
decisively from Judaism, and then only after strenuous and sometimes bitter internal
debate. Now, at the very beginning of the apostolic story, they turned spontaneously to
the visible center of their religion, to the temple.
This is the same temple whose destruction Jesus had spoken of, the same temple he had
referred to, quoting Jeremiah, as a den of thieves. It is the temple where animals were
sacrificed, where the Pharisee expressed gratitude for his own exceptional righteousness,
the focus of the priesthood that had been adamantly opposed to Jesus. It is the temple
that would not even exist in the holy city, the New Jerusalem. For the disciples, though,
it was still the place of divine presence, the place to go if one truly wanted to praise
and bless God.
If we stop to think, we may not be too surprised. Something momentous had happened, but it
would not transform everything in a moment. It would take time for its implications to be
worked out. I am reminded of Swedenborg's statement that while a final judgment had taken
place in the spiritual world, things in the physical world would remain pretty much the
same. With quite remarkable pragmatism, he recognized what we might think of as the
inertia of the outward aspects of religion. The real and immensely potent change, the new
freedom of thought, would only gradually change those outward aspects--a process which we
are still seeing at work more than two centuries later.
Returning to the Gospel story, immense changes were indeed in the offing. In the year
seventy, in response to one rebellion too many, the Roman army captured Jerusalem and
destroyed the temple. All Jews--including Christian ones--were exiled from the Holy Land
on pain of death. The Diaspora, the scattering, became the Jewish norm. The sacrificial
rituals that had been central to the great festivals could not be carried out anywhere but
at the temple in Jerusalem, so they ceased.
There were already substantial Jewish communities outside the Holy Land. Not all the
exiles had returned from Babylon centuries before, so in a sense there was a community
there that was older than the Jerusalem one. There was a thriving Jewish community in
Alexandria in Egypt, apparently responsible for the translation of the Old Testament into
Greek. Such communities, in a sense, proved to be portents of what would become the
dominant pattern of Judaism, centering in the strengthening of community and the study and
adaptation of the law.
Christianity, as already suggested, gradually found its own path. As it found more and
more adherents among Gentiles with no Jewish background whatever, it developed a
theological style in response to the disciplined thought of the Greek philosophers and a
distinctive style of community. From a Swedenborgian point of view, it gradually lost
touch with the heart of Jesus' teaching, and we are now faced with a task of restoration
It is this that brings us full circle, back to the story of the ascension. We are still
physical humans with a tendency to get all wrapped up in outward concerns. We still have a
tendency to take our moments of deeper recognition and drift back into familiar patterns
of thought and action. To use a familiar image, we have a tendency to put new wine into
old bottles. These "bottles," in New Testament times, were wineskins which would become
brittle with age. They would be adequate for fully fermented wine, but wine in the process
of fermentation would generate gases, and the old skins would not have enough elasticity
to allow for the expansion.
It is a telling image. The patterns of thought and behavior that are most fragile are the
ones that are the most rigid. The longer we cling to them, the greater the pressure on
them. The temple that was so dear to the disciples could not survive the changing times.
The inner presence could. As it turned out, the Christians who clung most faithfully to
their Jewish heritage would disappear from the stage after about two generations. The ones
who allowed their patterns of behavior to be modified and transformed by the inward
presence would go out and change the course of history.
We are not talking about a merely intellectual process of calculating the implications of
deeper truth. We are not talking about a set of easy adjustments. We are talking about the
transformative power of "fullness of joy," of an experience of spiritual reality so
substantial that outward forms begin to appear as insubstantial as they really are, and
therefore lose their hold over us.
The disciples lived in that experience. They regarded themselves as special because of it.
When it came to filling the vacancy in their number caused by the treachery and death of
Judas, they felt obliged to choose someone "ordained to be a witness of the resurrection"
(Acts 1:22). It could not be a theoretical knowledge, however accurate. It had to be a
matter of witnessing, of experience.
What does this imply for us? Does it mean that we cannot revise our patterns of behavior
on the basis, say, of doctrine or of Scripture? I doubt that we need to go to that
extreme. Rather, it seems appropriate that we do the best we can, but regard that best as
provisional, as imperfect. We do not look for change for its own sake, nor do we look for
non-change for its own sake. we trust that if we remain open, if we cultivate a listening
attitude, our efforts will lead us toward deeper awareness and more authentic response.
The disciples, after all, did not decide when the Lord would rise from the dead, when he
would appear to them, or when he would ascend into heaven. They did not decide when their
joy would be full enough to sustain them through the changes that lay ahead. They simply
followed the understanding they did have, which was often imperfect, and it was this day
to day faithfulness that led them to their immense moment of discovery.
The Lord would have us participate in his joy, would have our joy be full. May we discover
a trust in this promise that will sustain us in our efforts to do his will.