May 24, 2020
Ascension Sunday, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
I read a mind-blowingly cool article recently about a phenomenon called “microchimerism.” Let me tell you about it. Microchimerism is when one person has cells from another person living inside them. Scientists first identified this phenomenon many years ago when they discovered cells containing the male “Y” chromosome in the blood of women after pregnancy. Since those “Y” chromosomes are genetically male, researchers concluded that there’s no way these cells could have been the women’s own cells; these male cells that are now a part of these women’s bodies must have come from someone else. They determined these cells were actually their children’s cells, which were somehow passed from child to mother in the womb and then integrated into the mother’s own body.
Since then, scientists have discovered that this phenomenon in which a child’s cells are shared with their mother and become part of her body is much more prevalent than anyone could have imagined. They found male “Y” chromosomes inside the brain cells of 60% of the women they studied, and they determined that, in some cases, those cells had been there for decades. Think about that: Other human beings can literally integrate themselves into the circuitry of our minds. They also discovered that the transfer of cells goes both ways, that mothers’ cells exist inside children, as well. They’ve even found that siblings carry some of each other’s cells in their body tissues and organs; apparently, one child can pass their cells on to their mother, who then passes that first child’s cells onto the second.
We are used to thinking of ourselves as autonomous individuals, unique in our distinct genetic composition. But the existence of foreign cells living inside us calls all of that into question. The truth is, many—maybe most!—of us carry inside our own bodies parts of other people.
I don’t know a lot about neurobiology, but I do remember learning that our relationships actually alter our brain chemistry and create new neural pathways. Being in love or feeling a deep emotional connection with another human being can actually rewire our brains. The world around us is literally a different place, and the people around us are tangibly, biologically changed, simply because we exist.
A poet named Lillian Hallberg writes, “Visitors tread imprints upon the ground / disturbed, then gone with the slightest breeze. / My death shall leave my laughter and my grin / my dancing spirit and my quirky ways, / some of me in those I leave behind, / having lived and loved upon this earth.”
A very literal reader opening up their bibles and finding this Ascension Day passage at the very end of Luke’s Gospel might be left wondering, where did Jesus go? The text tells us that Jesus withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven, but where is that, exactly? Luke’s original audience may have understood heaven to be someplace just beyond the clouds. But we have sent rockets into space; we know what’s beyond the clouds. So where did Jesus go?
Well, hear me out, this might sound strange: What if Jesus ascended into us? What if this idea that we are the “body of Christ” is more than just a great metaphor?
I can imagine it was a traumatic day for the disciples. It had been a pretty traumatic couple of months, really. By the time of Jesus’ ascension, they’d already been through a lot.
Six weeks earlier they had been marching beside Jesus, who was riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. Throngs of people were gathered along the road waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna!” They were certain that this was the moment when Jesus would finally become the kind of king they were expecting, that Jesus was about to expel the Roman authorities and re-establish a Jewish kingdom like the one David had ruled centuries earlier. But suddenly all their hopes were dashed as Jesus was arrested, brought to trial, and put to death—all in a matter of just a few days. They watched him die, and then three days later they were stunned to learn that he had been raised from the dead, that Jesus was living again. He remained with them for a bit, and then, as if being a disciple hadn’t already been enough of a rollercoaster, Jesus suddenly ascended on a cloud, disappearing from their sight. Jesus was gone, once and for all. This was, finally, the end of the story.
Except, somehow, the disciples trusted that it wasn’t. A new chapter was about to be written, absolutely, but they understood that the story was far from over.
In these last ten verses of Luke’s Gospel—Jesus’ last ten verses on earth—Jesus reiterates what he has been telling his disciples all along: that his entire life and ministry have been a fulfillment of scripture. Everything Jesus has said and done has been a continuation of God’s promises from the very beginning. Jesus reminds the disciples that love and justice, which have been at heart of Jesus’ ministry, are what God has been about since the dawn of creation. After that, Jesus commissions the disciples. He says they are to be witnesses—not “witnesses,” as though they are passive observers but people who “bear witness,” who go out into the world and proclaim what they know to be true. In other words, Jesus tells them that his mission is going to continue in and through them. He assures them that they will receive “power from on high.” He tells them he will live in them, and they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the ministry he began.
Maybe that’s why this scene ends not with the disciples feeling sad, as though they’ve been abandoned, and not with the disciples feeling overwhelmed, as though the task they’ve been given is more than they can handle. The scene ends with the disciples returning to the temple with great joy, continually praising God—because Jesus remains with them. They experience him in one another. They are now the body of Christ.
In his weekly column in the New York Times a few weeks ago, David Brooks writes that this coronavirus pandemic “today is an invisible monster, but it gives birth to a better world.” He goes on: “The plague demands that we address our problems in ways we weren’t forced to before. The plague brings forth our creativity. It’s during economic and social depressions that the great organizations of the future are spawned. Already, there’s a new energy coming into the world.” Maybe that “new energy” is the Christ in each of us bursting forth, desperate to meet the world’s pain and suffering with mercy and grace.
The 16th-century Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila captures this idea beautifully in a famous poem. She writes, “Christ has no body now but yours / No hands, no feet on earth but yours, / Yours are the eyes through which he looks / Compassion on this world, / Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, / Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. / Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, / Yours are the eyes, you are his body. / Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” None of us have ever actually experienced Christ in the flesh the way those earliest disciples did. We have only ever experienced Christ in the bodies of one another. And that’s exactly where we experience Christ today. Christ in you. Christ in me. Christ in one another. Christ has no body now but yours.
David Brooks, “The Moral Meaning of the Plague,” in The New York Times, March 26, 2020, accessed May 20, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/opinion/coronavirus-meaning.html.
Lillian Hallberg, “In Response to Death,” on Lillian the Home Poet, January 19, 2016, accessed May 20, 2020,https://lillianthehomepoet.com/2016/01/19/in-response-to-death-2/.
Richard Manley Adams, Jr., “Luke 24:44-53: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Robert Martone, “Scientists Discover Children’s Cells Living in Mothers’ Brains,” in The Scientific American, December 4, 2012, accessed May 20, 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-discover-childrens-cells-living-in-mothers-brain/.
Teresa of Ávila, “Christ Has No Body,” on Journey with Jesus, accessed May 20, 2020, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Teresa_Of_Avila_Christ_Has_No_Body.shtml.