By Dr. Gale A. Yee
The EDS China group attended the 10am service of the Shanghai Community Church on Sunday, May 20. I was wondering why the church was already filled when we arrived at 9:30. Pui Lan explained that there were other rooms with closed-circuit televisions, and that these people came early to get a seat where the action was. There are three services each Sunday and each one is packed. What a difference from our own services in the US! Our group sat in a section with earphones for simultaneous translation. The hymns were in both Chinese and English and I was very happy that I was able to sing along.
The sermon was delivered by Rev. Zhang Ai-Li, a graduate of Nanjing Seminary. As a former Roman Catholic used to ten-minute sermons, I wondered what I would feel like after a 45-minute sermon, but I was quite engaged. I might have lost something in the translation, but here it goes: Rev. Zhang spoke about the meaning of the Ascension and why it was important for our faith. Jesus teaches the apostles for forty days about the kingdom of God. Forty is a special number in the Jewish tradition; it was their time of wandering in the wilderness where they were tested. Jesus too was tested by the devil for forty days. Jesus thus provides a new explanation for the number forty. We may suffer and be tested, but we still have hope in the resurrected Jesus.
Like all good sermons, Rev. Zhang had three points on why Jesus ascended to heaven. First, according to John 14:28, Jesus tells the apostles that he must ascend in order to return to the Father. And when this happens, the apostles will believe.
Second, according to John 14:2, Jesus tells us that in his Father's house there are many mansions and that he ascends to heaven to prepare a place for us. We learned that theologians have speculated on where heaven was. According to one view, there are three levels above us. The first level is the sky. The second is outer space, and heaven is located beyond outer space. Heaven is the place where those who are resurrected go. Because Jesus ascended, he becomes for us a resurrected model of what we too will eventually experience after we die. Heaven is very much a part of our faith. We do not have to fear death, because we have this hope that God has given us.
Third, according to John 14:16, Jesus ascended to heaven in order to send us the Holy Spirit, our Helper. Jesus could not remain with the apostles in a human body, but through the Holy Spirit Jesus still lives among us.
If Jesus is in heaven, what is he doing up there, Rev. Zhang asks? According to Hebrews 8:1, Jesus is our heavenly High Priest who, like the Israelite priests of the temple on the Day of Atonement, prays for our sins. Also, like the earthly priests who light the lamps of the temple, so does Jesus light our lamps when we feel weak. He will add oil to our lamps to give us power so that our lights can shine.
I was impressed at the way Rev. Zhang used John's gospel to preach on the Ascension text of Acts 1:1-11. As a scripture scholar, I also wanted to make sure that all my references were correct, and indeed, I discovered that they were all wrong, perhaps because they got lost in translation. I did not have a bible with me, so how did I find the correct texts? There was a Bible in my Shanghai hotel room! A United Bible Society Good News translation! Some things never change!
All in all, we had a wonderful first experience of the Chinese Church.
Dr. Gale A. Yee is Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School.