Greetings once again from Aldwincle Rectory on the Wednesday of the sixth week of Easter. The season of Easter now begins to draw to a close as tomorrow we celebrate the Ascension. During the 40 days following his Resurrection, Jesus appeared on many occasions to his disciples and the Ascension tells of how he finally physically departed from them to return to his Father. Like the spire of many of our churches, the image portrayed by St Luke, who tells of this event both in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, is one of Jesus being taken up into heaven.
In the account in Acts, we are told that as the disciples gaze heavenward two men in white robes suddenly appear and challenge them with the words ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven’ – it has always struck me as a very good question and one well worth pondering. So this morning I’m going to read the first eleven verses of Acts chapter 1 and then share with you a wonderful reflection on this passage written by Sheila Walker.
Reading Acts 1.1-11
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
No, he was not the first cosmonaut, returning home. And what a relief that no space travellers since have found a trace of God ‘up there’; the thought of some divine GCHQ cunningly sited between the stars is worthy only of Roman gods (like Jupiter and Mars), writers of hitchikers’ guides or under-fives; it would have put paid to our belief to find the Creator inside his creation the author inside the book.
Except in the sense that they are, of course, writ large and small on every page for those who have eyes to see; it is as easy to find God in the detail of a daisy as in the immensity of a galaxy – or as hard.
What we believe, though, is caught up in what would seem to be naïve medieval art: a three-tier universe with heaven fixed, heavy with gold leaf, however many miles above the bright blue skies.
Before we smile our knowing, scientific smiles, however, do we have a better idea?
Jacob’s ladder, Elijah’s chariot, Jesus ascending, the new Jerusalem ‘coming down’: scripture, it’s clear, simply speaks of heaven ‘up there’ … And Jesus raised his eyes to heaven to pray: why? Because he looked up to his Father? Is it all symbolic acting out of the fact that heavenly ways are ‘higher’? Though we talk of Jesus in a physical way as ‘seated at the right hand of the Father’ (and therefore wonder where that is, and how God, who is Spirit, can have a right hand), should we speak of its meaning, of the finished work of Christ, his privileged place to pray for us, his authority to rule – rather than debating what dimension or parallel universe he now inhabits?
For in all of this, do we not fall into the same error as the disciples and need to hear the angels say to us ‘Why do you stand here looking into the sky?’ Why speculate on things clouded to our understanding?
If we could have understood the words he would not have given us only pictures: and a mandate to share what we have seen, which is enough.
For they did see Jesus ascending, eleven of them with their own eyes, and Luke, meticulous historian, twice shares what they have seen though can’t explain; it is enough – miracles need no precedent and call for faith not explanation…
Jesus ascending. They knew, then, it was an end; forty days to prove him risen – now they would see their friend, their Lord and God, no more. But, it was also a beginning: he would send the Holy Spirit, floating the divine company so we could all have a share in restoring the kingdom, the kingdom of heaven not to Israel, but to God.
The kingdom of heaven… not so much a place – up there, out there, sky high – but a state, an estate in which Christ is King of every wind of change, of every wave of terror, of every flight of fancy, of every heart’s cry: and everywhere his will is done on earth, as it is in heaven. There – the kingdom of heaven is not up, up and faraway, but around, and within, and closer than breathing.
The kingdom of heaven, not so much a place – like the ultimate old people’s home, the rural idyll or swinging city, or even a virtual place like the cosmic address of Friends Reunited – but the transformation, when the wine of the fruit of the Spirit runs in our veins: intoxication of the human with the divine.
The kingdom of heaven, not so much a place to be invited to (or not) when we die; only if there is something of that kingdom already within us will we find, when everything else is stripped away, that deep cries to deep, the heavenly seed within us grows to fill our field; to be our food and drink, our purpose, our delight, our energy, our rest, our vision and our joy.
Do not ask then if heaven is up or down. Heaven is all.
©Sheila Walker ‘Contemporary Reflections’
The Collect for Ascension Day
Grant, we pray, almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we in heart and mind may also ascend and with him continually dwell; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.