Do you remember the Russian cosmonaut who after he returned from his mission in space said that he hadn’t found God ‘up there’ and so religion, all religion must be false (because he’s been where God is supposed to live and he wasn’t there). The trouble with such an assertion is that it’s based on a set of assumptions that at best aren’t directed towards the right question and at worst are just plain daft.
I don’t know how many of you have heard or read the pronouncements of Richard Dawkins on how God is basically a very capricious, vengeful angry old so and so. Well it might come as a surprise to Richard that the God he doesn’t believe in is one that I don’t believe in and the rest of you probably don’t either. So we can at least all be agreed on one thing. If we insist on operating within a framework which concentrates on the wrong things, then of course we won’t be able to see what from a different perspective might be glaringly obvious.
I think that the Ascension only starts to make sense when we shift our attention from a Jesus floating away on the clouds to what today’s texts say about the relationship between Jesus and God. On Ascension Day when Anna and I were last in New Zealand, we went to a church full of the latest technology. The service was in many ways a sort of slide show. I counted no fewer that 37 slides of clouds (the fact that I can tell you how many there were must tell you something about the service.
“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’”Acts 1:9-11
Doesn’t this imply a new understanding of heaven. Heaven not so much a “place” but rather a very human way of struggling to articulate where God is to be found. In other words, the meaning of the Ascension is wrapped up in the significance of Jesus now being with God. So what exactly do we mean when we say that Jesus “sits at the right hand of God”?
To think of Jesus’ Ascension as the start of Jesus’ absence: because he ascended, He’s gone, is to focus on the wrong thing. That’s to focus on His physical body only, it implies: since Jesus has “ascended into heaven” we have been “left behind” on earth. Oh dear. But this idea isn’t isn’t what we read in our texts from Luke and Acts. In Acts 1:1 Luke describes his “first book” (that is the Gospel of Luke) as containing an account of “all the things that Jesus began to do and to teach”. The implication is that Jesus hasn’t finished.
Acts also portrays a Jesus still engaged with the world by healing, associating with His followers, and acting through those who act in his name. The post-ascension Jesus “acts” in a much less hands-on fashion, but throughout the book of Acts the underlying story isn’t one of: “once Jesus was here, now he’s not.”
It would be a mistake to think that Jesus, God and Heaven are all ‘up there’ while we are stuck ‘down here’. The focus is on the will of the Father, through Jesus’ example we too can live ascended lives. Jesus’ Ascension is not about his absence but about his presence. It’s not about his leaving but about “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It’s not about a location but about a relationship. Presence, fullness, and relationship must surely be what lie behind the question of the men in white, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” It’s as if they are saying to us, “Don’t misunderstand and distort this moment. Don’t deny yourselves the gift that is being given you.”
Archbishop William Temple said,
“The ascension of Christ is his liberation from all restrictions of time and space. It does not represent his removal from earth, but his constant presence everywhere on earth.”William Temple
Christ now fills and sanctifies all time and space. So the Ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts isn’t about Where Jesus is but with Who Jesus is. Jesus’ Ascension confirms Him out as the Lord and Messiah, promoted to God’s right hand if you like, and in ways that aren’t primarily physical.
The taking up of Jesus into heaven is about our picture of God. God can no longer be understood as remote from human experience. The ascended Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, describes a God who’s vulnerable and approachable. When we turn to God in times of distress or temptation we’re not calling out to a deity who’s aloof and can’t relate to what we’re going through. God is right in there, He’s been there, done it, He’s got the tee-shirt as they say. That being the case He can’t only comfort us by identifying with our pain but also assure us that affliction won’t have the final word. All because the risen and ascended Christ is with us and so nothing can separate us from his love.
Forgiveness is implicit and explicit in today’s readings. The fact that the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples at all is very significant. This bunch who when the going got tough, fled and denied Jesus aren’t having their noses rubbed in their cowardice and faintness of heart. Rather his first words to them are, “Peace be with you”. Just think about it, He must have forgiven them to even bother to come to see them at all. He comes to them and in fact to all who open their hearts to Him, in mercy. The Ascension simply underlines this mission of mercy.
For all of us the Ascension should be more about letting go than reaching out and grasping. The question for you and me is not, “How do we ascend?” That’s already been accomplished. The question is: “What’s pulling us down?”
What do we need to let go of? Fear, anger, or resentment can weigh us down. The need to be right or in control is a heavy burden to carry. Self-righteousness, jealously, or pride are very effective anchors. Being caught up in perfectionism and the need to prove we’re good enough can become all-consuming. It may be indifference or apathy. Many lives are tethered by addiction. What is it that holds you down and denies you Jesus’ Ascension?
The gravity that keeps us down isn’t creation, the world, the circumstances of our lives or other people. That gravity isn’t around us but within us. So we should all look at our lives and identify the places of gravity, but don’t despair. The very things that hold us down also point the way to ascension. Our joining in with Jesus’ Ascension begins not by looking up but by looking within.