7TH OF EASTER — 5 June 2011
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00
1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11
“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.”
Good morning and welcome to all of you who, like me, have been Left Behind!
Okay, I suppose after a couple of weeks we’re all getting a little tired of “rapture” jokes. One the one hand, the folks who got all wrapped up in and perpetrated that illusion probably deserve to be made fun of. I find it amusing that the more noise people make about how “Bible-believing” they are (the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” bumper-sticker folks), the less likely they are to have actually read the text of the Scriptures, at least with their brains as well as their lips. In fact, that whole “rapture” business is not in the Bible at all. (What 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is about is something quite different.) But on the other hand, a lot of sincere but gullible people lost their money in this silliness, and that’s just not funny.
But it does point to some real issues that really are in the Bible, and I think these are worth our attention. As you are perhaps aware, this Seventh Sunday of Easter is also the Sunday after Ascension Day, which day was this past Thursday. Did you have the opportunity to do anything to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension? Perhaps not this year. But the first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles, is a partial repeat of one of the Ascension Day readings, and includes St. Luke’s account of the ascension to heaven of the risen Christ. The Gospel reading on Thursday was also the account of Christ’s ascension from St. Luke’s Gospel — Luke describes this event twice. (Once in Luke 24 and once in Acts 1. And not quite the same way!)
The Ascension of Christ to heaven is a major dimension of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, which is absolutely central to the Christian Gospel. It is frequently referred to in the New Testament, in a variety of ways. But it is never actually depicted, except by St. Luke. In John’s Gospel, when the risen Jesus meets Mary Magdalene at the tomb, he tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” [John 20:17] But then John never gets around to describing exactly what if anything that “ascending” to the Father might look like. The authentic text of St. Mark doesn’t have any resurrection appearances at all — it ends with the discovery of the empty tomb. St. Matthew sort of implies an ascension, but doesn’t actually describe one. St. Paul in his letters writes about the ascension, though without describing an event; for instance, “God put [his great] power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…” [Ephesians 1: 20-21] This is reflected in the Nicene Creed that we affirm every Sunday: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” And of course in the Collect this morning we prayed, “O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven.” So this business of Jesus ascending to heaven is a solidly recurring theme in the celebration of our Christian lives together.
So, okay. What is this “ascension to heaven” about? For one thing, what is heaven? And for another thing, where is heaven? And for still another thing, when is heaven?
First, and skipping over the long parts, the bottom line is that “heaven” for us generally designates the immediate and direct presence of God.
Second, this then raises the question of whether to ask where heaven is may be a category mistake. God, after all, is, we believe, everywhere; although even to say God is everywhere may still be a category mistake. But, never mind. The word we translate as “heaven,” in both Hebrew and Greek, originally meant “the sky.” And it still often means that. (That’s true for us in English as well.) And probably way way back people thought that God, or the gods, lived in the sky. After all, if you looked at the sun during the day, and at the stars at night (in a non-electrical world in which you could actually see the stars at night!), that’s not all that unreasonable an assumption. But by Biblical times, certainly by New Testament times, people had done enough reflecting on God, and had enough experience with God, that they understood that the notion that “God in heaven” is “up in the sky” may be a colorful way of speaking, but it isn’t literally the case. Perhaps you remember that when one of the original Russian cosmonauts (I’ve forgotten which one) came back from an orbital flight, he said that he had looked all around and he didn’t see God or Jesus anywhere up there. He must have found that really embarrassing, to be required to recite a Soviet party line which to everyone else was obviously so stupid. No, God is not up in the sky (or at least not any more so than anywhere else), nor did Jesus “ascend” up into the sky. We know that, St. Luke knew that, the apostles knew that. But “up” and “down” are universally used metaphors in a wide variety of contexts — being successful is “coming up in the world,” we are promoted to a “higher position” (or demoted to a “lower position”!), and that kind of thing. There is an article in the Des Moines Register this morning about the "ten highest executive salaries" in Iowa based corporations. (And they're pretty high!) We use these expressions so often and so automatically that we don’t even think about them. But in that metaphorical sense “heaven,” “God’s immediate presence,” is “up,” and we are “down here.” (And hell is “even further down there”; but let’s not go there today!) The only thing wrong with that language is if we take it physically literally. And I don’t think St. Luke did.
Indeed, to the extent that we can use a spatial metaphor at all, “heaven” is right here, except that we cannot — usually — see it. And so, in a very important sense, Jesus in his ascension did not go away, although it does mean that he is no longer with us in the same way any more. Which is good, because that way was to be located in first-century Judea, which doesn’t do us much good in twenty-first century Iowa! But as Jesus himself said, at the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [28:20] Or as we prayed this past Thursday, “Give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” And that’s an important dimension of what the Ascension of Christ means for us.
And this then points us to our third question, “When is heaven?” And the simple answer, but not always realized by us, is right now. Or at least, beginning right now. When Jesus talks about “the Kingdom of God” (or, especially in Matthew, “the Kingdom of Heaven,” which is exactly the same thing — Matthew’s largely still-Jewish community was a little careful about the way they spoke the name “God,” which was probably a good idea) — for Jesus “the Kingdom of God” is not off somewhere in the sweet by-and-by. The message of Jesus was, and is, “The time has come, and God’s Kingdom is here! Change your lives, change your world, and believe this good news!” [Mark 1:15] “Heaven” is not where we go when we die, if we have been good. (It may also be that too, but that’s not really what the Gospel of Christ is about.) Heaven is the command-and-resource center for the Kingdom of God, and God’s Kingdom is what Jesus calls us to start living right here and now. After all, it is our constant prayer that “thy will be done on earth (right now) as it is (already) in heaven.”
So the angels’ question to the apostles is the same as their question to us: “Why are you standing around looking at the sky?” The Holy Spirit comes upon us with power also, that we may be Christ’s witnesses in the world. No, the Kingdom of God will not be accomplished just by our own efforts, but we are called by God to share in the building of the Kingdom. We believe that Jesus will come again to bring the Kingdom to fulfillment, but we do not know what that will look like or when it will be. (What don’t the rapture folks understand about “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority”?) [Acts 1:7] But what the Bible consistently says, right down to the end of the Book of Revelation, is that Jesus will come, not to snatch us away from this world in an imagined “rapture,” but to fulfill the resurrection of this world as a new heaven and a new earth. [Rev. 21:1, cf. Isa. 65:17, 66:22, Rom 8:19ff, 2Pet 3:13]