Sermon – May 24, 2020 – Ascension A – Acts 1: 1-11, Ephesians 1: 11-23, Luke 24: 44-53
Where do we really find Jesus? Where did he go?
A mother was dreading telling her little girl that her beloved Grandma had died. This would be her 6 year old daughter’s first experience with death and she did not know how to break the news. So she said, “Grandma won’t be coming to visit us anymore.” The little girl said, “Why not?” The mother replied “Well she has gone to heaven.” The little girl said, “She won’t be coming back?” “No, I’m afraid not.”
The little girl thought about it for a while and then said, “Where is heaven?” The mother took a deep breath and, without thinking much about it, pointed upwards and said, “Far away up there.”
The little thought about that one for a while and then said, “Above the ceiling?” Fearing that she might think Grandma was in the attic, the mother explained that heaven was way up above the house, in the sky and even above the clouds and the sky.
And you can imagine what questions and responses that led to. And many of you may have had that kind of deep theological discussion with a 6 –year old. No parent is ever completely ready for that one.
And if we are honest about it, how would each one of us answer the question, “Where is heaven?” “Where did Jesus really go?”
And for many of us, in our language, in our imagery, all though various aspects of our culture, heaven is still “up there” Somewhere beyond the ceiling, beyond the earth, beyond the skies. In many ways, we still live in the three-story universe understood by the people of the New Testament. There is heaven – There is earth – and there is hell. And no one even today ever speaks of heaven as being beneath our feet, and no one even today speaks of hell as being up there somewhere. Even if they don’t even believe in those places.
It still is convenient imagery – but it may stand in the way of a deeper understanding of the reality that some of us believe in that is beyond this present world and our mortal lives.
Where did Jesus go? We have two versions of the ascension in our readings today.
The Book of Acts says this: “As the Apostles were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Luke’s gospel says this: “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
For Luke and for the writers of our scriptures, heaven is very much up there. Moses went up to the top of the sacred mountain to die at the end of his life. Elijah was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. For the Hebrews and for many other nations and traditions, heaven is up there, beyond the clouds, beyond the firmament. The watery chaos.
How do we remain true to the faith understanding of our ancestors and our tradition and yet understand the ascension and what we mean by heaven – but in our own terms and in our own time?
I suspect that if the mother had answered her daughter’s question with the answer – “Grandma has gone to be with God.” She might have got a response something like this: “And where is God?” Where does he live? Can I go there and visit?
Where indeed? Profound theological question. “Where is God?
And where is heaven if it truly is union with God? Maybe a question that asks where heaven and God are in purely space-time words is the wrong question. Or at best, phrased the wrong way.
Jesus gave us a clue, I think, in one of his most important statements to the disciples: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18: 20)
Those are encouraging words for small congregations or communities of faith. We live in an age that is obsessed with numbers – events are judged by many how many people they attract – the larger an audience or the more participants the better. Manufacturers judge their success by the number of units sold. The size of a crowd matters to the press reporting the event. And to some extent, we have been infected by the numbers game even in the church. But Jesus was no more impressed by a huge crowd than he was by one important encounter with one person. Jesus is present when any number are gathered in his name, when any number tell his story, when any number gather in prayer, when any one person reaches out to another with love and compassion.
In one profound sense, Jesus has not gone anywhere. He is here among us today. He is in our towns and our countryside and our cities. He is in back alleys with junkies. He is with all who suffer and cry out in pain and despair. He is with any who, in faith, seek for meaning or just help in dealing with all of life’s problems. But he is also with us in times of deep joy and happiness. He is with us during the good and the bad. Even when it may not seem like it.
And that really means that Jesus, in one sense, is not up there and that heaven, in another sense, is not up there. It is right here and he is right here.
Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God as both now and yet to come. He lived both in the present and yet was eternal. He is both here with us and yet also with God.
Paradoxes – statements that appear to contradict each other but yet are true in a larger sense – they drive us crazy. Especially if we have a tendency to take things literally. But the Christian faith lives with paradox – and words can only take us so far.
There are countless numbers of Christians who, for centuries, have attested to the presence of Christ in their lives. Jesus is present for them in the faces of others, in those rare moments of prayer of meditation when they sense that they are not alone, in those moments of transcendent beauty and happiness. And for many it is an intimate and deep relationship.
Many people who have lost loved ones will attest to the experience afterwards of being still aware of their loving presence even when no longer physically there. For some, it is as real as feeling those arms still around you, of knowing that they are close by.
And it may be that by thinking of heaven and the presence of God as somewhere out there beyond the blue, beyond the skies, we have missed the more important idea that heaven and the presence of God are right here among us. Right now. In one sense, Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s always been here and always will be.
Listen to what the two heavenly figures say to the apostles in the last part of the Acts reading:
“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.”
Many people read that line as a prediction of the second coming of Christ at the end of time. And certainly, the descriptions of that event in scripture talk about Jesus’ return in those images, but Luke follows this statement in the next chapter of Acts with the description of the coming of the Holy Spirit from above with tongues of fire, a passage which we will hear in this place in two weeks’ time. What if Luke meant that kind of coming of Jesus into our lives and hearts?
So, even if we no longer see Jesus in his physical earthly form, I am absolutely convinced that he is here present among us, every time we meet in this place, every time we tell his story, every time we sing his praises, every time we reach out to each other in love and support, every time we leave this place, to share that love and support with others, then we truly become the body of Christ present in the world today.
Yes, he may have physically gone up out of sight, but in a more profound way, he is still right here, walking along beside us, just as he walked the roads of Galilee with his disciples and followers.