“Why are you standing there, looking up toward heaven?”
The book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, and it is written by an author who likes to ask TOUGH questions. We didn’t hear the Easter reading from the Gospel of Luke this year, but in it, the women at the tomb are asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Jesus asks the two disciples he meets on the road (and I’ll paraphrase), “You read the scriptures and heard the stories, you saw him crucified just as he said, so how can it be that YOU STILL DON’T GET IT?!” He asks the disciples gathered in fear in the upper room, “Why are you frightened?”
Makes you wonder why we ever go to Jesus looking for answers.
Today’s reading is the story of Jesus’s ascension to God. When Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet astronaut who was the first man in space, went into the heavens of space, he reported back that he did NOT see God there. Proof positive, of course, that those Christians were crazy deluded people.
We can laugh at such a literal and simplistic understanding of WHERE God is, but isn’t it true that we all tend to look UP when speaking about God? Don’t we speak of God as being “up there”? We know, at least at some level, that God is not really hovering overhead just out of our line of sight, but we still fall into that image of heaven above. It’s the world-view that worked at a time when the world was believed to be flat with a heaven arching over us. People went “up” when they grew closer to God and “down” as they drifted away. So naturally, Jesus is described as going “UP” into heaven, as he is taken to be with God. I often have this image of a helium balloon, floating up and away until it’s out of sight. You know it’s still there, you just can’t SEE it anymore.
And that is exactly the point of Ascension Day. Jesus has returned to God the Creator. Jesus is still with us, we just can’t see him anymore. Jesus, the human incarnation of the Christ, was finally able to “go home.”
We often forget that the Trinity is eternal—God didn’t just suddenly “become” Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with the birth of Jesus. The Son existed as part of the Godhead from before time and forever. Jesus was the incarnation—the enfleshment—of that aspect of God. We needed that incarnation to hear what it was that God was trying to tell us. The ascension is God’s way of telling us, “I think you understand enough now.” Not everything—but enough. And of course, there is the promise of the Holy Spirit, which could only be present among us AFTER the Christ had ascended into glory.
It’s very difficult to not move immediately into a sermon about the arrival of the Holy Spirit. That comes next Sunday with Pentecost. But it is precisely that desire to rush ahead that is what we need to pay attention to, today. There was a time lag between the ascension of Jesus, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Ten days of waiting, watching for the return of Jesus. Ten days of wanting to just stand around, looking up toward Heaven. Hoping that he’d come back, like he came back from the grave.
I often think that those must have been some of the hardest days of the apostles’ lives. For the first couple of days, I would imagine they walked around, winking at each other in a knowing way. ‘Oh, he’s been gone BEFORE… Remember those three days in the tomb? He’ll be back…’ Day three come and gone, they probably began to get a little worried. We hear they went back to the upper room—probably hoping he’d show up there again, as he seemed to every seventh day. And he doesn’t arrive. They kept themselves busy, filling out their numbers—they took up the task of finding someone to replace Judas. That must have occupied their thoughts for at least one or two days.
I think we can relate to those hours of worry and wonder. Imagining HOW this Christ is going to return, HOW they are supposed to get on with life. Ten days of grieving and learning how to live without him by their sides. Ten days of discerning what it was that they are supposed to do NOW. Ten days of finally realizing he’s not coming right back. They have to learn how to continue the message without him.
As I said, it’s hard to keep myself from leaping into next week’s Pentecost sermon. We know the rest of the story. We know that God did not leave it up their own devices to get the Gospel message of hope and new life out into the world.
But—and here’s the hard question—how often do we STILL catch Christians spending all their time simply looking up toward heaven? How often do we go back to the places of safety, hoping that Jesus will find us there? The Gospel is not a story about safety and clear answers. It’s the story about a journey. It’s the story about OUR journey. We are NOT called to simply stand and gaze heavenward, we are not called to keep the story to ourselves, a private little treasure all our own. This is the story of how we learned that heaven is not “up there”, faraway and remote, but all around us.
Funny, isn’t it, that the theologians learned that heaven surrounds us long before the scientists figured out that we live on a sphere spinning in the midst of the heavens?
Yes, I’m switching between literal and metaphorical language here, and I hope I’m not making anyone dizzy.
What I’m trying to tell you is that the purpose of Christian life is not “to be good so that we get into heaven when we die.” The purpose of Christian life is not to “look upward into heaven” waiting for Jesus to reappear.
The purpose of Christian life is to love one another, to know that we ALREADY live in the midst of heaven. “Heaven” is where God is, and God is HERE. With US. We don’t need Jesus’s physical body here with us to understand that anymore. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit (which we’ll hear about next week), granted to us through baptism, we have become the Body of Christ. Take a look around you. Not at the walls or the altar or the windows or the crosses. Look at the people sitting near you. The ones to your side, the ones before and behind you. THEY are, with you, the Body of Christ. Church is not the building where we gather, Church is the gathering of the people itself. When we meet here, when we meet at someone’s house or by a hospital bed, we are the Church, the Body of Christ. When we run into each other at the grocery store or the transfer station or at the library, we are the Church.
Jesus prays, at the end of today’s Gospel reading,
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. ”
We don’t need to stand looking toward heaven, waiting for Christ to return. All we need to do is look around.