It’s very easy to overlook The Ascension of our Lord (next Thursday) in our Sunday by Sunday worship but perhaps some congregations may include some aspect(s) of it in their worship.
Some while ago I belonged to an Astronomical Society which frequently conducted ‘school nights’. Several of us would set up our telescopes in an open but reasonably dark space in the school grounds on the chosen night (cloudless skies permitting) and the school community – students and their families – would gather to view the night sky. To the naked eye that sparkling dome overhead is vast and awe-inspiring. Seen through even a modest telescope it becomes breath-taking. The universe is a big place. As one young child stood with her eye ‘glued’ to the telescope eyepiece and her mouth wide open her mother asked me, “Is there an end to it?” “I think it just keeps going,” I replied.
On that basis, taking the Ascension at ‘face value’ presents a few problems. Luke’s narrative has been literalised long ago: many regarding it as happening as described. Wesley may well have been writing theologically, ‘Hail the day that sees him rise to his throne above the skies’, but it’s easy to hear those words in a literal sense. Artworks through the centuries entrenched a literalised understanding even as they were intended to ‘tell’ the Bible to the many who could not read. Many songs and hymns, even today, reinforce the notion from earliest times that heaven is a place, a drestination ‘up there’, ‘above the skies’, sometimes visually caricatured by fluffy white clouds and blue skies.
But if the universe just keeps on going…? We don’t have to think very long or hard to realise that it was a nice idea while the earth was flat. But… it isn’t flat any more! Heaven is not a celestial location in geosynchonous orbit, a destination somewhere ‘up there’ in the sense of “When I get to heaven …” Perhaps heaven is rather more a ‘theological destination’, our ultimate relationship with God and in God.
The Ascension is problematic at one level and essential at another. Luke writes about the raising, the exaltation, of Jesus to the right hand of the Father; the culmination of being “raised from the dead”. It’s an essential part of the universal dimension of Jesus’ divine power, that is, Lord of heaven and earth. Luke describes the Ascension in a physical way but let me describe it another way. I once worked in an organisation in which the managing director had started his career as a storeroom assistant, accepting deliveries, stacking boxes, sweeping the floor. Over the years he was ‘raised up’, promoted, eventually to his position of managing director. In the Ascension Jesus is glorified i.e. filled, saturated with the presence of God and raised up to God’s right hand – Lord of heaven and earth.
The Epistle reading for Thursday (Ephesians 1:15-23) got me thinking more about that brief conversation over the telescope. A finite universe suggests a finite God, a “clockmaker God” who having created, sat back and watched. I do think universe just ‘keeps on keeping on’ because the eternal God, who raised the one who fills all in all continues to speak a creating word… This is the God who weeps with us and laughs with us and gives us hope, whose rich and glorious inheritance among the saints is ours through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus: Blessed are you, O Lord Our God, sovereign of all that is.
© Jeff Shrowder, 2012.
More for Easter 7B…