By Canon William Norman
Preacher to Lincoln ‘s Inn, London
While he blessed them, he was parted from them and was carried up into heaven. Luke 24:51
This world is not all there is. This universe is not all there is. Scientists now speak – in language to me scarcely intelligible – about parallel universes. So how much more readily should those who believe in spiritual realities hold on to the notion of heaven, a place or state beyond our imagining, but none the less real. And the boundary between there and here is thin; for all we know the one may interpenetrate the other, the seen and the unseen, the temporal and the eternal.
Most of us do not pass through that thin veil until we come to die. The scriptures tell us that a few have done so. There is the old story of Enoch of whom it is said that he walked with God- and in these mysterious words – He was not, for God took him. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews uses him as one of the examples of saints of old who exercised faith. Then there was Elijah who was taken from this world in a whirlwind. Possibly there have been some such in modern times – some say that this is what happened to the Sikh saint, Sundar Singh .
There are others who have had extraordinary visions, and have lived to tell of them. Paul says that he knew a man – he must mean himself – who was taken up to the third heaven – and he does not know whether he was in the body or out of it, and there he heard things that no mortal may repeat.
And there are examples too of the dead making themselves visible or audible to the living, in order to encourage or to warn. It does not happen often, but there are well-attested instances of it.
We are not encouraged to try to penetrate the veil between this world and the next; indeed we are warned strongly not to do so, for it is only too likely that we shall be deceived, or even endangered. But that veil is thin.
So when Jesus rose from the dead, he was able to come and go between this world and the other, to appear and to disappear, and this he did, so Luke tells us, over a period of 40 days. But then it was time for him to depart finally. So he gave his friends their last instructions, he bade them farewell, and then he was lifted up – we are not told that he went right up into the sky as in some depictions of the scene – he may only have been lifted a few feet from the ground – and a cloud came down and hid him – and when the cloud vanished, he was not there.
Well, some may say, is not this rather crude – this notion of Jesus going up? Does this suggest a primitive and naive understanding of the universe as consisting of three stories or decks – earth being the middle one and heaven the top one? But surely if Jesus wanted to indicate that he was leaving his friends and that they would not see him any more in the same way, this was an appropriate way to do so. We cannot think, for instance, that it would have been more suitable for the earth to have opened and swallowed him up. We are three dimensional beings. We can only think in terms of up and down and sideways. Naturally we think of heaven as being up – knowing very well that that is a metaphor, a picture, and not to be taken literally. If Jesus leaves this earth and returns to heaven, and wants his disciples to know that that is what is happening – of course he must go up.
What then does it mean? First this – in his ascension Jesus goes from the here into the everywhere. As long as he is here, he is in one place at one time. This is so even when he shows himself to his disciples in his resurrection body. So he goes away – but he only goes away in order that he may not be limited as he is in his earthly life. He leaves his disciples to carry on his work; and though he is not visibly with them, he is spiritually present wherever they go – they are as he tells them – to be his witnesses, starting from Jerusalem, then in Judaea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. “If I do not go away, the Spirit cannot come to you. But if I go I will send him to you.” And so he did. The Ascension is necessary for the gospel to be heard and received in all the world. As someone has said, the Ascension marks the end of the time of Jesus and begins the time of the church. Jesus departs from the here so that he may enter the everywhere. Oh Jesus, why could you not have stayed. We did not want you to leave. If only you were here now we could come to you and ask your help in solving all our problems: Israel , Iran , the energy crisis, the water crisis, global warming, world trade, the European constitution. You would have answered the questions; why could you not stay? And of course Jesus never did answer that sort of question when he was here with us. His Father had given us free will; we used it to reject him and in the end to crucify him. The temptation to take over all the kingdoms of the world was one which he refused. This is not the way he operates. He works through us sinful and selfish and flawed human beings.
But because of his departure, his Ascension, he can give us his Spirit, and by his Spirit working in and through us, if we will only listen to him, people can be brought into his kingdom, and if we allow the Spirit to guide us, and are humble enough to listen, we would find a way through. He leaves the Here to enter the Everywhere.
A second reason for the significance of the Ascension is that Jesus goes as Man, – or to follow current fashion – as human – to the very presence of God. As we say in the Creed he sits at the right hand of God – a phrase derived from several passages in the Epistles. The right hand – the place of honour and of power. Now of course as we use such language we know that we are picturing something absurd. We think of God as an old man with a long beard sitting on a great throne somewhere high up above the clouds and Jesus sitting beside him. It is difficult for us not to have some such picture in our minds when we use such phrases. But this is simply because of the weakness of language to convey meaning. We know that the picture is absurd – but the truth is still true – absolutely true and absolutely wonderful and heart-warming and encouraging. Wherever it is that this universe and all universes are ruled from – wherever is the centre and heart of the entire cosmos, – there is Jesus Christ , a human being like ourselves. Do not allow our sophisticated contemporaries to deprive us of faith in this glorious truth. The letter to the Hebrews which is, as I have said, looked at from one point of view, an extended commentary on the Ascension, uses the picture of the Jewish High Priest entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple. This act he did only one day in the year, and only with great trepidation and after observing the most detailed rituals. And he says Jesus is OUR high Priest. He has entered a temple not made with hands, but the highest heaven of which the earthly temple is just a shadow. And, I quote, “we have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The ascended Christ – one of us – on the throne of the Universe.
The Ascension means that Christ is universal, and it means that Christ, as Man, is exalted. What else does it mean?
It means that in one sense we who believe in him and are by faith united with him can already ascend with him. This is what the collect for Ascension Day prays, that we may in heart and mind thither ascend and with him continually dwell. We find this notion especially in the letter of Paul to the Ephesian church. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ , who has blessed us with spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ …..”Yes we are here in the world, and yes we have all the joys and difficulties of work and family and the world situation. But we are also already with Christ in the heavenly places in heart and mind, and so whatever happens to us, we can look at it all from the point of there, the supersensual, the eternal viewpoint – and that may not solve the problem at all, but it does give us hope. It makes all the difference. Christ is risen and ascended and we are already by faith with him there, as well as he being with us here.”
Christ everywhere, Christ exalted, we with him in heavenly places – all that is part of the meaning of Ascension. But before he arrived there, he had to pass through a very dark place indeed; in the upper room.
Jesus says to his disciples, Where I am going you cannot come, not now, but you shall come hereafter. Hey, Peter exclaims, no, I want to come now straight away. I will lay down my life for you. Will you, asks Jesus, Truly I say, the cock shall not crow before you have denied me three times. In other words, you are not ready to go with me now, but you will be – in time, later. For the death and burial and resurrection and ascension are all part of one great movement. And if we are really with Jesus in his resurrection and ascension, we must also be with him in his death. This includes our literal death, yes, but also all those little or greater decisions which we have to make against our own inclinations and against our own apparent interests, for conscience sake, for love’s sake, for our friends’ sake, for our enemies’ sake.
May the risen and ascended Christ give us grace by the Spirit whom he sent into the world at his Ascension, to follow the way he has set for us, to follow him through whatever rough or smooth places our path lies, to that place where in heart and mind we have already ascended, so that in the end, where he is we may be also.