Texts: Acts 1.1-11; Eph 1.15-23; Lk 24.44-53
I think it’s important for us to recognize and come to terms with these differences because the only way we can fully appreciate the impact of the ascension is to let go of the idea that Matthew or Luke or John are trying to tell us what literally happened. In Luke’s worldview, for example, it made perfect sense that Jesus would rise into the sky; people believed that heaven was only a few thousand feet above the earth, beyond the solid dome of the sky. Naturally then, to get to heaven, Jesus would go up. Knowing what we know now about cosmology and astronomy, this makes no sense: Jesus would have to travel lightyears through the harsh vacuum of space, enduring cosmic radiation and avoiding collisions with planets and asteroids to get anywhere heaven might be, for it certainly isn’t right above our atmosphere.
When Jesus was at work in Galilee, his ministry was centered on him: the work he did happened where he was. Even when he sent out the apostles, they went out from where he was a returned to him. Now that he has ascended, that work is no longer limited by space and time because he is no longer limited by space and time. Unlike any one of us who can only be in one place at a time and only lives for a lifetime, Jesus is able to be fully present at all places and in all times; he “fills all in all.” It is through his mysterious presence with us that we, the Church, become the “fullness” of Jesus, his embodied presence in the world.
I don’t claim to understand how it works, but I do believe that it is true. Maybe he didn’t go “up” like Luke said, but I do believe that he has been seated at the right hand of God because, like Stephen, I have seen it; not in a literal vision, but in the reality lived out by this community and so many others like it. I have felt and known the presence of Christ in the breaking of bread and in the fellowship of community. In the face of that presence, our ideas about where Jesus physically is and how he got there start to break down, but what we are left with is the truth that the evangelists seek to help us understand: Jesus is with us, seated in God’s glory.
Knowing that heaven is not literally above us frees us to look beyond an ancient cosmology and imagine a greater reality. If Christ is at the right hand of God and also here among us, then where might we imagine heaven to be? Jesus’ entire life is a revelation of God’s embodied love present with us, and a demonstration of the power of that love in the world. If we understand heaven to be not lightyears away across the expanse of space or in some inaccessible ethereal dimension, but instead as close to us as the Risen Christ whom we eat and drink and who speaks to us still through the Holy Spirit, then how might that understanding of heaven change how we live our lives today?
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God… He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” This is not our profession of faith in some ancient cosmological scheme or in a vague set of historical details that even the evangelists can’t agree on, it is our profession of faith in a God who finishes what God begins, in a Christ who has always been, is now, and forever will be with us, as close as the breath of God within us. It is our confession that, though we may not know how or where or why, Jesus is alive; and in him, so are we.