We don’t know quite what to do with the Ascension of our Lord. The whole idea is a little embarrassing to us moderns. We know that heaven is not up there. “Up” to people in the U.S. is “down” to people in Australia. After all, we live on a sphere. No one who seriously thinks about it believes that heaven is somewhere up there or out there. Space goes on for billions of light years. It’s not as if you can get to heaven in a space ship. So, we have to ask what Luke was trying to say with the Ascension. And to understand his point, we must discover what heaven meant to people in the Bible.
We would be wrong to think that Luke literally meant that Jesus flew off into space and went to heaven which he believed was “up there.” Luke is far more thoughtful and sophisticated than many of his critics. To appreciate what Luke is trying to say with his story about the Ascension we must do some biblical homework.
The word “heaven” is used at least three ways in the Bible. (The understanding of heaven in apocalyptic writings will be the topic of another article.) “Heaven can mean the sky as in that part of the creation where birds fly and clouds float. The second way the word “heaven” is used is to describe the region of the stars of the heavens – what we would call outer space.
But thirdly, and more importantly to the ancients, the word heaven had a symbolic meaning, referring to that side of creation which is invisible and beyond our reach. In biblical cosmology, heaven and earth are not two different locations within the same continuum of space and matter. It’s not as if the whole universe can be compared to a house where earth is the family room while heaven is the formal living room or earth is the bottom floor while heaven is the top floor. The biblical writers thought of heaven and earth as two different dimensions of God’s good creation. It’s not that heaven is out there, or up there. Heaven is a dimension of God’s creation alongside earth. That’s why Genesis 1 begins with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” There are connections between heaven and earth in biblical thought – forms of communication and relating. Regarding the Ascension, the important thing is to realize that heaven relates to earth in such a way that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth. So, when Luke says that Jesus ascended into heaven, he is saying that Jesus is available and accessible to everyone, everywhere at any time. Heaven is an invisible realm to us, but it interpenetrates earth at every point and the one in heaven can interpenetrate earth at every point and at every time.
But there is an even deeper meaning of heaven in the Bible. Heaven is that realm of creation where God’s plans, power, dreams, and potentialities exist for this world. God created the heavens and the earth, but God’s involvement with this creation continues every day, every minute, and every second. The power that sustains this creation comes from God and is mediated by heaven. Or put another way, creation lives from the continual inflow of the energies of the Spirit of God. So, God sustains creation from heaven.
But what is involved from God’s part in heaven is far more than just maintaining the status quo of creation – just keeping things from falling apart. Heaven, as we said, is the word used in the Bible to describe the place of God’s creative power and possibilities. So, when heaven opens to earth and earth opens to heaven, God’s energies and potentialities appear in the visible world to allow for new possibilities. What was impossible now becomes possible. A future can occur which is not just a continuation of the past. There can be true change and transformation. The possibilities for goodness and love, for harmony and peace, for beauty and transformation all exist in heaven and come to earth in various ways, not the least of which is our own openness to God’s way and our willingness to become like little children who don’t know any better than to believe that this world does not have to be the way it is. (When Jesus said that we must become like little children if we are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, I suggest that this openness and trust are part of what he meant.)
If we really understood and embraced heaven as it is presented in the Bible, we would know that nothing is impossible on this earth. We could live in peace; we could heal our planet; we could end world hunger; and we could rediscover beauty in nature, the arts, and in our own lives. Heaven is just chomping at the bit to let these possibilities blossom and bear fruit. But in many ways, these must come through our openness to God and God’s dream for this earth. Why? Because God seeks a human and cosmic community which, out of love and free choice, chooses to bring heaven to earth.
So, with this background we can see why the Ascension is important. It’s important for at least two reasons. First, we are told that Jesus has ascended to heaven and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. God is on the throne, the symbol of ultimate power, and Jesus is God’s righthand man. In other words, with the Ascension, Jesus now calls the shots. The Bible states this extraordinary claim another way. Jesus says, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth.” That verse is found in Matthew 28 just before what we call the Great Commission. So, immediately before Jesus tells us to get off our blessed assurances and continue his work in this world, he says that all authority is his. Where? In heaven and on earth. Jesus is now in charge of all of heaven’s creative possibilities and powers. And from his life we know how he will use them. He will use all of heaven’s power and dreams to bring compassion, mercy, joy, community, love, forgiveness, justice, peace, and reconciliation to this earth. Before he sends out his disciples to continue his work, he reassures them that he will be with them (“Lo, I am with you always”), and he says that we will have all the power and possibilities of heaven backing us in our mission. That’s why the early church spread over the Mediterranean world so quickly. That’s why the early church defeated the Roman Empire with its love and faithfulness. That’s why we are here today. But somewhere along the way we forgot that all authority in heaven and earth belongs to Jesus. So, we became timid, fearful, pessimistic, and cynical. Rather than praying and working for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven as we were directed by Jesus, we longed to go to heaven ourselves. We redefined the gospel according to our own self-interests while losing sight of our mission as the Body of Christ in this world.
And that leads us to the second reason why the Ascension is important. Without the Ascension, the church is tempted to over-identify itself with Jesus. We call ourselves the Body of Christ, but we are not Jesus. We say that he is present in our midst, but that does not mean we are Jesus or because of our chummy closeness to the Lord, we know him so well that we can speak with finality and arrogance in his name. The Ascension reminds us that Jesus may be in our midst in the Spirit, but he is also in heaven where he addresses us as our Lord and, when necessary, stands against us in our arrogance, self-interest, and greed. The Ascension reminds us that our task is to present Jesus as Lord to the world and to serve the world in his name, not to seek our own advancement and advantage.
So, why is the Ascension important? It reminds us that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth. All the energies and possibilities of heaven to accomplish God’s will on earth are at his disposal. Whenever the church in history has lived and acted according to that truth, it has been an incredible blessing to this world. The problem is that for much of its history, the church has forgotten that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Jesus. Jesus said to Simon Peter “You (the faith you have demonstrated) are the rock upon which I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The image given by Jesus is a church assaulting the very gates of hell. The church is out there doing all it can to build for the Kingdom of God. It’s not hiding behind church walls, dug in like a castle under assault. The church by its witness, love, and acts of justice is assailing the very citadels of evil. And the “weapons of the Spirit” we use are love, truth, and faithful witness to the way of Jesus. When the church remembers the truth of the Ascension, the results are miraculous. It’s much easier to sit behind church walls and contemplate our place in heaven. It’s much harder to dare to build for God’s Kingdom on earth. But that is precisely what we are called to do.
The Ascension also reminds us that the church is not the Kingdom of God. The church is not Jesus. And the church is certainly not God. The Jesus who is with us in Spirit also stands apart from and, when necessary, against us when we forget that our primary vocation is to seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. Where? On earth. We belong to Jesus only as we follow him. We are the body of Christ only when we seek first God’s will in this world.
The bottom line is this: if we are not seeking God’s Kingdom on earth – if we are not praying and working for God’s will to be come on earth as it is in heaven, we know nothing of Jesus. The Ascension keeps before us this Jesus who is Lord. He is the one to whom we must all finally answer. Our names on a church roll and our playing at being church simply won’t cut it.
So, you see, the Ascension is not some trivial matter in the faith of the church. The Ascension reminds us of our mission and of all the powers of heaven to accomplish that mission. That’s why those men in white robes said to those early disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Earth is where the action is.
(Some may ask, “If Jesus has all power in heaven and earth, why is there still so much suffering, evil, and injustice in our world?” Part of the answer to that question is found in a single sentence in this article: Because God seeks a human and cosmic community which, out of love and free choice, chooses to bring heaven to earth. If God is love, God can only act from love, and as Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 13, love does not demand, manipulate, control, force, or—thank God—give up on us or this creation. If ultimate power is love, the final victory of that love will be costly and longsuffering, but only such a victory can be authentic, comprehensive, sustainable, and worthy of our identities as daughters and sons of the One Jesus called Abba. However, when the church is faithful, there are times and places which are previews of the great coming attraction—appetizers of the Great Banquet. And those touched by the faithfulness of the church experience their slice of heaven in their own time and place.)