Acts 1:6-14; Luke 24:44-53
Next week, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit with fire and noise and excitement. This week, we have something less spectacular, but equally important. Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.
We confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. If Jesus had not ascended, God’s plan would not be complete. If Jesus had not ascended, he could not have sent the Holy Spirit to us.
We have these two texts from Luke and Acts which describe the event of the ascension. The stories are similar, but not identical, even though they are written by the same author: Luke. Jesus is with the gathered disciples and he gives them a farewell speech.
In Luke, Jesus reminds the disciples that everything that happened was according to God’s plan, and according to the scriptures. All has been fulfilled. And now, all is ready for the disciples to get the word out that repentance and forgiveness is readily available to all who seek it. Jesus tells them, “Just wait here a few more days, and you will be clothed with power from on high – in other words, wait for the Holy Spirit to fill you with power.” After saying this, Jesus left them, apparently rising into the clouds. The disciples worshiped him; then they returned to Jerusalem, as Jesus had instructed them.
In Acts, the disciples are more active participants in the farewell conversation with Jesus. They want to know exactly what we, today, want to know. Is it NOW that you will come back and fix everything that is wrong in our world? Please say yes! But Jesus has no answer for them, no answer for us. He gives the non-answer – it will all happen in God’s time.
In the meantime, the disciples are to be sent out to be witnesses of the good news. In Acts, also, Jesus promises they will receive the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And, then, Jesus was lifted up into the clouds, and out of sight.
The disciples must have stood there, staring into the sky, the same way we watch the plane a loved one is on, until it is not even a speck in the sky. Suddenly, two angels suddenly appear. They ask the disciples, “Why are you looking up at the sky, watching for Jesus to return? He will come back to you the same way he came among you.” Jesus came to earth as a human, appearing in the midst of humanity. I believe the angels are saying that Jesus will appear among us as the Holy Spirit, often disguised as other people in our lives.
After this, the disciples, including several women, returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room, the guest room, where they had been staying. They spent the time in prayer, waiting for the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’m sure the disciples had no clue what Jesus meant by the power from on high, or the power of the Holy Spirit, except as they had glimpsed God’s power through Jesus, as he healed people, cast out demons, and raised people from the dead. We’ll take up the story next week about how the Spirit amazes the crowds gathered in Jerusalem.
In the meantime, let’s talk about our conception of heaven, to which Jesus just ascended. We have a tendency to think of the world as having three tiers: hell below our feet, heaven above our heads, and earth where we live. God is “the man upstairs.” God is “up there” in heaven, somewhere, invisible, distant, watching us, but not often involved in our lives, as Bette Middler sings it. Heaven is a place, somewhere, but not here on earth.
Hell is below the earth, below our feet, where the devil lives, an evil being in a red leotard, with horns and a forked tail. He reigns over a place of torture, from which we will never escape. Hell is where the dark, evil spirits hide until they seep out into our lives and steal our hearts with impossible promises.
Heaven and hell are mythical places, with God upstairs, and St Peter at the golden gates, leading to streets paved with gold. The devil is downstairs, with either freezing cold, or extreme heat, depending on the story. Once you arrive at the gate, you are sent either up to heaven, or down to hell, from which there is no escape.
Here’s a story, just for fun. There were three or four women from Minnesota, Finnish women, probably, who for some reason were all sent to hell at about the same time. After they have been there for a week, the devil gets on his cell phone and calls St Peter at the gate to heaven. “Hey! Pete! These Finnish ladies you sent down here are causing trouble. Please come and get them.” St Peter asks, “What kind of trouble? Isn’t trouble your specialty?” “Not this kind of trouble. They’ve only been here a week and already they are organizing a bake sale to raise money for air conditioning.”
As much as we joke about heaven and hell as physical places, they are not really places. Heaven is a realm; heaven is wherever God is. God is up there, down there, and right here. Heaven is where we go when we die, and heaven is here on earth, where we live and breathe.
Jesus came to earth to initiate the kingdom/reign of heaven on earth. When his work was finished, he ascended into heaven. Wherever we see Jesus in another person, there we find the kingdom of heaven. Whenever we feed the hungry, house the homeless, the reign of heaven is present. Whenever we forgive and are forgiven, there is the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom/reign of heaven comes with the power from on high, Jesus’ Holy Spirit. The power from his Holy Spirit fills us from the time of our baptism, or even long before then perhaps. And occasionally, we remember to access the power and do God’s work with it.
God’s work can be as complicated as ending hunger around the world, or as simple as praying for a sick friend. This week, a friend posted a note on Facebook that her daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and is scheduled for surgeries and chemo. She asked for prayer, and the prayers came, again and again and again. In these simple prayers for healing, heaven is present, Jesus is present, on earth and in heaven.
This week, I invite you to consider how you think about heaven. What does it mean that Jesus has ascended into heaven? Where is heaven? What is it like? How do you know?
Please pray with me. Lord Jesus, in power you arose, ascending into heaven. And you sent your power into us to make heaven real right here on earth. Grant us the faith to see you and to look forward to that day when we will be with you forever, in the heaven you promise us when our life on earth is over. Amen