“Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
Now hold on a minute! What in the world is going on here? What do you mean Jesus was “carried up into heaven?” Did he climb Jacob’s ladder to the top of the dome, and walk right through the pearly gates? Or have they made some upgrades since the Old Testament was written, and God just beamed Jesus up like Captain Kirk in Star Trek? Or did the flaming chariot that transported Elijah into heaven, make a second run, pick up Jesus, and whisk him away? Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home.
What do you mean Jesus was “carried up into heaven?” I saw the live version of Jesus Christ Superstar that first aired this past Easter Sunday. After Jesus died, both he and the cross began rising higher and higher. A portal opened on the side of the stage and the cross headed toward it and into the light that was emanating from it. Is this what Luke has in mind? I’m not sure I understand what he’s trying to tell us.
What do you mean Jesus was “carried up into heaven?” Luke repeats this detail of the ascension as he begins the book of Acts. Chapter one is sort of a recap of our gospel. It says that Jesus was “taken up into heaven.” Then, later, it says “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” I don’t know if that clarifies things, or makes things worse!
What do you mean Jesus was “lifted up into heaven?” The longer ending of Mark’s gospel says that Jesus was “taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” This sounds like something we do in the South on a hot, humid summer day. I envision God and Jesus sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of one of those heavenly mansions, Jesus talked about. The two of them are rocking back and forth, looking at the sights of heaven, and sipping on glasses of sweet tea.
What do you mean Jesus was “taken up into heaven?” The images used in the Bible to describe the Ascension made sense to the people who first heard them. They believed in a three-tiered universe, where heaven was above the dome or firmament that rested on a flat earth. (Don’t get me started on that subject!) Below the flat earth was Sheol or the underworld. It was the place of the dead, and eventually would become the place Christians labeled as hell.
But most sane, rational people do not believe in a three-tiered universe anymore. Ever since the time of Galileo, we have understood the cosmos in a very different way. Modern astronomers and astrophysicists believe the universe is finite and currently expanding. What is beyond our universe is anybody’s guess. Maybe that’s where heaven is located, beyond the boundaries of space and time. (At least that’s my working theory.) If we believe even a small portion of what scientists are telling us, then the details of Jesus’ ascension we read in the Bible make no sense whatsoever.
So what do we do with the story of Jesus’ Ascension? How do we make sense of it with our 21st century minds? Well, I gave that some thought this week. I came to the conclusion that in order for us to understand the ascension we need to look out instead of up.
What I mean by this is that if you look at all the post-resurrection stories of Jesus, he only appears in one place at any given time. Whether its in the garden, behind locked doors, on the road to Emmaus, or cooking fish on the shores of Galilee, Jesus never appears in two places simultaneously. Think about it. I’m open to being disproved that I’m wrong, so challenge me if you will. My faith is also a work in progress. And this is where I am in my understanding of the gospels at this given moment.
If I’m right about this, then what happened in the ascension is NOT that Jesus was lifted up. Instead, Jesus went out. He is everywhere all around us. He transcended his post-resurrection form. The boundaries of space and time no longer limited him, and he became the Jesus we know today. I am hardly a biblical scholar but this is the only way I can make sense of the ascension. Perhaps it will help you to make sense of it as well.
So if we shift the direction of the ascension from up to out, it makes a difference in how we understand what it means to be followers of Jesus. This change of direction begins with the question that two men in white robes (whom I assume are angels) ask the disciples in our first lesson: “People of Galilee, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Perhaps these two mysterious strangers are telling them that they’re directionally challenged. Instead of looking up, they need to be looking out.
A few minutes earlier Jesus had told them “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In our gospel lesson he told them, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.” Here they are, gawking at the sky, doing absolutely nothing!
Granted, Jesus also told them they should “stay in the city until they have been clothed with power from on high.” But this did not mean they were supposed to stand there motionless. Instead of looking up, the angels were telling them they needed to look out.
Thankfully, they got the hint pretty quickly. Our gospel lesson tells us that while they were waiting for the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon them, the disciples “Returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” If there is any doubt that the disciples needed to look out rather than up, we have the Great Commission in Matthew’s gospel: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Does that sound like looking up or looking out? It sure sounds like looking out to me.
If we put all of this together, it gives us a different understanding of the ascension. The disciples are looking up because, in their minds, that’s where Jesus went. However, Jesus did not go up, he went out. The kingdom or reign of Christ was not to be experienced in heaven at some predetermined time in the future. The reign of Christ was already among them. It was meant to be experienced in the here and now. Jesus had gone out and he would be found among the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the lost and the oppressed.
Remember Jesus’ job description in the beginning of Luke’s gospel? He went into the synagogue in Nazareth, unrolled the scroll of Isaiah, and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Lk 4:18-19] Does that sound like looking up or looking out? It sure sounds like looking out to me.
Perhaps the lesson we learn from the ascension can be summed up in the expression that someone is so heavenly minded, they’re no earthly good. I take this to mean that someone is so focused on getting into heaven, that they forget the call to love and serve their neighbor. Someone is so obsessed with their “personal relationship” with Jesus, that they they are blind to Christ’s presence among the poor and oppressed. They are looking up to find the kingdom of God, when they would be looking out.
This is the way I can make sense of the ascension story and how it applies to us. For me, the starting point is not Jesus being “carried up into heaven,” by cloud, flaming chariot, or some other form of celestial transportation. The starting point of the story is the question the angels ask the disciples. It is the question they are asking us on this Ascension Sunday: “People of Galilee, citizens of Buncombe County, members of Abiding Savior, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
My hope and prayer is that this Ascension Sunday, will be a day when we pause to see if we are directionally challenged. Are we spending our time thinking about the joys of heaven and our relationship with Jesus? OR are we seeking Jesus among the poor and oppressed, the lost and the forgotten? Are we looking up or are we looking out? Amen.
Copyright ©2018 David Eck