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We are taught that Jesus made appearances for 40 days after his resurrection and then he ascended into heaven. That means that the official date for the “Ascension of the Lord” holiday on the church calendar was May 18th. That was a Thursday. And it will always be on a Thursday. So, we do not always get a celebration of Ascension on Sundays. Karen preached from the lectionary, which had the ascension in it, and I really enjoyed her sermon “Is It Time Yet?” on May 21st. If you have not seen it, I would encourage you to go to our Facebook page or our YouTube page and listen to it.
I want to confess to you that of all the Christian holidays, this is the one with which I have the hardest time. For some reason, the creation of the heavens and the earth, the gift of Jesus, his teaching, miracles, and even resurrection do not offend my modern sensibilities like they do for some other people. But Jesus floating up into the clouds? That seems ridiculous. See, even pastors have bits of the faith with which they struggle!
Here is why I struggle: I have been in the clouds. Jesus is not there; it is just water vapor that can get excited if there is extra water or a buildup of electricity. Would he have gone further than the clouds? I do not buy that Heaven is a straight line up from any given point on earth. The earth is an oblate spheroid, constantly spinning on its axis, orbiting a star, which orbits a galaxy, and the galaxy itself is speeding through space. The earth, the whole system, hack even the entirety of the Mily Way has never been in the same place for more than a brief instant. In my mind, “up” and “down” are illusions, and leaving earth in a straight line at any given time would send you enumerable directions with an infinite number of destinations. Heaven as a physical place in space as we know it seems unlikely to me. I have always thought of it as other-realm-ly. When we point up to refer to God, it’s a metaphorical direction to me, not driving directions.
So what was Jesus doing? As I have prayed on this, I have become content in understanding the Ascension as Jesus’ kind of “stage left exit.” When an actor leaves the stage, we do not think they have gone to live behind the curtain. The curtain acts as a barrier between the seen and the unseen. This is the kind of boundary that God likes to play with all the time, and that the clouds could act in such a way seems reasonable. God is constantly revealing and concealing God’s self, depending on God’s intentions and mission. In our own lives, God feels close sometimes and far away others. Jesus did not go to live in the clouds, or to fly to heaven. He simply left in a really spectacular exit.
Appearing and disappearing are not unique to the Ascension in the post-resurrection days of the gospels. He appears and disappears in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus and dinner afterwards, and more. So, the exit is not unusual, just the direction. Jesus’ gets a heavenly exit, and there is also a promise of a similar return.
So, if I am hopeful of Jesus’ return (which I am!), then by the testimony of scripture, I know that he will come back as he exited, and this is how we will know him. But, in the meantime, we cannot have our eyes wandering to the heavens all the time. We still have the Holy Spirit with us now, and the Spirit is always giving us plenty to do until Jesus returns to us again.
Grace and Peace,