"...as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.'"
Today is Ascension Day...the day on which we remember the "Ascension of the Lord". This Sunday, Christians all over the globe will be remembering this important event (if you're choosing to ignore it, then shame on you!). This event is a crucial theological event that pastors need to talk about and need to address, particularly in today's postmodern environment.
Too often, we get caught up in the idea of Jesus going "up", knowing that as one rises through the atmosphere, one reaches not the otherworldly realm of the Almighty, but Earth's orbit and, eventually, deep space. We must remember that the writer of Acts, as with all the early disciples, were trying to describe something which happened before them which was difficult for them (and us) to understand, using the vocabulary they had, and working out of the worldview they maintained.
In N.T. Wright's fascinating book, Surprised By Hope, he deals extensively with the notion of Jesus' Ascension. Bishop Wright describes heaven - the place to which Jesus "ascended" - not as a place far above in the sky, but rather as another dimension of God's creation, which exists concurrently with earth. He (brilliantly) compares it to C.S. Lewis' Narnia, which is distinct from our world yet only a wardrobe away.
The Church believes that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, and affirms this each Sunday in the Creed. Given Bishop Wright's understanding, this means that Jesus is very present with us now, though he is distinctly somewhere else. This says wonderful things about the absolute Lordship of Christ.
More than this, however, the fact that Jesus is now in heaven and not on earth reminds us that he will return on the Day of the Lord. We read on page 117 of Bishop Wright's book,
"At no point in the Gospels or Acts does anyone say anything remotely like, 'Jesus has gone into heaven, so let’s be sure we can follow him.' They say, rather, 'Jesus is in heaven, ruling the whole world, and he will one day return to make that rule complete'."So, the Ascension strengthens not only our understanding of the Lordship of Christ (a strengthening which is greatly needed in today's Church), it also reminds us that our eternity will be spent not "in heaven" as disembodied spirits flying around the clouds (a la "I'll Fly Away"), but rather in the New Jerusalem on the New Earth, as transformed and embodied children of the living God, a concept sadly forgotten by many Christians, but a concept which has incredibly far reaching implications, theologically, practically, missionally, politically and socially.
So, my prayer is that the Church is blessed this Ascension Day, and that pastors and congregations across the planet ponder these issues and rejoice in the hope of glory!