This was the Ascension – themed sermon I gave on the 7th Sunday of Easter season, a couple of days after Ascension Day…
On Ascension Day, I wrote a blog piece reflecting on which way is up. And I was talking about the fact that the answer to that depends on your view of the world!
It’s really important to bear this in mind when thinking about Jesus’ Ascension, because otherwise we might, with our modern scientific knowledge and rational minds, be at risk of dismissing something which is a core truth to our Christian faith.
It is at moments like this that we have to understand that “truth” and “fact” are not necessarily always the same thing. To give you an example, the absolute truth about the value of taking our time to ensure we manage to achieve our ends is very effectively told by Aesop’s fable of the ‘Tortoise and the Hare’ – but that story is not factual at all.
The ancients had a cosmology (universe / world view) that had a flat earth in the middle and heaven (the residence of the gods) as Up, somewhere beyond the stars. And the early Christians pretty much took on that view – they had no reason not to! It was, after all, the common understanding of science at the time.
So the gospel writers, when they record the ascension of Jesus into heaven, speak of him being taken up and a cloud hiding him from their sight.
But since the time when the gospels were written, our whole way of looking at and understanding the world and the universe has changed. We now know that no matter how far Up we go in among the stars and planets, we will never find a place called heaven that is the abode of the gods. That’s just not how the universe is laid out.
Aesop’s fables, fairytales, and science fiction all have one thing in common – they push the boundaries of our understanding to allow us to tell truths in a way that can be more easily understood – because they appeal to the imagination, rather than to the rational mind.
So when I think about the Ascension, it is to this kind of imaginative understanding that I turn.
I was rather a fan of Doctor Who a few years ago – Christopher Ecclestone, David Tennant and Matt Smith will always be The Doctor for me. And during those various seasons, one concept that so often came up was that of parallel dimensions. The Doctor didn’t just travel in time, he sometimes stepped through dimensions, usually to rescue people who had got stuck, or to seal up the portal because it shouldn’t have been opened in the way it had been by the humans and was thus causing disaster. I think there’s another moral in the tale there, because usually the humans had done it for power and greed, rather than any loving or compassionate reasons.
These parallel dimensions literally lie next to one another. In one episode, on a seemingly abandoned ship, there was a glass wall. You could see through it one way, but not from the other way. In a similar fashion, Jesus was taken up to heaven and a cloud hid him from the sight of the disciples – but a more likely reality is that he simply stepped from here – the physical world – into the spiritual world. The world of quantum physics where there is infinite possibility and time and space as we understand them cease to exist. Everywhere is “here” and every time is “now”.
First century Jews had no way of understanding and expressing this – so they told their experience in the only language they could – of Jesus rising up to heaven, beyond the stars, because that is where God is.
There’s another important thing to recognise about this walking between dimensions – only certain beings can shift between dimensions at will – most of us have to take the gateway. Jesus and the angels can slip between the worlds; we cannot, because our bodies are too solid. Remember, after the Resurrection, although he was still physical and could eat and drink and be touched like us, Jesus could also appear in locked rooms, and was not always recognised at first, even by those who knew and loved him best. So clearly there is something different about his person after the Resurrection.
And this difference allows him to walk between the world that we inhabit and the world of the Spirit.
All this is important within the Christian faith, and is worth taking time to consider and try to understand, because to ignore it is to simply gloss over what is too hard to understand in a factual, literal sense.
If we believe that Jesus was resurrected and appeared to his disciples, then there remains the question of where is he now, and how did he get there. And how is it that people over the past two millenia have experienced his presence, both spiritually and (in rare cases) visibly.
Taking time to grapple with the Ascension and all that it means gives us a way of understanding Jesus’ continued presence in our lives and in our world. It’s not just about how the Holy Spirit dwells within our hearts and inspires us – for those who have experienced the presence of Christ, there is a clear difference between the two.
So the Ascension ceases to be just another story from the gospels, a convenient “exit up” for the main character, so the narrative can draw to a tidy end. Rather it becomes the beginning of a whole new existence, and opens the infinite possibility of Jesus’ presence with each and every one of us.