Saturday, May 23, 2009

B, Easter 7/Ascension - Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:10-11 "Where and What is Heaven?"

Luke 24:50-51 When Jesus had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.
Acts 1:10-11 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."
Where is heaven? One would assume heaven is up there! But is it up there? We might picture heaven as a place where angels strum harps lying in white puffy clouds. But every time I've been in a jet flying through the clouds, I've never seen an angel! In fact to my recollection I've never heard of any tragedy where an angel, with its fairy wings, has been sucked through the jet engines of a jumbo doing seven-hundred kilometres per hour.
But the language of the bible speaks of heaven as a place to which a person has to travel upward to enter. Jesus was taken up; so was Elijah. In the creed we say, Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. Where did Jesus go? Where did the chariot drop off Elijah? When they ascended at what place did they stop?
In the New Testament the word used for heaven is the root Greek word meaning mountain. To go to the top of a mountain you have to go up; and entry into heaven is seen in the same sense – up is the way to heaven.
Mountains are important places in the ancient and biblical worlds. Think of the times when heavenly experiences happened on mountains. Moses on Mt Sinai in the cloud with God; pagan shrines built to gods on mountains, and the Israelites copying them when they worshipped Baal against the will of God. People even tried to build a mountain at Babel. Jesus, too, utilised mountains. He prayed up mountains, taught from mountains; he spent a significant period of his time on mountains during his earthly ministry. In ancient times mountains were where earth met heaven. Mountains were seen as the pillars which held up the sky and stopped it from crashing to the ground.
We can climb to the top of a mountain and have a mountain top experience—a heavenly experience—but is heaven there? We can fly in aircraft in the clouds but is heaven seen their either? In our technological age we send astronauts higher than the clouds and still no heavenly realm is to be seen there either; even further out into space unmanned ships are sent in search of signs of life, have they found the Son of God at the right hand of the Father? Maybe they haven't travelled out far enough! But even at the ends of infinite space would they find heaven? The answer is no!
It's easy to come to the conclusion that heaven doesn't exist because we can't find or see it. And so if it doesn't exist because we can't see it, then some conclude Jesus Christ the Son of God never really rose from the dead nor did he ascend into heaven.
In our age this hopeless notion is common. So if God or heaven doesn't seem to exist, in hopelessness we seek heaven as a concept of perception; heaven becomes a state of mind. The 'where is heaven?' question now is replaced by, 'what is heaven?'
One only has to turn on the radio or television to see how heaven is portrayed in music and the media. What is heaven? Heaven is a divine type of ice-cream, maybe a McCain Pizza, or maybe 'heaven is in your eyes, or in your heart' as music artists sing. In fact modern music hopes in a heaven, but sadly this heaven has more to do with the gratification of one's sexual desires. Heaven for many is an individualistic concept understood and bound in the realm of sensory experiences.
So what is heaven and where is it? In the church we struggle with these questions too. The way heaven is understood and perceived goes along way in explaining the differences between denominations within Christendom.
Many other churches go to great lengths to make their teachings logical and rational, defining heaven as a spatial location. So they claim Jesus is in that spatial heavenly place, and therefore, he cannot be in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, making the sacrament only a remembrance feast. That sounds logical. For them heaven is a precise location where Jesus is with the Father. Jesus and the Father are there and not here with us.
However, their logic is thrown into confusion with texts such as Matthew 1: 23 and 28:20 where Jesus is named Immanuel meaning "God with us", and where he says "I will be with you to the very end of the age". At this point one has to make a decision between 'logic and rationality' or 'the Word of God'. If Jesus is at the right hand of God in heaven then what does Jesus mean when he says, 'this is my body and this is my blood, given and shed for you'. As you can see there is a problem. Is Jesus with us or is he up there with the Father in heaven?
Jesus is with us, we know this is true because he said so. If he is with us and he is in heaven, then heaven must be with us. Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is nearer than most realise? So what is heaven? Is it just a concept; are we already living in heaven? After all God is everywhere!
The problems with these questions are the questions themselves. The 'what is' and 'where is' questions are questions of rational and logical minds. Heaven as a place or a location lasting for an eternity is a concept that opens up a Pandora's Box of questions. In fact heaven as a location in space is something that will never be proved by science or any other rational logical faculty.
However, when the questions are asked from the point of view of faith, then they take on a whole different perspective. You and I believe in heaven, not a heavenly meal or a heavenly interlude with the opposite member of sex. No! The heaven in which we believe is not born of the fruits of the flesh. Our belief in heaven is given to us in faith by the one who rules there. Heaven is where God is, it's a realm outside logic; it can't be found with the naked eye or reason. For the time being heaven and the King of Heaven are seen only through faith.
In the Nicene Creed we confess heaven and earth as places made by God; we also confess that he made all things visible and invisible. Heaven is invisible to our eye. It is not a place in the spatial sense. Nor is it revealed to us through our own efforts, understanding or senses. Jesus has ascended into heaven and he is hidden from our sight. Heaven too is hidden from our sight but only for now.
Jesus has ascended from our sight into the glorious reality around us, which our sinful eyes will not ever see. But right now we are called to see — through the eyes given by the Holy Spirit, the eyes of faith — ourselves made holy by the blood of Jesus, dressed in glorious royal white robes in the eternal presence of God.