Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of the disciples’ sight. And they were gazing up toward heaven.
And suddenly there were two men in white robes, who said to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
One of the great dangers of being a religious person is that we can spend too much time looking up toward heaven. How often in the history of our Christian faith have we spent too much time and energy worrying about getting to heaven?
And what does that even mean anyways? What is heaven? Where is heaven?
I’d like you to think about that for a moment. When you hear the word heaven, what does that mean to you? What are the images, what are the implications of “heaven”?
Often, we talk about heaven in terms of an after-life, as the place that we go after we die. We have a tendency to use geographic terms when we talk about heaven. And that tendency to think of heaven as a place has a long history. In ancient times, people used to think of the universe as having three layers. There was the earth where we lived. There was the underworld which was beneath us, into which we buried the dead. And there were the heavens above us, that open, infinite, unchanging space through which traveled the sun and the moon and the stars. Heaven was this vast domain at which we could only gaze. And so you can understand why ancient peoples would come to think of this vast spatial realm which was beyond them as the home of the God who is beyond us and transcends us.
By the middle ages, we had grown to understand that the earth was a sphere, and so this whole astronomical scheme of the universe was converted from flat layers to a set of concentric spheres, with the earth at the centre, and the sphere of heaven, where the throne of God could be found, as the outermost of these spheres. Heaven was above us and beyond us in the sky, hell was beneath us and below us underground, and humanity was poised in the middle, on the surface of the earth. The goal of the spiritual life was to live in such a way that when we die we would go up to heaven rather than down into hell. And this whole conception of heaven and hell was codified and popularized in classic works of literature such as Dante’s Divine Comedy in the 13th century. It was a neat package, a simple and coherent view of a spiritual and geographic universe which helped people make sense of their lives for centuries.
However this geography of heaven, this neat package, all started to unravel in modern times. First there was Copernicus. You remember Copernicus? He’s the astronomer who took the earth out of its apparently logical, and comfortable position in the centre of the universe, and put it out into the heavens, away from the centre. It took his contemporaries and it took the church about two centuries to get over the shock of having Copernicus mess with their nice coherent world view. But of course there were more shocks to come.
In 1961 Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut became the first human to travel in space and to orbit the earth. And during his flight, Gagarin was famously quoted as saying “I looked and I looked; but there is no god up here.”
And so we as modern people have had to give up on the idea that heaven is up there, the place where God lives and to which we hope to go when we die, at least in its literal, geographic sense.
But in many ways we haven’t changed our thinking, have we? We may have given up on the geography of heaven, but we still think of it as the place we go to be with God after we die. For many, there is still a strong link between our idea of heaven and the after-life.
Does this matter? Well, I think that it does. Because the way we perceive of heaven and the after-life can have a big impact on how we regard this life, how we live the life that we have on earth here and now.
If we believe that the main goal of this life is to make sure that when we die we go to heaven instead of hell, what does that say about our present, earthly lives?
Some Christians believe that this life is some sort of test, that somewhere in the course of this life something needs to happen to insure that we get to heaven. Some think we need to be baptized. Some talk about accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour. Some think that we need to be good, to live lives that are good enough to get to heaven.
Other people think that this life must be some sort of training ground for the after-life, a time when we learn the lessons needed to be with God in heaven. Still others, aware of the challenges and suffering that we go through, look at this life as a trial to be endured, the sort of fiery ordeal that Peter talked about in his letter that we read today, an ordeal that, perhaps, builds character or strengthens us along the way.
Does Jesus have anything to say about any of this?
Well surprisingly enough, Jesus has very little to say about heaven. He does speak clearly about God the Father who transcends the limitations of this physical world. He believes in resurrection. But mostly what he does is teach us about life: new life, abundant life. “I came,” Jesus says, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Perhaps surprisingly, he never uses But again, perhaps surprisingly,the term “after-life”. He does have a lot to say about “eternal life”. And did you notice that whenever Jesus talks about eternal life or to translate literally, “life of the eons”, he always speaks in the present tense? Eternal life is something that is offered to us now. We don’t have to wait. We don’t have die first. We don’t have to go to some place called heaven to have eternal life. Eternal life is something that is promised to us here and now.
And what is this eternal life? In today’s gospel, which is taken from the words of Jesus on the night before he died, Jesus tells us simply and clearly what eternal life is.
This is eternal life: that we may know God.
Are you living eternal life? Do you know God? Are you in the intimate sort of relationship with God that Jesus describes by saying “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me”, a loving relationship of knowing and being known?
Perhaps that’s not an easy question to answer. Perhaps your answer to the question “do you know God?” may range anywhere from “I have no idea what you’re talking about” to “I think so, maybe, sort of, sometimes”
And that’s not surprising. After all, John the author of today’s gospel said himself in the introduction that “no one has seen God”. So how can we be expected to know God if we’ve never seen God? It is a bit of a conundrum for us. But John goes on. “No one has ever seen God,” he writes. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”
We can know God because Jesus has made God known to us. In Jesus we get as close as we’re going to come in this earthly life to seeing God. Jesus has revealed God to us through his birth, his life, his teachings, his healings, his deeds of power, his offering of compassion and forgiveness, by eating at table with the outcast and marginalized, by showing us his love in so many ways and ultimately on the cross. And through what has been revealed to us, we too can come to know God and have eternal life, here and now. Heaven becomes any place that God is present and we are in relationship with him.
And so there is no need for us to simply stand here, gazing up toward heaven, hoping that someday we’ll get there. Nor is there any need to regard this life as some sort of test, hoping that if we pass there’ll be a prize for us at the end. God is here with us now. He has made himself known to us through Jesus. So how are we to respond?
The messengers tell the disciples that instead of standing there looking towards heaven they are to go out and be witnesses. Jesus has been taken out of their sight, but they and we are called to continue his work of making God known, not just in the hour we spend together on Sunday mornings, but in all of our lives, at home, at school, and at work, with our families and friends and with strangers.
Today we celebrate the Ascension, that day when the witnesses to the resurrected Jesus saw him for the last time. We often assume that Jesus ascended in order to pave a pathway for us to go to heaven. But John’s gospel is quite clear. The reason that Jesus ascended was so that he could send the Holy Spirit to be with us here and now. So that we can know God through God’s Spirit who dwells with us.
Knowing God. This is eternal life. It’s not there and then. It’s here and now.
Homily: Yr A Easter 7, May 28 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 1:6-14; Ps 68:1-10,33-36; 1 Pet 4:12-14;5:6-11; Jn 17:1-11