Monday, May 21, 2012

Beyond imagining

I am as guilty as most clergy I know of conniving with the trend of recent decades to downgrade the celebration of Ascension Day to the Sunday following. (Cue many clergy I know to comment here that they do not so connive!) Yesterday's Ascension readings got me thinking and some thoughts made it into the sermon's final cut.

Why has Ascension Day been downgraded in importance? Is it because we have focused on the event of Ascension Day, Jesus' final words prior to lift off, and determined that event is not so significant to warrant a mid-week celebration? If, by contrast, we focus on the significance of the Ascension of Jesus, we have something to celebrate of greater, if not infinite magnitude. That significance includes the turning of eras, from the era of the visible Jesus to the era of the invisible Jesus (save for a few visions from time to time) in which followers everywhere all the time participate in fellowship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and from the era of Jesus' earthly kingship to the era of Jesus' heavenly kingship 'seated at the right hand of God' (Ephesians 1:15-23).

What is heaven or (in terms of Ephesians) the heavenly realms like? I cannot speak for overseas jurisdictions but in NZ it is rare in my experience for a funeral not to include a clear and definite statement about heaven and what it is being experienced as by the deceased. While I appreciate that in the course of a funeral such thoughts have a comforting element, I think that away from funerals we ought to do some reflecting on what heaven is like according to the Bible's disclosure so we have accurate beliefs. The first and most obvious thing to say about heaven according to the Bible is that it offers no visions or insights which accord with popular Kiwi culture which sees heaven as something akin to a school reunion ('Bill is with all his old mates having a beer right now') or even a family reunion (though in some cases that may not be a comforting thought!).

The second thought about heaven is that it is a new world opened up by the resurrection of Jesus Christ which is beyond our imagination. Here I was helped by some things Dr Stephen May said in his two lectures on Theology and Literature last week (mentioned in previous post). (In my words) the resurrection of Jesus is part of the great rupture of history by God in which Christ enters life as a gift from God to rescue and redeem us from slavery to sin and the devil in order that we might become a new creation. In the resurrection we do not merely have an amazing miracle (dead man alive again) but the beginning of a new world. When we read through 1 Corinthians 15 we move from the resurrection as an event in history (... died, buried, raised ...) to the resurrection as a new world in which we will have 'spiritual' bodies which compare to our present 'physical' bodies as a seed compares to a beautiful flower or an acorn to a might oak tree. Just as someone who has never seen a flower or a mighty tree cannot imagine what the seed or acorn will become, neither can we imagine what heaven will be like, including the bodies we will have.

So, for the most part, we simply do not know what heaven is like and what our experience of it will be. There are, however, three things we can be sure of.

Jesus is there. He has gone before us as forerunner and firsfruits to prepare a place for us. Unless he ascended first to the Father we could not follow him there.

Jesus is exalted. He sits at the right hand of the Father (though this is our language to help us get a fix on his exaltation; there is other language in the New Testament, e.g. Revelation 3.21, which accords with the Father and the Son being one Being, one object of our worship). We will worship him in heaven and our present worship on earth joins with the worship of all creatures in the heavenly realms. (One difference between the two Lukan versions of the Ascension, Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11, is that in the former the disciples worship Jesus prior to his ascending, and they immediately return to the Temple to continue their praise).

Jesus is seated. Here on earth we run round in a panic, fuss over things, and shoot first, ask questions later. Jesus is seated: at peace, calm, and in charge of all that is going on, with everything having been placed under his feet (Ephesians 1:15-23).

There was a bit more said but that will do for now and many earthly tasks need my fussing over for today lest I start panicing tomorrow!


Anonymous said...

"There was a bit more said but that will do for now and many earthly tasks need my fussing over for today lest I start panicing tomorrow!"

I understand icing cakes, but why would anyone ice a pan? :)

Forgive my frivolity. The point of your post is right. It grieves me that evangelicals make so little of the Ascension when our patron saint, Aurelius Augustinus, thought it the greatest feast in the Church year.


Tim Chesterton said...

I moved Ascension Day to the Sunday after Ascension but don't regard it as a downgrading, Peter! The fact is that if we have a midweek service at most a dozen will turn out, if I'm very, very lucky, but if we have a Sunday service we get a full church. So having Ascension Day on the Sunday following is upgrading it, not downgrading it!

Father Ron Smith said...

" I think that away from funerals we ought to do some reflecting on what heaven is like according to the Bible's disclosure so we have accurate beliefs." - Peter Carrell

The catholic belief has always been that, in accordance with St. Paul's seminal understanding of 'life after death' - in 1 Thessalonians 13-16 - "Those who have died in Christ will be the first to rise, and then those of us who are still alive will be taken up with them.."

This presumes that the dead (except perhaps the 'Saints & Martyrs' who may have been already assumed into heaven?) are presently - until Christ's Second Coming - somewhere else.

That 'somewhere else' has long been the subject of much theological speculation. But why not 'Paradise' - the place where Jesus said that the Penitent Thief would be, with Jesus, on the day of their death?.

The place called, variously; Hades; Paradise; the Place of Departed Spirits; seems not to have been the 'Heaven' that Jesus now occupies - together with the Father and the Holy Spirit - but rather some sort of ante-room to Heaven, where further cleansing (purgatory?), spiritual growth, healing and renewal may be taking place in preparation for Christ's Second Coming.(This makes better sense of catholic 'Prayers for the Faithful Departed').

Paul indicates that the 'Dead in Christ' will be raised first, and then those who are left alive - believing in Him, and looking forward to eternal life with God - will be 'caught up with them in the air (metaphorically) : presumably going somewhere! Where? One would suppose, with Paul, into the Courts of Heaven to live with God.

"God has gone up with a merry noise, Alleluia!"

Simplistic? - No, Biblical!

"He has gone up with the sound of the trumpet, Alleluia, Alleluia!"