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Acts 1: Verses 1-11: Ascension Day
Have you heard the story of the family of country bumpkins, who decided one day to go for a trip to London? It was their first trip ever away from their farm, and there were all sorts of exciting things to see and do. They decided that they would stay in one of 'them there fancy 'otels', and so they drove their tractor to the Ritz, in Piccadilly.
The father of the family took his son, and told his wife to stay in the tractor while he got them booked in. The farmer and his boy entered the lobby of the hotel, and looked around them in amazement. There were so many things they had never seen before - marble floors, chandeliers, water fountains. But the most amazing thing was the lift at the end of the lobby.
“What’s that thing there?”, asked the son - as they stared at the shiny doors. “I don’t know” said the father - “let’s watch”. So they watched, as a little old lady of 93 pressed the button to call the lift. When the lift arrived, she got in and was seen to press another button, before the doors closed, and she disappeared. A few seconds later, however, the doors opened again - and a stunning young blonde came out of the doors.
“Son,” said the old farmer, “that’s fantastic! They have a machine which makes old women young again! Go and get yer mother!”
The sense of wonder that the old Farmer experienced must have been a bit like the wonder of the Disciples as they saw Jesus taken from their sight, up into heaven - hidden by a cloud. They must have wondered what on earth was happening. According to Luke’s account (in the book of Acts) “they were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men in white stood beside them”. These two men, whom we assume to be angels, then reassured the disciples that Jesus would come back in the same way that they had seen him go up into heaven.
Some people have wondered whether this is, in fact, a completely accurate account of what happened that day. The biggest problem for the modern reader is that we don't tend to think of heaven as 'up there', any more. This is been a suspicion of modern people for many years.
Perhaps the most famous example was when the first man in space came home. Russian Cosmonaut, Yuri Gregarin, was the first man to pierce the sky and look into the depth of space...and according to his Premier, Kruschev, 'Gragarin didn't see God up there'.
That's a very different picture than the people of Jesus' day would have had. For them, and many primitive religions, heaven was above them, and hell below. Today we call that a 'triple decker universe'. But over time, we've started to change that view.
One way of thinking about heaven is to suggest that it is with us all the time. After all, Jesus proclaimed that “the Kingdom of Heaven is among you”. We may even have the capacity to enter, or at least touch heaven, albeit briefly. We might also say that heaven is present whenever there is peace, or justice. Or whenever we pray, or feel the touch of God upon our lives. Tom Wright, the Bishop Durham, describes heaven and earth as not separated by a vast expanse of sky - but rather by a sort of spiritual curtain, which even we can sometimes step through and touch.
But perhaps Jesus chose not to worry about that particular theological point. Perhaps he realised that if he simply stepped through the curtain into heaven, the Disciples might not really understand that his time on earth had come to an end. After all, during the days leading up to this event, he had popped in and out of their lives, and rooms, very frequently. He appeared out of nowhere in a locked room where they were all hiding one day. After breaking bread with other disciples at Emmaus, he simply disappeared again. It seemed that Jesus' resurrection body had the ability to step through the invisible curtain which separates our world from heaven. What was needed was a grand gesture - something which made very clear that a new stage of the Christian journey was beginning.
One thing that Christians have always believed is that Jesus, and the Father, and the Holy Spirit are all aspects of the same One God. But it was clear from what Jesus taught his disciples before he left them, that he needed to remove his physical body from them, in order for the Spirit to be sent. One way of thinking about this might be to imagine Jesus going up into heaven, and then, like a firework, exploding and expanding....so that his Spirit could reach out over the whole earth. Jesus, if you like, can be thought of as a kind of Big Bang!
We believe that Jesus is now everywhere, by his Spirit. Any of us, at any time, can speak with him and pray to him. That couldn't happen if he was limited to his physical body. We'd have to make an appointment if we wanted to talk with him!
Do you remember the movie Bruce Almighty? Bruce, played by Jim Carrey, wanted the power of God - and he was given it for a while. Great fun - for a bit - while he lassooed the moon for his girlfriend, and had the power to do anything he wanted. But then Bruce learned that with great power comes great responsibility...and he was given the responsibility of answering prayers.
Aargh! Prayers started flooding in. What should he do? Make them all into post-it notes perhaps? No - his whole house was quickly covered in the things. Put them all in a filing cabinet? No...too many cabinets. Maybe turning them into emails would work? But then, Bruce found that he didn't have the time to answer them all individually - so he just pressed "Answer All" and then "Yes!". The result, as you might remember, was catastrophic! Everyone's prayers were answered...including everyone who had asked to win the Lottery....which meant that there were millions of winners! Riots broke out. The city was in chaos!
You see, although Bruce had been given the power of God, he was not given God's ability to be everywhere at the same time, and to know all things at once. Bruce, like Jesus before his Ascension, was confined to a physical body...confined by time and space.
But when Jesus 'ascended into heaven', or 'passed through the invisible curtain', the Bible tells us he sent his Spirit back into the World...and that by that Spirit, we can be inspired, forgiven, loved, cherished, encouraged, and prompted to live in ways that are God-like. By that Spirit, we can talk to Jesus, and know that he hears and feels our every need. By that Spirit, we can reach out and touch God...and be led by God.
So because of his Ascension, we can have confidence that God is with us. It's one of those weird ironies of Christianity, that you've heard me talk about before. We serve a king who was born in a stable. We worship a God who taught us to give up everything in order to possess everything. In order for us to live, Jesus had to die. In order to be fully with us, Jesus had to go into heaven.
That's the kind of topsy-turvey faith that we are about to baptise Lucie Jayne into. By her baptism, in a few minutes, we are going to offer her the gift of life that never ends. We are going to welcome her into the family of God's people - ordinary, yet spiritual people, who have discovered that a life lived with God is a better life.
We are people who are discovering that living a simple life is the best way to a rich life. We are people who are learning that forgiveness towards each other is so much better than anger. Love is stronger than hate. Peace is more powerful than war. Generosity is more life-giving than selfishness. Singing is better than crying. Praying is better than coping on our own. We are people who are learning that although Jesus is no longer physically with us, he is much more with us - deeply with us by his Spirit - than we could ever imagine.
So now let's welcome Lucie into this faith....