Acts 1: 1-11.
Luke 24: 44-53
Above the clouds
May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Can you remember the first time you flew in an aeroplane? There may be some of you who have never flown ever. So for them let me tell you what I experienced the first time I flew. I was only thirteen years old and I flew with my father to Germany. I can remember the thrill mixed with apprehension as the aircraft gathered speed down the runway then the feeling of being pushed back into my seat as the plane rose steeply into the sky. The day was very overcast and almost immediately we plunged into the clouds, and everything outside the window was suddenly white. Yet the clouds were quite obviously not solid. Then just as suddenly as we entered them we burst out into the clear blue sky above them, into bright sunshine, with this fantastic panorama of the cloud tops disappearing into the distance as far as the eye could see. Above the clouds is nothing! And lots of it. So we put out of our minds all those pictures in stained glass windows of God sitting on a cloud, surrounded by angels. Heaven, then, is not place above the clouds, heaven is a state of blessedness, where we draw near to God and for all eternity – it is a spiritual existence, quite apart from the world of space, time and matter. If you think of it in scientific terms you might think of it as another dimension.
But of course that is not how people thought in Biblical times. When Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples for a period of forty days. Then according to Mathew, he appeared to them on a mountain and gave them his final instructions. Mark’s Gospel ends with the women running frightened from the tomb – two other writers thought this was too abrupt – perhaps the original ending of Mark’s Gospel had been lost – and they added shorter and longer endings: the longer one says Jesus was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. John ends with Christ’s appearance at the lakeside. But Luke says that ‘While Jesus was blessing the disciples, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven’. The Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, similarly says that ‘as the disciples were watching Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight’. So only the longer ending of Mark, and Luke’s Gospel, says that heaven is ‘up’; and only Acts say’s that it is above the clouds. Or at least, that appears to be the case. It should not surprise us if the disciples of Jesus, never having had the experience of flying in an aeroplane, would think that heaven was above the clouds; nowadays we know better.
But wait. Even if you have never seen in an aeroplane. You can look towards the horizon. On a clear day you can see a distant ridge of clouds. If there were golden walls and pearly gates on top of the clouds, you would be able to see them. The disciples were not stupid. They knew as well as we do that there is nothing sitting on the surface of those fluffy things up there. They must have realised that the talk of heaven being ‘up’ was symbolic language. The Old Testament says that ‘the high official’ is watched by a higher, and that there are yet higher ones over them’. Nobody thought that meant that the officials had their chairs on higher or lower platforms. ‘Higher positions’ is a metaphor for seniority in the hierarchy of power. Who could forget that wonderful sketch but the two Ronnie’s and Michael Cleese which illustrates what I am talking about so well. So when Luke wrote that Jesus went ‘up’, he meant that our Saviour was promoted to a position of authority, equal to that of God his Father.
In the Bible the cloud is a reoccurring symbol of God’s presence. God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai out of a cloud. God went before the Israelites through the wilderness as a pillar of fire by night, and a pillar of cloud by day. The disciples at the transfiguration heard God speaking out of the cloud. So I think all the disciples realised that the description of the ascension was symbolic language. Without the use of symbols you can’t talk about the indescribable world of the Spirit.
The ascension marks the ending for one phase of Jesus’s life, and the beginning of another. It is what we like to call a right of passage drawing a line under what had gone before and moving on into the future. His resurrection appearances were vital so that the disciples should realise he was still alive; but they couldn’t just peter out, there had to be what psychotherapists call a ‘moment of closure’. So Jesus caused his friends to see a vision of him being taken up into the presence of God. Maybe they knew it was a symbolic vision, which conveyed a true message, though not material facts. We have travelled in our imagination with Jesus from his birth at Christmas until today, Ascension Day, when he was received back into the presence of his Father. But he promised to be with us for evermore, and he is. But we should not go around with our heads in the clouds looking for him, that is not where he is. We should always set our minds on where Jesus dwells today, in the spiritual world, and that is closer than you might think because, because he dwells in all of us who love him, in our hearts, in our minds and in our souls, and that is how close to heaven we truly are!