Tuesday 2 April 2024

Where the Hell is Jesus?

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
7 April 2024

Acts 1.1-11  
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 

Genesis 28.10-19 
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  

The question I want us to grapple with this morning is very simple to pose,
          but surprisingly difficult to answer.

And the question is this: Where is Jesus?

In a moment of casting around for an opening illustration to this sermon,
          I wondered if there were any ‘Where’s Jesus?’ posters,
                   in the style of a Where’s Wally? cartoon,
          and a moment or two on Google led to a definitive answer.
                   Yes, there are indeed many, many ‘Where’s Jesus?’ posters.
But two in particular struck me.

The first is one that I have on my study wall,

          and it makes me smile every time I see it.

It’s two door to door evangelists speaking to a woman,
          and asking her, ‘Have you found Jesus?’

And then, if you look closely,
          you can just see Jesus, hiding behind the curtain.

Francis of Assisi, in his search for Jesus,
          famously discovered that Jesus was to be seen
          in the face of the poor, the suffering, and the outcast.

Anyway, to the second picture…

‘Where’s Jesus? Seriously! Where the hell is he? People are starving.’

And this seemed to me to be a very good question.
Where is Jesus when people are starving?
          Where’s Jesus when bombs fall from the sky?
Where’s Jesus when people suffer and die in war and conflict?
          Where’s Jesus when people sit at borders
          hoping against hope for a new life?
This is almost the same question
          as the basic question of Christian theodicy,
          which asks why God of love allows suffering in the world.
But it isn’t quite the same question,
          and in some ways it may be more helpful.
The question ‘why does God allow suffering?’ is abstract,
          but the question ‘Where is Jesus when suffering happens?’
          is far more concrete and answerable.
One often cited (at least by me) answer to this question
          was offered by the theologian W H Vanstone
          in the wake of the appalling disaster in Aberfan
                   when the coal tip above the Welsh mining village
                   slid down the mountain and engulfed a farm, several houses,
                   and a school, leaving 116 children and 28 adults dead.
Vanstone said that God was not at the top of the mountain pushing it over,
          but at the bottom with those suffering,
          receiving the impact of the disaster in his own body.
Where was Jesus when Aberfan slipped?
          Vanstone says, he was at the bottom of the mountain.
And so, we might wonder,
          why does the book of Acts
          so clearly depict him ascending into heaven?
From the perspective of Jesus’ disciples,
          those who had known him in the flesh, as it were,
who had wandered the streets and byways of Palestine with him,
          sharing food and laughter,
          and seeing people transformed by his physical touch,
it certainly seemed as if Jesus had gone from their midst.
The story of the ascension captures eloquently the sense of isolation
          felt by these early followers who no longer had available to them
                   the person of Jesus to consult with, and engage with,
                   in ways both trivial and meaningful.
He had gone from them.
Of course, the isolation had begun at the cross,
          that moment of absolute departure,
          as the earthly Jesus was nailed to a tree and hung until he was dead;
          with the earthly life of the saviour coming to an end at that point.
But then there was the strange interlude of the resurrection,
          as people discovered that in some way
          Jesus was still present with and within them,
          able to continue affecting their lives
And then we come to this strange story of the ascension,
          which marks the transition from encountering Jesus as a man,
          to encountering him by the ongoing presence of his spirit.
And so Luke tells us that Jesus has ascended into heaven.
          But the problem with this, is that it can be very hard to know
          quite what we mean when we say that Jesus is in heaven.
What does it mean to assert that Jesus has gone from the earth
          but is still alive and present with God?
These are deep mysteries, and there are no straightforward answers.
In fact, before we can even begin to answer what it means
          to say that Jesus is ‘in heaven’,
          we need to have some idea of what we mean by heaven in the first place.
Where is heaven, for heaven’s sake?
          Is it above the stars?
                   Is it in a galaxy a long time ago, and far, far away?
          Is it a place on earth, as Belinda Carlisle once sang?
          Is it a celestial carrot to be used alongside the stick of ‘hell’
                    to enforce conformity
          and perpetuate the privilege of the elite
                    by controlling and consoling the recalcitrant masses?
Would we be better, as John Lennon famously challenged us,
          imagining that there’s no heaven, and above us only sky?
Certainly, in our modern, scientific, post-enlightenment worldview
          it becomes very hard to sustain the notion
          that heaven is in some way ‘up there’.
We don’t have a cosmology that thinks heaven is ‘up’ and hell is ‘below’,
          because we know that the fires that erupt from below
                   are a function of the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates
                   and not the breaking through of the fires of eternal torment.
Similarly we know that the sky above us
          is peopled by stars and galaxies held in place by gravitational forces,
          rather than by spirits of bright light that might be angels or even gods
                   looking down on us from on high.
So, what are we to make of a passage like today’s reading from Acts,
          where we are told quite clearly that Jesus,
                   recently returned from his journey to the hellish depths of the earth,
          is now lifted up on a cloud into heaven.
What are we to make of the promise that he will return
          in the same way that he went?
And, if we think for a moment of our Old Testament reading from Genesis,
          what are we to make of Jacob’s vision
                   of a ladder stretching from the earth to the heavens
                   with angels ascending and descending upon it?
Well, firstly perhaps, I ought to clarify what I think we should NOT make of it:
          This is not an invitation for Bible-believing Christians
                   to re-write their science text-books
                   in favour of a first century understanding of the cosmos,
          any more than the creation and flood narratives from earlier in Genesis
                   are an invitation for us to reject the insights of science
                   regarding the age of the earth
                   or the origin of species.
So, was there a ladder from heaven to earth?
          No, I don’t think there was.
                   It was a vision, a dream,
                             that revealed something of profound truth to Jacob.
                   But it was never a historical reality.
And I suggest a similar approach to the story of Jesus’ ascension.
Did he historically ascend on a cloud at the end of his earthly life?
          I suspect not.
And to try and make it so it to rather miss the point.
This is not a story about what happened to Jesus’ body.
          It’s a story about heaven and earth.
So, to return to the question of where, or what, is heaven?
          If it is not, literally, ‘up there’,
                    then where the hell is it?
Tom Wright describes heaven as ‘God’s space’,
          a bit like an extra dimension to the world as we normally encounter it.
It’s the world as it should be,
          the world as it might be, the world as it sometimes can be;
          and maybe, just maybe, it is the world as it one day will be.
We catch glimpses of God’s space all the time,
          if we teach our eyes and minds to pay sufficient attention.
From the beauty of a sunset over the sea,
          to the miracle of a baby’s first cry,
          to the selfless act of generosity and kindness,
          to the sacramental spaces of baptism and communion.
There are moments in life when the boundary between here and there
                   becomes transparent enough
          to let the glory and peace and joy of God’s space
          break into the complex and conflicted world of this present darkness.
In fact, we pray these moments into being every time we speak the words
          of the Lord’s prayer:
Your kingdom come, your will be done,
          on earth, as it is in heaven.
We speak aloud our longing for, and commitment to,
          the idea of God’s space invading our space,
          in ways that transform and redeem the present,
                   turning despair into hope,
                   loss into comfort,
                   and sin into salvation.
Christian orthodoxy is not that heaven is ‘up there’,
          or indeed that Hell is ‘down there’.
Rather, we believe that there is a new world coming,
          and that it is breaking in upon this world.
It is in the light of this conviction
          that we need to hear the story of the ascension,
if we are not to miss the true point of the story.
The ascension of Jesus is the ultimate ‘touching place’
          of heaven and earth.
That which Jacob saw in a dream,
          becomes fully realized in the person of Jesus,
          in whom the boundary between our space and God’s space is transcended.
In Jesus, the God of heaven becomes present to us,
          just as we are brought near to the one
          who would otherwise be absent from us.
In the life and ministry of the earthly Jesus,
          we encounter God with us,
          walking and talking, and laughing and crying,
          and living and dying with us.
In the resurrection of Jesus,
          we encounter God defeating the power of death,
          and releasing us from the tyranny of the grave
          that otherwise haunts our waking moments
          and keeps us from being most fully alive.
In the ascension of Jesus,
          we encounter God eternally embracing humanity
          in all our fallenness and brokenness,
          as the Messiah, still bearing in his body the marks of the crucifixion,
                   is embraced by heaven.
The earthly Jesus is the resurrected Jesus, is the ascended Jesus.
          In Jesus, earth and heaven meet.
One of the early heresies about Jesus,
          which still carries a lot of traction to this day, even among Christians,
was that Jesus has three phases, or stages, of existence.
I call this the caterpillar heresy,
          because a caterpillar has three stages of existence:
                   Caterpillar, Chrysalis, Butterfly.
And, as anyone who has read The Very Hungry Caterpillar knows,
          the first two stages are just something to get through
          on the way to the true final form of the glorious butterfly.
Well, I want to suggest that it is an error
          to try and impose a caterpillar understanding of existence onto Jesus;
          and yet I observe many people trying to do so.
There heresy runs like this:
          First Stage; divine logos, agent of creation,
                   eternal disembodied word of God.
          Second Stage; incarnation, earthly Jesus,
                   born of a virgin, baptized, buried, and died.
          Third Stage; Resurrected and ascended Christ,
                   with mystically transformed body
                   able to enter locked rooms
                   and fly on clouds to return to the heaven from which he came.
Well, the ascension story helps us gain another perspective on this,
          because the Jesus who opens the boundary,
                    between God’s space and our space,
          is the human Jesus.
It is Jesus the man who opens the gates of heaven,
          and brings the transforming love of God to bear on the earth.
And just as the kingdom comes on earth, as it is in heaven;
          so also those of us on the earth are redeemed to heaven
with our earthly bodies as much a part of our experience of salvation
          as Jesus’ scarred and broken body was a part of his ascension.
Here’s the thing I’m trying to say:
          Heaven is not about where we go at the end of this life,
          and it was not where Jesus ‘went’ at the end of his life.
Rather, heaven is the alternative reality that breaks into this life,
          and in that Godly reality, Jesus is Lord of all things;
and so it is Jesus who brings the two realities together
          as God’s space and our space touch.
The ascension isn’t about where Jesus has gone,
          rather it is about how Jesus opens the doorway to God’s space
          in the midst of human time and history.
The ascension is about the true and lasting value of being human.
This life is not a stage we are passing through,
          on our way to somewhere else.
Rather it is the reality, within which
          salvation is wrought and redemption received,
          through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And so those who follow Jesus through his life, death and resurrection,
          become those who are sent to the whole earth,
commissioned by the Spirit to bring to all
          the good news of reconciliation between heaven and earth.
We are those who learn to say, with Jacob,
          ‘Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!’
We are those who learn to see the possibilities of heaven
          in the midst of the ordinary.
We are those who learn to proclaim the alternative reality of God’s space,
          and to live that reality into being in our lives and in our world.
Heaven is not where we go to escape this life,
          it is this life redeemed.
As Rob Bell memorably put it in his book Love Wins,
          ‘Here is the new there’.
He says that,
Taking heaven seriously ... means taking suffering seriously, now.
          Not because we’ve bought into the myth
                   that we can create a utopia given enough time,
                   technology, and good voting choices,
          but because we have great confidence
                   that God has not abandoned human history
                   and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere. [1]
The task of the Christian is to drag the future into the present,
          it is to pursue the life of heaven in the here-and-now.
What does this look like? Well, Rob Bell gives a list, to get us started
          and suggests that signs of the coming kingdom might include:
·        Honest business,
·        redemptive art,
·        honourable law,
·        sustainable living,
·        medicine,
·        education,
·        making a home,
·        tending a garden.
These, he says, and so much more,
          are ‘sacred tasks, to be done in partnership with God now’ [2]
because they represent God’s space breaking into our space.
They are heaven coming to the earth.
You see, what we believe about the future
          shapes the way we behave here-and-now.
If we believe that we’re departing this doomed planet,
          to ride up to heaven on cloud to be with Jesus in the sky,
then why should we care
          about the world of the here-and-now?
And worryingly there are many Christians who believe just this,
          and are holding on for a better day,
ignoring the reality of the climate crisis
          and failing to work for peace and justice,
because they believe that all they need to do
          is keep themselves pure until Jesus returns to sort it all out.
But the ascension of Jesus challenges us to see it differently,
          and having thus seen, so to live differently.
If God’s space is coming to our space,
          then we have our own part to play in seeing that kingdom come.
This has to make a different to the way we live,
          it has to affect our discipleship,
          it has to challenge our relationship to our possessions,
          it has to challenge our relationship to our neighbours,
          it has to challenge the decisions we make and the ideologies we live by.
Because if it doesn’t
          then we deny in our lives the miracle of the ascension,
and we tear heaven from the earth,
          and consign God’s space to somewhere else.
I’m going to close with a parable told by Pete Rollins:
Just as it was written by those prophets of old,
          the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain.
In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the Earth
          with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake.
During this great tribulation the Earth was scorched with the fires of war,
          rivers ran red with blood,
                   the soil withheld its fruit
                   and disease descended like a mist.
One by one all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.
Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm,
          God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart.
An ominous silence had descended upon heaven
          as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged
                   into darkness and despair.
But this could only continue for so long
          for, at the designated time, God stood upright,
          breathed deeply and addressed the angels,
“The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats,
          the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff”
Having spoken these words
          God slowly turned to face the world
          and called forth to the church with a booming voice,
“Rise up and ascend to heaven
          all of you who have who have sought to escape
          the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing.
Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world
          by calling out ‘Lord, Lord'”.
In an instant millions where caught up in the clouds
          and ascended into the heavenly realm.
          Leaving the suffering world behind them.
Once this great rapture had taken place
          God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying,
“It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit
          from those who have turned from me.
It is time now for us leave this place
          and take up residence in the Earth,
          for it is there that we shall find our people.
The ones who would forsake heaven
          in order to embrace the earth.
The few who would turn away from eternity itself
          to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life
          that passes from existence in but an instant.”
And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place
          to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the earth.
Quietly supporting the ones who had forsaken God for the world
          and thus who bore the mark God.
The few who had discovered heaven
          in the very act of forsaking it. [3]

[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins, p.45.
[2] Love Wins, p.46
[3] http://peterrollins.net/2011/05/left-behind/


Veronica Zundel said...

Very interesting, especially the Pete Rollins parable. I think the mirror image of the Ascension is the biblical idea that Jesus 'appeared' in his incarnation. The Bible doesn't seem to use the language that we so often use, of his 'coming down' to us - rather, it uses the language of 'appearing'. In this understanding, you could say that in the Ascension he 'disappeared' - but only to our sight. He is still present among us but just harder to see. One day he will 'appear' again - not from another place, but from amongst us, and say 'Didn't you know? I was here all the time'.

ColinWaldock said...

Yes, yes and yes. I love the works of Tom Wright, who I developed into after reading Nick Page's The Wrong Messiah. I particularly liked your ending with the Pete Rollins poem which presents perhaps the ultimate version of a "topsy turvy" kingdom. There remain of course very hard questions, that I suspect reside only in hanging on to God/Jesus by his coat-tails - the kind of faith I find I tend to have. A literal hanging on in there type. e.g if heaven and earth are part of the same Kingdom and dependent on perspective, then what really does happen when people die? Is Jesus saying - forget about it, don't fret, leave that to me, and who knows? I have a suspicion that having experienced what I believe to be the presence of God whilst being alive, then being dead will not be much different. So in the words of the Christmas Angels - Don't be afraid. This of course challenges us to live out a life that allows the incursion of the Kingdom of Heaven with each and every action that we make.