Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Living Part of Their Lives in the Sky

"...two men dressed in white stood beside them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”"( Acts 1:10-11) 

 Francis Pryor, in his autobiographical book centered on the Fens: "I owe a great deal to John Clare. He opened my eyes to the subtle yet enduring beauty, not just of the fenland landscape but of ‘the vaulted sky’ above. It’s a world whose inhabitants aren’t confined within surrounding hills and valleys – because there aren’t any. So they do indeed live part of their lives as it were in the sky."
Mural of the Ascension

Which I find interesting, as one who grew up in the relatively hilly land of the eastern Chilterns. In the big river valleys of the East Midlands: the Great Ouse, the Nene (pronounced Nen), and the Welland, before they hit the fens, the villages tend to be on the top of the hills, as that keeps them safe from floods. And so not for nothing is Cold Ashby in Northamptonshire so called - it's on top of a hill. In the Chilterns, the villages and towns tend to be in the valleys, as they are less concerned about flooding, what with the chalk.

So people of the Chilterns don't look at the sky so much - a lot of it is hidden from view by the Downs. If you want to get a good view of the sky, you have to climb up a hill. Which is what the disciples and Jesus do on the day of the Ascension: Jerusalem being a hilly place, they go up to the Mount of Olives. Which in those days was relatively quiet - a little way out of Jerusalem. Where they get a good view of the sky.

The Mount of Olives was - and is - a place of burial for devout Jews. Most famously in our time, before the state of his Pension Fund was discovered, of Robert Maxwell. So maybe in a way the Ascension from the Mount is saying that Jesus has conquered death. After all, all the best people, the cream of dead society, are buried there on the posh cemetry hill. But Jesus, the man executed as a criminal and buried in a borrowed tomb, is the first person back out. The last, after all, will be the first in the Kingdon.

And so Jesus leaves, exit stage up. And the disciples, up there on the Mount of Olives, stand gawping into the sky and presumably expecting him to come back down again.

And Luke mentions, in his matter of fact way, that there are two men dressed in white. Now, don't let the literalism of the modern critics distract you here. These aren't 1st century cricketers, looking up and wondering whether they'll have a bit of decent movement in the air. They're angels, sure enough. Angels are God's messengers. And they have a very specific message for the disciples. Stop gawping into the sky.

Remember Peter at the Transfiguration. Wanting to build tents on the mountain so Jesus, Moses and Elijah will stick around with him there. Wanting to hold that moment. But Jesus stops being dazzling while, and they go back down the mountain, and head for Jerusalem. And now here they are on a mountain again. And the disciples were hoping that Jesus was going to restore the kingdom of Israel. And maybe they thought the Ascension was just one more miracle on the way. But the angels say, he ain't coming back just yet.

Jesus, the disciples are told, will return the way he came. Do the angels mean he'll come back to the Mount of Olives? Will the resurrection start there? Is that where our Lord will be seen again, as it may or may not say in Zechariah 14? Or do they mean simply that Jesus will return in glory? 

Either way, the message for now is clear. As John Stott puts it, "their calling was to be witnesses not stargazers." In effect, do what Jesus said. Get back to Jerusalem, pray for the Holy Spirit. And get out in his power, to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. Don't just stand there watching the sky. Because he's not coming back today, whenever he does come back. Not that we can't look to the skies to see God's glory. Just don't waste your time watching for his return.

In fact, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus is busy. Our High Priest, our God and our fellow-human, is in heaven, knowing how weak we are and how much we need God's help and praying for us and putting forward our defence. Our defence being that he is one of us.That's how special it is to be a human being now - there is one in heaven, with holes in his hands and side and feet, saying he knows we did this to him, but he forgives us so why shouldn't his Father?

And so the Ascension sets the pattern for how we should be Church. Pray for the blessing of the Spirit. Receive the Spirit. Get out in the power of the Spirit. Love each other, care for the poor, preach the Gospel. Do it all in the power of the Spirit. Do it knowing that Jesus is representing us to the Father. And, however much we should look at them to praise God's glory. There's no point in looking - he'll come when he's ready.

 * Mural of the Ascension, Chapel of the Holy Name, All Hallows Wellingborough. By Hans Feibusch

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