Up, Up, & (Not So Far) Away
A few years ago, I was at a church with a basketball ministry. The church is in a suburban neighborhood that used to be affluent but is now in transition. In the past, it was the kind of neighborhood where teenagers were always either occupied or supervised. Through the years, it became the kind of neighborhood where teenagers were on the loose, looking for something to do.
There was a basketball goal off to the side of the church parking lot and the teenagers would gather there. The sport was secondary to the socializing, but it was essential to it as well. Teens were drawn to the basketball goals as a free activity, but they stayed because there were other teenagers there to spend time with.
The church realized this was an incredible ministry opportunity. Most of the teenagers weren’t church goers. They didn’t have anyone in their life talking to them about God. And most of them had an emptiness inside they were looking to fill. The church had the opportunity to help them fill it with the kind of self-worth and love that only God can provide.
Imagine it! Twenty or more young people bringing themselves to the church campus, willing to hear about God in exchange for having a place to socialize. It was fantastic!
One of the young men who came through that ministry asked what I thought was an especially great question.
He hemmed and hawed about asking it. He wondered if he could trust us, or if he might be ridiculed for asking a question that was too basic.
Finally, he worked up the courage to ask. “Tell me something, if God is up there,” he asked while pointing to the sky, “why do we look down when we pray? If we look towards hell, aren’t we doing it wrong?”
What a great question!
In this young man’s limited exposure to theology, he had learned that God was removed, up in heaven. Given that God was up there in the clouds, he couldn’t understand why we would turn our faces to hell to pray.
Of course, the leader of the basketball ministry didn’t ridicule his question. He explained that we bow our heads as a sign of reverence and a sign of submission. He assured the young man that God hears our words (and our heart) just fine, even though our faces are turned toward the ground.
Every year, forty days after Easter, Christians celebrate the Ascension of Christ—his return to heaven.
The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus “withdrew from [the disciples] and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). In Ephesians, we read that God the Father “seated [Jesus] at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:20).
In Acts, we read “Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of sight” (Acts 1:9). Why a cloud? Because in the Bible, a cloud signals the presence of God. In the Old Testament, when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, waiting for the time to come when they could enter the Promised Land, they followed the very presence of God in the form of a pillar of cloud. (Exodus 33:9; Numbers 9:17-23)
Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight because Jesus was gathered into the eternal presence of God.
This is so integral to Christianity that we say in the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus “ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
That kind of makes it seem like we know of a specific place where Jesus is, doesn’t it? It sort of sounds like we should be able to punch the coordinates into our GPS and have it direct us to just the right spot.
Like many things in the Bible, we lose something when we forget this is a metaphorical explanation for where Jesus is and how he got there.
I think it’s especially easy to lose sight of the metaphorical significance of the Ascension because, on some level, we think like the young man who came through the basketball ministry. We tend to have a hamburger understanding of the everything: there’s a top bun (heaven), a middle patty (earth), and a bottom bun (hell).
When we say that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, it sounds like we mean a literal place. But actually, these are metaphors.
What we’re really saying is simply this: Jesus is in his rightful place.
As one of my favorite thinkers explains it: “In the ascension Jesus moved from the time-bound to the timeless, from spatial limitation to unlimited availability.”
The eternal King of everything is available to us here and now because he ascended! Jesus went up, up, and not so far away.
What do you think? Do you have a hamburger understanding of the everything? When you think of the Ascension, where do you picture Jesus going? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
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