Last sermon at Ascension! Boo hoo. But we have some very appropriate readings for the occasion, with lots of ascension happening, up and down these stairways to heaven.
Stairways to heaven are a very foundational idea in Jewish and Christian thinking- heaven and earth are two dimensions of the same reality, and they are linked together. This understanding runs right through our scriptures, starting in Genesis where the heavens and the earth are created as God’s temple, and humans are placed into this temple as the ‘image’ of God. Heaven and earth are created to be interlinked and continuous- God comes and goes freely between them both, and the humans who are made in God’s image don’t seem to know that there’s any distinction to be made.
That all changes when they get kicked out of the garden, out of God’s presence, and life on earth suddenly seems far less heavenly. Then things go from bad to worse- Genesis 3-6 murder of Abel, Tower of Babel, the flood- as humans either forget the divine image that they bear, or they deliberately turn away from it. And so God invites Abraham and Sarah and their family to reclaim the divine image and offer it to the world. That was never going to be an easy calling, as their family name suggested- the patriarch Jacob was renamed Israel- wrestles with God- and that set the tone for the story of Israel and humanity- heaven and earth are more at odds that at ease. Not so easily continuous anymore.
And so it’s a very hopeful thing that Jacob- Israel- has this dream about a ladder which connects heaven and earth, as the messengers of God ascend and descend. He calls the place Beth El, the house of God. And that’s exactly how the Israelites understood the Jerusalem temple when it came along- the house of God- this was the place where heaven and earth overlapped, the temple was a little piece of heaven here on earth.
Jesus was also convinced that heaven and earth are connected and interlocked, but he had something new and special to say about that idea. He describes the messengers of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, so the place where heaven and earth overlap isn’t a place or a temple anymore, it’s a person- the person of Jesus.
Jesus went around doing the things that the temple was there for. He forgave sins, he healed people and restored them into the community, he taught the Torah and its application on his own authority. He told people that he was the true way to God. He was acting as though HE was the place where heaven and earth overlap. HE was now God’s address on earth- if you want to be in God’s presence, don’t go to the temple, come hang out with Jesus.
And that makes the resurrection and Ascension of Jesus very interesting, especially for us lot who call ourselves the church of the Ascension. Jesus ascends into heaven, and once again there’s a being who can move freely between heaven and earth, and is completely at home in both dimensions of reality. Just like God and Adam and Eve at the beginning of Genesis- in Jesus, divinity and humanity have been reunified, heaven and earth have been reunified.
That suggests, that we should be able to see or sense heaven in the world around us. Barbara Brown Taylor talks about being a ‘detective of divinity’- she goes around ‘collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks that God has left for her to follow.’ She says our earth is shot through with heaven, and there are pointers all over the place- in the beauty of nature, in the creativity of art, in the discoveries and mysteries of science, in the longings of our hearts, for love, for justice- all of these things are little bits of heaven breaking into our earthly life.
That’s exactly the idea behind a ‘sacrament’ – a little bit of heaven that has broken into life here and now. The Eucharist is one that we share every week – but if we’re being detectives of divinity, surely we should be looking out everywhere for sacraments- for bits of heaven…
The Sacrament of a joke, the funniest story
The Sacrament of tears in your eyes
The Sacrament of a meal, slowly cooking,
The Sacrament of a round glass of wine
The Sacrament of a child’s first, wide-eyed, steps
The Sacrament of all that trust in you
The Sacrament of bass, drum, guitar
The Sacrament connected to the… hip bone
The Sacrament of being there, right place, right time
The Sacrament of a listening ear
The Sacrament of the novel you can’t put down
The Sacrament of the poem with no rhyme
The Sacrament of starlings, in V-formation
The Sacrament of eye-contact (with a dog)
The Sacrament of a lie-in, the long weekend
The Sacrament of getting paid or getting laid
The Sacrament of your sweet lips on mine
The Sacrament of You and Me
The Sacrament friendship, rough and smooth
The Sacrament of the days, the months, the years
The Sacrament of questions with no answers
The Sacrament of silence. Enough said
The Sacrament of a life baptised by love
The Sacrament of the divine
In bread and wine.
(Sacrament – Martin Wroe)
As we turn to the Eucharist, there’s a brilliant prayer of preparation: By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, who humbled himself to share our humanity.
And that’s a mind-blowing hint that we can be detectives of divinity, but really Jesus invites us to be AGENTS of it. To share in the life of heaven and make it happen in the world around us. And isn’t that an awesome and humbling thing. As we follow in the way of Jesus, WE are the places where heaven and earth meet. Where God’s good will is done, on earth as in heaven. And isn’t that exactly what our world needs, with all its relentless bad news…
The glory of God is a human being fully alive, and full life consists in beholding God. Let’s go ‘behold’ the hints of heaven that are everywhere around us, and then let’s go live the life of heaven and spread it everywhere we go. Let’s go be the church of the Ascension!