There are two types of people in the world, they say – those who think there are two types of people in the world and those that don’t. Or, as Woody Allen put it, “There are two types of people in this world, good and bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy their waking hours much more. Or here’s one for the mathematicians among us – and only the mathematicians are likely to get it. There are ten types of people in the world, those who understand the binary system and those who don’t. If that one passed you by here’s one for those not into maths. There are three types of people in the world: those who can count and those who can’t…
You get the idea. Human beings love to sort things out into categories. In fact it’s one of the first things we learn to do. That’s why small children put everything in their mouths – they are finding out what is food and what isn’t. They usually manage to spot the difference pretty quickly, though they may have to chew a few worms and slugs on the way!
Sorting things out is a skill we developed early in our evolution. As well as sorting the edible from the inedible we needed to know the difference between animals we could catch and eat and those who might catch and eat us, and between members of our own tribe and members of rival tribes who might be a threat. We can’t get away from it, sorting things into categories is deeply woven into our make-up. But sometimes we are just too efficient about it for our own good. We can get so obsessed by working out which box to put something into that we forget to ask whether it really needs to be sorted out at all, and whether we might be doing more harm than good by our tidy minded instincts.
In a sense the idea of Jesus' ascension into heaven can fall into this tendency to sort things out and put things in their place. At the time of Jesus most people saw the world as a sort of spherical bubble. The middle layer was the earth, the ground they stood on. Above them was the dome of the sky like a roof, and above that somewhere was heaven, with God on his sapphire throne. Below them was the shadowy underworld. Up was good, down was bad – the universe was sorted out neatly, with everything safely in its place. There was some traffic between heaven and earth. Angels came and went from one to the other. There were even stories told of a few especially favoured people in the Hebrew Scriptures like Enoch and Elijah who were scooped up into heaven. But for most people, earth was where they were and where they stayed, and when they died they went down into that dark world below. Some Jewish groups believed that one day there would be a resurrection, but it was a bodily resurrection to live in a new kingdom on earth, healed and recreated by God. Earth was earth and heaven was heaven and hardly ever did they meet.
The story of Jesus' ascension is told in the context of this understanding of the world. The Bible writers describe Jesus slipping out of the physical sight of his disciples to return to his Father’s side, with him going up into the sky. It worked for them perhaps, but it can sound very strange to us. Certainly artists seem to me to struggle to depict it. One of the stained glass windows in our church is a picture of the Ascension. Jesus hovers just off the ground, the disciples looking up at him ascending.
This account of how Jesus came to vanish from our physical sight leaves modern people with as many problems as it solves. The first is obvious. Heaven isn’t “up there” – we’ve been “up there” so we know that. But there’s another problem, which I think has more far-reaching effects. Once we start thinking of heaven as a place which is “up there” or “out there” it is a short step to thinking that wherever it is a long way away from here, where we are, and absolutely distinct from this world – it is that old sorting instinct again. Before we know where we are we are giving the impression that there are two types of places in the universe – heaven, where God is, and earth, where he is not. Many people end up feeling, as a result that heaven and God are immeasurably distant from their everyday lives. Not only is this not helpful, it isn't true to what Jesus’ taught either.
Far from heaven being a distant, unreachable realm, Jesus describes it consistently as being here and now. The kingdom of heaven is within you, he says, or amongst you. It is at hand – so close you can reach out and touch it. Before he leaves them Jesus tells his followers that although they won’t be able to see him he will soon, through his Spirit, be present with them in a new way – not tied to one time and place but always and everywhere. He’ll be there in the shape of those who need help - “what you did for the least of your brothers and sisters you did for me”. He’ll be there in every act of giving and receiving love. He’ll be there filling their hearts with confidence and comfort and a peace that they can’t explain.
Take out the rather strange imagery of clouds and distant heavens and Jesus' ascension tells the same story as his incarnation. When Jesus was born, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Heaven and earth meet in him, They are drawn together into one unbroken and unbreakable whole and they are not parted when he returns to his Father. Jesus’ ascension isn’t a message to us that he has gone far from us into a separate realm, leaving the things of earth far behind him, but rather that he has destroyed the barrier between earth and heaven, between God and humanity. Instead of sorting things out and dividing things up, he gathers them all together in himself.
Throughout his ministry he has been doing this, breaking down barriers and mixing up our neat boundaries, warning us that our obsession with sorting things out can end up doing more harm than good. He tells a parable, for example, about a farmer whose field has been sown with a mixture of wheat and weeds. His servants are all for pulling up the weeds as soon as they spot them, but the farmer urges patience. There’s no way of separating the good and bad plants without destroying the good along with the bad; they look too much alike.
Solzhenitsyn, who knew the effects of evil at first hand in the Soviet Union nevertheless said in the Gulag Archipelago, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” In the wickedest people there can be glimmers of kindness; even a saint will have their failings. You can’t root out evil by rooting out people – you’ll destroy the good in people along with the bad in them, and we’re all a mixture.
In many other ways during his ministry Jesus urges us to resist the temptation to categorise, divide and condemn. It may be the hated Samaritan who turns out to be your true neighbour, he says, or the apparently good-for-nothing son, the black sheep of the family, who is the source of the greatest rejoicing in the end. The poor, the sick, the disabled, the sinner, these are the people in whom you see God’s presence. The cross, a shameful instrument of death, is the place where God’s glory is seen most powerfully. The last shall be first and the first, last. The world is turned upside down, the categories you have divided it into are blurred, the barriers broken. What is Jesus’ prayer for his followers in the Gospel? It is that “they may be one, as we are one”.
The earliest Christian communities were distinctive because they WERE communities, coming together and sticking together despite their profound differences. Being one, as we all know, is not easy. It means choosing to live in the knowledge that all people ARE your brothers and sisters, people who you can’t isolate yourself from, even if you want to, rather than forming cliques and trying to ignore or deny the existence of those who differ from you.
Jesus' ascension, though it can seem so strange and inaccessible a story to us, is a vital part of Christian faith, and we need to rediscover it and reclaim it for our age. The barriers that separate us from God, and heaven from earth, had been broken as have those which separate Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, friend and enemy.
So enjoy the imagery – the clouds, the sapphire thrones, but be aware too of the limitations of this picture language, because the heaven that God really wants us to discover is the love that binds us to God and to one another. Amen.