Today is Mother’s Day. For some, it’s a day of celebration; but for many, it’s a day of absence. A day of remembering who has died, perhaps. A day of grieving what we never had because our own mothers were damaged, disappointing, and difficult. A day of thinking about the children we could not have, or the children we still long for. For those of us who find Mother’s Day painful, the hype and the sentiment can be a bit unbearable. So we come to church for comfort but, because we follow the lectionary, we get this weird story: One minute, Jesus is teaching his disciples; the next, he’s floating into the clouds and the last thing we see is a flash of his ankles. Is Jesus like Superman, flying up, up, and away? And is that where our mothers and all our loved ones who have died are now? Floating in the clouds? And what on earth do we do with our grief, for all that was, and is, and might never be?
To answer these questions, we probably need to talk about heaven. If we think of heaven as ‘up’, and earth as ‘down’, then this story is a bit useless. So let’s get one thing straight: Heaven is not ‘up’. It is not a physical place in the sky that we will zoom to one day like little rocket ships. It’s better thought of as another reality. Earth is our reality. Heaven is God’s reality. But what do I mean by that?
There are multiple ways of looking at or experiencing the same thing. For example, think of a good book. You could think of our reality as like a physical book. It has weight, and a smell, and a shape. It has pages you can turn, and squiggles on the page. If you can read, then the squiggles turn into words; and those words on the page are a physical reality.
But then you start to really read. And if the story is good, then you become absorbed. You forget about the physical reality of the book. Your eyes are scanning the words, your hands are turning the pages, but it’s all happening automatically. The book becomes invisible, and you live in the reality of the story, instead. Time changes, as minutes fly by like seconds. Your perspective on the world changes, as your brain adapts to the reality you’re experiencing through the dance of text and imagination; and you emerge from the story blinking, the same person, but different.
You see how one thing, a good book, has at least two realities? There’s the physical book itself, and then there’s the experience of the story which can change you from the inside out.
This is like our reality and God’s reality which, not coincidentally, is written about in a good book. We can go to school and work; we can eat dinner, and tidy our rooms, and talk, and play; and in all this, we can be aware only of our own reality. Or we can learn to notice God’s reality, too, which is humming along like an undercurrent in everything we see and do. And if we are really lucky, every now and then God’s reality erupts into ours in such a way that we are forced to take notice; and we emerge from the experience blinking, the same person, but different.
The Ascension is a dramatic example of God’s reality erupting into ours. Jesus was walking along in our reality, talking with his disciples. Then he disappeared into a cloud. Now, we know another story about a cloud. A pillar of cloud stood between the Israelites and the Egyptians: and that cloud was the presence of God. So that tells us that Jesus hasn’t floated up to sit on fluffy white clouds. Instead, he has gone into God’s presence. Then two messengers appear to the disciples and make this plain. They say that Jesus has been taken into heaven, which is God’s reality.
Ever since the resurrection, Jesus has been moving between the two realities: from ours to God’s and back again. He walked with disciples on the road to Emmaus; but, just as they recognised him, he disappeared. He appeared to disciples in a locked room; and then, again, he returned to God’s reality. In tonight’s story, he talked with the disciples, then shifted into God’s reality once more. Jesus was the person who lived fully in both realities, although he gave his disciples plenty of glimpses of God’s reality.
As Christians we believe that, at the end of time, the dead will be raised up into God’s realm; and then we will be reunited with the people we love, and all our conflicts, longings, disappointments and griefs will be reconciled. But to think that the end of time means the end of the physical universe is to stay stuck in our reality. Just as God’s reality is not our reality, God’s time is not our time. All those who have died are already in God’s realm, that mysterious reality that shimmers in every nook and cranny of our reality here on earth. We get glimpses of it: through the stories in the scriptures; through the stories we tell each other; through the experiences we have in worship, over the table, and in prayer; and with our companions on the road of life. And in that reality—God’s realm—our loved ones are fully alive, and have been made whole.
Of course we still grieve absence, whether it’s the absence of someone’s physical presence, or the absence of good relationship. But even while we’re grieving, as people who seek to live God’s reality, Jesus has given us a job to do. Like the first disciples, and like every disciple since, we are to gather and to pray: for together we form the body of Christ. And then we are to witness to the incredible but very real truth: that in God’s reality, love crosses every divide, even the chasm of death. And we witness to this when we minister to each other, comfort one another, bear one another’s burdens, and wipe each other’s tears away; for when we do these things, we ourselves become a glimpse of God’s good reality: a taste of heaven, right here on earth. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Acts 1:6-10 given to Sanctuary on 13 May 2018 (Mothers Day, Ascension) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image shows Ascension, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN, found here [retrieved May 12, 2018]. Original source here.