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'As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."' (Acts 1)
There are many questions that this story of the ascension raises for us, from the practical to the sublime. At a practical level, what on earth is going on with the cloud and Jesus going up to heaven? Is that a thing? And who are the men in white robes? It’s all rather weird and, dare I say it, all rather improbable?
It potentially gets a bit less weird when we realise that what is going on here is that the author of Acts is writing in the genre of Jewish apocalyptic, a type of literature where it was quite common for stories to be told of people ascending into heaven, either ‘in the flesh’ or ‘in the spirit’. And it’s not just the Book of Revelation; even St Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians of his experience of having ascended in to the heavens:
‘I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven-- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know’. (2 Cor. 12.2)
So what’s going on and what, on this Ascension day, can we take from this strange story?
Well, firstly, it speaks to us of the need to remember to lift our eyes above the horizon of our own limited perspective. One of the great gifts that the apocalyptic tradition gives is that it suggests that there is more than one way of looking at things, and that God doesn’t see things the same way that we do. We may thing we’re engaged in the mundane, ordinary responsibilities of our lives, but actually we’re participating in the glorious eternal purposes of God’s kingdom coming to the earth. It’s all a question of how you look at things.
But secondly, the two angelic beings in white robes remind us to keep our eyes fixed firmly on the task at hand. We’ve all met Christians who are too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use, and sometimes we just have to get on with things, and fulfil our duty, as Jesus comes again and again to our world, breaking into our reality, to bring transcendence to our ordinary.
And keeping these two in tension - the sacred and the secular - the divine and the profane - is the task of our discipleship, and it is the task before us in the actions of each day. We may do ordinary things, but they will be done extraordinarily.
God of all time and all space, God of here and now, we ask that by your Sprit you will lift our eyes to the heavens and remind us of our calling to be your people. Inspire our thoughts and words, forgive our shortcomings, and teach us to love one another. And as we fix our eyes on the things of this world, may we do so with diligence and care, in the assurance that here-and-now matters to you. Amen.