Ascension | Luke 24:44-53
In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the title character says, “Faith takes practice.” At that moment, Owen is talking about a man of his extremely small stature making a slam dunk on the basketball court. He is also talking about a view of life.
On Sunday the Christian world celebrates the Ascension of the Lord. Well, those Christians who pay attention to the liturgical calendar will. Most Baptists, for example, will not even know why they are hearing the passages from Luke and Acts describing Jesus being taken up into heaven on a cloud.
It may be just as well. The story is good and meaningful, but have you ever stopped to listen to church folk talking about it?
To a first century audience it was wonderful imagery, powerful and full of hope. We get the symbolism of it today, but there are some problems if we are going to offer the gospel to a modern world.
Here’s one: do we really think that heaven is in the sky? Do we really mean to say that heaven is “up there” just beyond the clouds, somewhere that jet airplanes and satellites and NASA scientists seem not to find? Do we really mean to say that Jesus rode a cloud into the sky?
Maybe not, but go take a seat in almost any church this Sunday where people are talking about this passage, and listen for a while. Odds are good you’ll walk out thinking Christians believe heaven is ‘up’ and that Jesus rode a cloud into the sky.
Consider another example. Most of the people in that first century audience had vague ideas about the shape of the earth. Some of them knew that the world was a sphere, but others still held onto the comforting notion that it was flat. All of them could hear the creation stories of Genesis and understand them. They understood that these are God-stories. Science deals with things that are true, God-stories deal with truth about God.
There is a difference.
I could count the paper money in my wallet and tell you how much I have. (It would not take long.) What I told you would be true, but it would not be truth, the kind that lasts and that has meaning for our lives. The dollar amount I count would be a fact; that these paper dollars have any actual trade value in the marketplace is more of a matter of faith.
Did Jesus ride up into the sky in a cloud? Maybe. I don’t know. That is what the story says, but it could be simply trying to convey the truth that Jesus went away, in a way that made it a God-thing. Mysterious. Hard to grasp. Passing all around us. Like a cloud.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how Jesus left. It doesn’t even matter where he went. The gospel message is that, in some God-way, God is always present in the world. Up or down, in or out, seen or unseen.
Maybe heaven is a time instead of a place—heaven is when we get there. And it won’t matter where ‘there’ is. What will matter is what we have become.
Faith is participating in that journey to somewhere. Practice is how we get there. If faith is a bicycle made by God, the pedals are called practice.