Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from Luke the 24th Chapter. It’s the tale of Jesus and the Disciples saying their final goodbyes to each other as Jesus sought to leave the disciples with a word of promise, right before Jesus ascended out of the Disciples sight to never be seen in the flesh by them again. Crucifixion then Resurrection then Ascension, we spend almost all of Lent getting ready for the Crucifixion, we then spend almost all of Spring then celebrating Easter, whereas the Ascension of Jesus is the least talked about of these three big events. This morning’s sermon is the first that I have ever given on the Ascension. If Easter is the day where Christ achieved his victory over sin and the grave, then the Festival of Ascension is the day where Christ returned to his throne.
Ascension Sunday raises an interesting question for us of “Where exactly Jesus went when he left the Earth?” The Common way of thinking of the world even amongst Christian people has been the three-tiered universe which we could also know as the three-tiered planet.
Heaven is up above us. Popular culture often portrays Heaven as existing up in the clouds. Heaven is the place where your loved ones even the rascals go when they die.
Down below us underneath the ground is Hell or the Underworld, Hell is where apparently Satan pokes and prods people that have been naughty. Hell is where your neighbor who doesn’t clean up after his dog, and makes a lot of noises late at night or early in the morning tends to end up. Hell is the domain of people we don’t like.
Right in between this is all is where we live in the here and the now. Heaven, Hell, and Planet Earth all contained between the North and South Pole is the traditional understanding of the three-tiered universe.
The question for this morning would be “Is this understanding, right?”
When Jesus is proclaiming his message of salvation to the people of Capernaum in Matthew 11 he says the following: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to Heaven? You will be brought down to Hades.”
When Jesus speaks to this belief of Heaven being above us, and Hell being below us he is merely reinforcing the beginning of the Book of Genesis which states:
6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse[a] in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made[b] the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven.[c] And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”
The waters that are spoken about in the creation story as being above the Earth are thought to be the waters that separate God from his people. So the actual creation story itself points to the sky as the dividing barrier between God and his people. The creation story doesn’t go into details as to where exactly God nor the Heavens exist at the present time.
This all brings forth an interesting point about the location of Heaven. Either the location of Heaven is somewhere in the clouds that ultimately we cannot see, or Heaven ultimately resides in a place that we cannot find on a map or any GPS?
So where is Heaven located then? The question was not one that I ever previously sought to form an answer. Although a while back, I was having Pizza over at Jimmy’s with Pastor Brostrom from Faith Lutheran, who put forth an interesting idea that “Heaven does not exist within the traditional confines of the Earth, rather Heaven is located possibly in an alternative dimension."
I realize that such a suggestion sounds quite odd talking about alternative dimensions and Twilight Zone stuff. There are a few points about all this for us to consider this morning.
Within the last twenty-five years as scientists keep discovering more and more about the Universe what can conclude is that there is a lot out there that we don’t know definitive answers. For example, ninety-five percent of all matter within the universe would be dark matter, or matter that cannot be seen with a telescope because it does not emit light or any measurable magnetic pull. So to claim that we have all the answers to how the Universe works or what exists within it with five percent of the relevant material would be a proclamation of foolishness.
Even defining what we know about the Universe proves that our knowledge is limited. The Universe has been thought of as possessing four dimensions (length, width, height, and space- time) since the initial work of Albert Einstein on Relativity Theory. Einstein's work has been expanded upon for our understanding of the planet in recent years. Quantum Physics a science that studies the behavior of subatomic particles suggests that there beyond the four observable dimensions of which Einstein spoke that there exists the possibility of several additional dimensions that cannot be directly detected. The most popular theory “M-Theory” regarding the behavior of subatomic particles suggests eleven possible dimensions.
What this means for us this morning as we consider the location of heaven is that we can’t say whether God created an invisible spiritual dimension that operates outside the space-time continuum of this world. What we can say is that the Universe in all probability possesses dimensions that can’t be physically inhabited by us in our present condition.
We must not view Religion and Science as at odds with each other. What Science is revealing to us is patterns of behavior of even the tiniest sub-atomic particles that go way beyond human understanding. We can’t understand the ability to control time, let alone understand the possibility nor inner-workings of alternative dimensions.
Turning this discussion back biblically, one of the big themes of the Book of Revelation is the distinction that it makes it in the constant switch in the two scenes between Earth and Heaven. The whole point of Revelation is that things of the spiritual world are gradually becoming made known to the Apostle John. When Revelation makes such a sharp distinction between Heaven and Earth what it seems to be indicating is that Heaven is not merely a part of the Earth rather Heaven is a completely separate reality from Earth. The whole point of the Book of Revelation in John’s letter to seven persecuted churches is to give believers confidence that their earthly persecution and situation will not last.
Perhaps our greatest misunderstanding of Heaven and Earth is laid out in Revelation 21:2 which states: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
Perhaps the way for us to think about the Afterlife isn’t so much in terms of us ascending into Heaven but rather in terms of God coming down to Earth. The exact location of the New Heaven or it’s connection with the New Earth isn’t what is ultimately important, but what is important is that God promises to come yet again for his people. The language that surrounds our Gospel is important. The key thing about Jesus’ ascension into heaven isn’t whether Heaven is located physically above us as we point towards the sky. Rather the key thing about the Ascension is that it turned his death and resurrection into a present reality for not only the Disciples, but all those who believed in it.
So how does Jesus conclude the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension before he says goodbye to the disciples until the day of their own resurrection. Jesus leaves the earth behind with a word of promise “Behold; I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Last week, we had our Pastors meeting down in Duluth. I was talking to a Pastor Paul Reiff from down in the Moose Lake Area, who had recently done a funeral for a sixteen year old boy who committed suicide. This boy was having issues with his girlfriend. They were communicating on what is called “Snap Chat." Snap Chat is a way for kids to communicate over the phone that communicates quickly without leaving behind any evidence. This boy’s Girlfriend used Snap Chat to flick him off as a way of telling him that their relationship was no more. The Boy’s response was then to take a gun to himself, shoot a video of him ending his own life that would be sent immediately received by everyone that he communicated with on a frequent basis. What makes this story so sad is this young man’s warped sense of self-worth, how he saw his value in life coming merely from the affirmation of a sixteen year old girl. What makes this story so important is there are infinite people out there who feel the way this kid does.
What I like to believe is the promise that Jesus is giving to the Disciples as he ascends from their presence is that in the moments when we want more than anything to see his presence, he is not absent. Jesus understood that as he left the disciples, the great human fear of being alone.
Pope Francis said a while back that “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”
These statements initially struck me as missing the mark, but perhaps these things are merely expressions of the present human condition. Where the Ascension story comes to us today is that proclaims that Jesus does, in fact, live on for those who most need to hear during the struggles of their everyday existence.
The Disciples’ response to Jesus’ departure was quite a bit different than their response to his crucifixion that occurred several weeks earlier. Where as the Disciples had fled from the scene out of great fear at the time of Jesus’ arrest, the Disciples looked onto Jesus’ departure with a confidence that in spite of Jesus being removed from them that they would be all right. Maybe these feelings were a result of the promise of the coming or Holy Spirit, or maybe it had to do with Christ was not going to be that far gone.
As we reflect upon our lesson for this morning we remember Jesus’ final words from the Book of Revelation, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen-Revelation 22:20
I think it’s important as we consider questions regarding the possible location of Heaven within the universe that while these questions are fascinating, they are ultimately what’s not important. What’s important is that Jesus’ presence in our lives is not confined to any single place or any single time, nor is Jesus going to be gone for good. Amen