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I wonder where we got the idea that heaven is up? Maybe we got it from looking up at the Northern Lights, such as we did on Friday evening this weekend? In the ancient world, the thinking was that the universe was made up of five layers with heaven at the top: layer 1 was the earth, the place where humans and animals live; layer 2 - the clouds and the rain; layer 3 - the sun, moon, stars; and layer 4 - the top tier where God reigns. Then, hades, or “hell” was the “underworld,” the layer beneath all of this where the dead go, namely those who have unfinished business. 

This was the thinking in ancient times and perhaps we can understand why. Those who worshipped or followed the solstice and lunar cycles watched for the sun to come ‘up’ every morning. They watched for the various moon phases, where? Up in the sky! Rogation, harvest, fertility—all of these cycles and more were based on the rotation of the sun, moon, and stars leading to the heavens above. 

The New Testament scriptures very much support the idea of a heaven ‘up there.’ In our reading from the letter to the Ephesians, we hear how God raised Christ from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, “far above all rule and authority and power and above every name that is named.” God put all things, where? Under Christ’s feet. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles and in the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus goes into heaven after he appears to the disciples following his resurrection, the clouds even gather around Jesus as if to transport him through these layers of the universe. It’s no wonder we think of heaven as ‘up!’

Later in history, when scientist Isaac Newton proves that the law of gravity keeps the planets in orbit around the sun, and when astrophysicists learn that the stars in the sky are made up of some of the same stuff as our bodies are (or, is it the other way ‘round?)—the idea that heaven is up gets a whole lot more complicated. If there’s a little bit of stardust in each one of us, and a little bit of each one of us in the stars, and if God up there became Jesus down here, only to ascend into heaven again, then maybe there’s more movement and interrelationship between heaven and earth than we first imagined? Maybe we have more to do with God’s business on earth as it is in heaven than we realise?

I think this is what the “two men in white robes” are getting at when they speak to the disciples who are standing slack-jawed looking into heaven. 

“‘Men of Galilee,” they say, “why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’” Meaning, when Jesus came from heaven to earth, he didn’t come like a comet out of the sky; he was born down below. He came among people as a human being—living, breathing, working within their stratosphere. Which is why, repeatedly throughout the gospels, Jesus’ instructions to the disciples are to go out and among, to be curious about other people’s stratospheres, rather than to stand still, looking up into their own. 

When we read in the Acts of the Apostles, that the disciples asked Jesus before he ascended into heaven if this was the time when he would restore the kingdom to Israel, we ought to feel a tad disappointed. Not because they desperately wanted salvation for their people, but because this vision of salvation for their people alone left them standing still, looking up, waiting for a Messiah to come from the clouds when he had been among them the whole time. They didn’t quite get the message that Jesus the Messiah was for people outside of their corner of the universe, that they would be called to go to Jerusalem to wait for the Spirit, yes, but that the Spirit would lead them beyond Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. To live and breathe and work among people who looked different from them, to recognize other people’s humanity as their own and to see their own humanity inextricably bound up in other people’s. 

For a time, human beings understood the universe to be made up of these distinct, hierarchical layers where God and humanity lived quite apart from each other. For a time, the disciples understood the Messiah to be for their own people alone. I wonder sometimes if it’s easier for us to think of heaven as ‘up’ because then the work of God’s kingdom on earth remains, well, up to God? Our lives, the future of the planet, the wellbeing of people who live hundreds of thousands of kilometres away—what does this have to do with me, anyway?

Today I want to say, “People of St Clement’s, why do we stand looking up towards heaven?” Don’t we expect to be involved in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? Don’t we know that this Jesus, who has ascended into heaven, will come in the same way as we saw him go into heaven? God has gone up, but the business of heaven most certainly remains down. Let us ready ourselves to go beyond the neighbourhoods and the social circles and the personalities and the economic classes that we’re used to. Let us watch for Christ’s coming out and among. May we see our humanity inextricably bound up in the humanity of people who look different from us. May we know that while the universe is made up of many layers that those layers are woven rather than stacked, that through Jesus the membrane between heaven and earth has been made permeable.

How much has our God, the God who passes through locked prison doors, the God who gives water to an untouchable woman, the God who transcends borders and tombs—who passes from to life to death to life again—how much has this God shown us that no barrier on earth, no boundary down below can separate a human being from their inherent worth as a child of God above?