The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams
‘Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’
I remember being told of my grandmother’s death. It was long expected, but I can recall sitting in my college rooms, in the chapel and on the wall by the river, staring into the distance, looking towards the horizon. Towards a hope for better times. I think, there have been many people staring into heaven, or into their hands, or into the distance, this week. In anger, or desperation, and even in hope. The bombing in Manchester on Monday night is a stark reminder of how far we are from the kind of heavenly peace we pray for. It’s the sort of event which makes words seem so irrelevant, and yet no less important.
The disciples stand in bewilderment watching Christ withdraw from them. Their hope, their certainty in a new creation, was disappearing. Their minds probably still buzzing, trying to process everything that Jesus had just said and revealed to them. They are in shock as they stare off into the sky, waiting, waiting, waiting for the scriptures to be fulfilled. Then, while they must be feeling desperate, somebody says, what are we looking here for. They go back to Jerusalem and pray and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
I was in the school this week talking about Pentecost. The children were asking lots of questions about the wind and the flames and why none of the disciples’ heads were burned. I tried to explain that our experience and the narratives of our society help us to interpret what we see when it is beyond our understanding. That’s why Ezekiel describes God on his throne as some kind of chariot - because how else could God be so substantial and yet so mobile as to be everywhere. Here the narrator uses the image of clouds taking Jesus away, borrowing from the language from Daniel’s prophecy that the Son of Man would come on a cloud. Perhaps if we saw it today we would imagine a UAV or a rocket pack lifting Jesus up to heaven.
But then why UP into heaven? After all it was way back in 1961 that Khrushchev pointed out that Yuri Gagarin had flown into space but had not seen any God there. Of course, the point is not so much altitude as transcendence. Christ goes somewhere beyond this created world, beyond this created time, into Paradise, outside of this order. But in doing so he doesn’t leave behind his body, he doesn’t leave behind the created human nature that he has been born into, that we share with him, he takes it with him, sanctifying our own flesh by transcending this world. It may not be a horizon that we can see with the naked eye, but this is the distant horizon which we look to - in despair, in anger, and in hope, when we find ourselves in shock at the state of our own world. And there is time for all those emotions, but they are not the end - In Christ they are the start of a new beginning.
While we are looking to that horizon, wishing that Jesus would return, we also need to take a deep breath, and listen for God’s call to come through the Holy Spirit, and then to recognise the Kingdom in the world around us, not in the horror but in the loving response, the one that saw blood banks flooded with donors, social media trends showing offers of emergency hospitality, a mother holding somebody else’s child until the paramedics could arrive.
The disciples are reminded that this isn’t the place to wait that they aren’t going to find the Kingdom of Heaven staring off into never - never land. We are reminded, with them, that because Christ has sanctified our very flesh in going into paradise, he has made it possible for us to experience that very place in each other’s company. That, while our heart and our hope is set upon a horizon beyond the world we know, our eyes can glimpse it in the here and now. The disciples await the coming of the spirit to the cloth them and us with the power to bring about God’s kingdom here and now. And so the disciples begin to be transformed from followers of Christ to Apostles, sent out by Christ in the power of the Spirit to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom in act and deed, to all the world.
So let us pray that the coming of the Holy Spirit will continue to cloth us with that power to see God’s kingdom, to make it visible to others and in so doing, to proclaim God’s love for all creation.