Thursday, May 21, 2020

Going to heaven

One effect of lockdown has been to make me much more acutely aware of location.  I am, as I have mostly been for the last couple of months, at home.  Location has been revealed as one of those things which has much more effect on my life than I had ever realised.  Being perpetually in my house makes work and rest more difficult.  It shrinks the world of my experience.  It restricts my access to others.  (And as I write this I am very aware that this is the reality all the time for many people: those justly or unjustly imprisoned, those who are housebound or hospital-bound through illness and disability...)  I am currently unusually conscious of where I am and what that means for me and my life.

As the pastor of a church I'm also particularly conscious of what is not happening: the church is not gathering together for worship.  Given that corporate worship is what the whole of creation is actually for, this is a big deal.  We are seeing each other, digitally, and hearing the word of God through our screens; but it makes the world of difference that we are located in our lounges (actually I get banished to the kitchen for preaching purposes) and not in the same place.  With the greatest respect to those who would love this digital interaction to be a part of our 'new normal' post-Covid, it is not the same thing as a physical gathering.  It must never become the norm, even if we might consider how greater use of technology might be made to ameliorate the cases of those who simply cannot gather.  Location matters.

But today is Ascension Day, and that also has a great deal to do with location.  Where is Jesus?  He has gone 'to heaven'.  That is to say, he has gone to the place of God's immediate presence and power.  Biblically, heaven is the place from which God hears prayer, sends help and judgement, acts and reveals himself.  Each act and intervention of God is a movement from heaven to earth.  The ascension of Christ is a movement from earth to heaven only because it completes an earlier movement from heaven to earth; in that sense, it is the counterpart to the moment of incarnation.

Jesus is in heaven.  But because Jesus' people are united with him, we can also be said to be in heaven - seated in the heavens, our lives hidden in heaven with Christ.  We are in heaven, in terms of our identity, our status, because Jesus is in heaven and we are in Jesus.  (Worth pondering, in terms of location, the regular address to Christians in the NT as those who are 'in Christ' - because this is often paired with a city, e.g., the saints who are in Christ in Philippi.  Both are location terms.  Of course, for the NT being in Christ is a far more significant location than being in Philippi.)

But this is also described in another way.  In the Letter to the Hebrews, which is all about the priestly movement into God's presence, we are urged to take advantage of the blood of Christ shed for us and to enter the sanctuary - not meaning any earthly sanctuary, but the very heavenly sanctuary which is the original of all earthly sanctity.  (And it is not coincidental but important that this is at once linked to the importance of meeting together, for this entry into the sanctuary - accomplished by Christ and received by faith - is symbolised and therefore to some extent experienced when believers come together in worship).

What do we come to when we draw near?  According to Hebrews 12 it is the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, the place where Jesus is.  It is heaven.

We are in heaven, because we are in Jesus.  We come to heaven when we pray, when we meditate, particularly when we come together in corporate worship.  We do well to hold on to both perspectives: we are there, static, immovable, because that is the status Jesus has; but in our experience we draw near, we approach, we enter.  Lose sight of the former and anxiety will set in - how can we approach God in his heaven?  Lose sight of the latter and all sense of relationship with God will disappear - just accept salvation and then get on with your life without reference to God.

So this is a striking thing.  Wherever we are located on earth - and as noted above, this is not an entirely insignificant factor; far from it! - we are able to go to heaven.  Going to heaven is not something that happens when you die; it is something that happens when you pray, when you believe, when you worship.  Let's draw near with faith.

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