The Fellowship of the Way
Acts 1.9 ... he was taken up to heaven
as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
The story of Jesus being "taken up
to heaven" puts us on the spot as few other New Testament accounts do. The
biblical evidence for it is weak. In addition, it goes against everything
we know in the 21st century about how the universe works.
But the tale of the Ascension harmonises well with how
the author of the Acts of the Apostles believed things work.
First, he thought that our world merges seamlessly into
the next. Spirits, good and bad, swarm from that world into ours and back
again. God and the angels likewise act constantly to intervene in earthly
affairs. He thought that passage between the two was possible and normal.
We talk to God and God talks to us. Though wonderful, the Ascension was
not miraculous. Such things were possible given the nature of the
universe. So even if Jesus had been taken up into heaven, the author of
Acts thought it was still possible to relate to him. The spiritual world
and our world could and did communicate with each other in profound ways.
Second, there was a strong tradition in his time that
very holy people sometimes don't die but go straight to God's heavenly
kingdom. The Old Testament (2 Kings 2.11) tells how Elijah was taken up
into heaven in just this way. We know from Matthew's Gospel that some
early Christians ranked Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah (17.4). Jesus
had risen from the dead - and yet, like Elijah, was no longer among his
people. So what we today call the Ascension must have been "what
Whatever the truth about the Ascension, all Christians
must come to grips with the fact that Jesus the man is no longer with us.
Facing up to this can be testing. For many centuries
Christians have been counselled to relate personally to Jesus. Even though
we can't see or hear Jesus in the same way that we see and hear other
people, we are told that he nevertheless interacts with us in a way which
can't be described. The end result of this relationship, it is said, is
the same as if he were really physically alive and with us now.
But the time is coming, and indeed seems to have come,
when Christians should question and perhaps abandon this line. Jesus
really has been "taken up to heaven" - to use the ancient, time-honoured
myth. He is no longer with us. He's dead and gone. Perhaps he can be
related to as a person in the way that we're told. But I for one don't
experience this, and I know that my experience is that of many, many
If Jesus is with us in some mysterious way, if we can
relate to him just as we relate to other people, what need is there for
"the body of Christ" (Ephesians 1.23)? If each of us has a hot-line to
Jesus why do we need the Church? Isn't an intimate relationship with Jesus
via a spiritual dimension all we could possibly require? Christians spend
billions each year maintaining and sustaining a myriad of ecclesiastical
structures. Isn't all this wasted if each of us can know Jesus as did his
friends while he was still alive? Those who manage official Church
structures are quite naturally unlikely to favour such an approach.
Of course, the Ascension story can
be variously interpreted. Some may think of it as did the first Christians
- a wondrous event confirming the special status of Jesus in the eyes of
God. Others may discount it entirely as a useful account of "what really
happened". Yet others may read into it deep and complex meanings, finding
godly secrets comprehensible only to the initiated.
But perhaps those who accept Jesus
as the great pioneer of their way of life may use this time to reaffirm
that they need each other precisely because
Jesus has been "taken into heaven". Together they form the Fellowship of
"The Way" (Acts 9.2) - a Fellowship reaching far beyond artificial
ecclesiastical boundaries and far more powerful than any Church
The author of that extended sermon we call John's Gospel
seems to have recognised the importance of the Fellowship. In the struggle
to live out the way pioneered by Jesus, John affirms that mutual support,
understanding and sacrificial love are vital.
He puts these words into Jesus' mouth:
Now I am coming to you. I am no longer in the world,
but they are in the world. Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of
your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one just as you and
I are one. (John 17.11)