The God of Heaven is Present on Earth

In the name of God,
to whom we owe our lives
with whom we live our lives
and through whom our lives are fulfilled.  Amen

Over the last few months I’ve been on a course at Whirlow Grange considering “The Art of Spiritual Accompaniment.”  It’s what used to be known as “Spiritual Direction.”  Many of us felt that this sounded rather too prescriptive so we looked at different ways of describing this relationship including accompanier, midwife and fireside companion.  These images gave us different insights into what we think the role is about and I came to the conclusion that we are helping someone to listen to the spirit of God who is at work within and around them, whether they name it that way or not.

I imagine that my reflections on this Ascension day have been informed by this practise of listening, reflecting and discerning.  I am deeply suspicious of anything which divides “heaven” from “earth” as if there is a realm where God is more real than in our daily experience.  Learning to listen to another human being talking about the things that matter to them is a deeply spiritual experience, even if they never mention God.

So I find the suggestion that the Ascension is a vertical event profoundly difficult.  Many paintings seem to have the Christ figure doing a little dance on a cloud… but I’m particularly drawn to Salvador Dali’s “Ascension of Christ” which appears to have Jesus being drawn into a cosmic MRI scanner…  But either way we’re still left staring at the soles of his feet…

I echo the angels in our reading from Acts who cry out, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?”  It makes far more sense to me to think of God as “the ground of our being” than “up in heaven”.

There’s a song from the Iona Community which articulates this:

“The God of heaven is present on earth,
in word and silence and sharing,
in face of doubt,
in depth of faith
in signs of love and caring.”
(Heaven on Earth in Enemy of Apathy)

In Jesus’ humanity God’s divinity is grounded.  As we get to know more about what moved Jesus to anger, laughter, tears or action we see through him God’s priorities for our world – forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual yearning and action for justice.

The role of the church, as with the spiritual companion is to help make visible the life of God, the work of the divine spark in us and around us – to discern that which is drawing us into life, that which is life-giving, from that which is leading us away from life.

Since traditional images of the Ascension are either ridiculous or deadening to me, I’ve had to struggle to consider whether I can find anything that does make sense of it.

I don’t know much about attachment theory, but the idea runs something like this…  When we form secure attachments, either as babies or even in the relationships we form in adult life, they help us to gain a stronger sense of our own identity.  This means that when we encounter separation, either from our earliest care-giver or from other people we love and trust, we are better able to manage the pain of loss.  We learn that we can love, lose and learn to love again, even though that can be painful.

In Jesus, it seems to me, we have someone who models secure attachment.  His relationship with God gave him a clear understanding of his own value and purpose in life.  He could form relationships with others without being limited by the fear that they might either betray him or get too close to him.

Jesus was a man who had such a charismatic influence on people that they were willing to give up their work and families in order to follow him.  He related to these men and women of faith as his friends.  They were hungry and he ate with them.  But more than that: he showed them how to identify good food and share it with others.

Jesus wasn’t making people dependant on him, he was teaching them about God’s life-giving kingdom, a kingdom that was open to everyone.  He wasn’t gathering around himself a bunch of groupies who’d do and say all the right things so that he felt good about himself.  As the church, as Christ’s followers today we need to find ways of learning self-discipline and self-worth not hero-worship.

If we accept the resurrection in any sense at all, that somehow Jesus was experienced as being alive to those who had once given up their livelihoods to follow him; then it seems to me that the ascension is a necessary act of closure.  He had to leave a particular time and space in order to be present in all time and space.

But he left behind a group of witnesses – experts of their own experience they knew that they had to share with others the energy and insights they had learned from him – even long after he had gone.

And surely this is still happening today…

We have experienced something or someone which has drawn us into this church, maybe it inspired us or set us thinking differently, filled us with questions, or possibly gave us some answers, but it gives us an experience of belonging which has life and vitality – and to which we freely give of our time and energy.

As we look at the lives of the earliest Christian communities we see people trying to discern together what is of God and what is not; what will lead them towards life in all its fullness and what deadens their faith.  Surely this is the art of spiritual companionship: listening, discerning and sharing what we’ve found to be true with others.

Being people who know ourselves to be loved, who recognise in Jesus someone whose relationship with God was utterly secure, means that we don’t have to cling to certainty or to each other; inspired by his vision for the world we can reach out to a society which is broken apart by attempts to find love in the wrong places, from the wrong people, in the wrong ways.

But maybe we need to look for love in the wrong places before we can discover that God is there too.

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