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In the heavenly places?

I see that Melvyn Bragg, in his weekly email letter which normally summarizes the high level discussions he has each week on Radio 4 with intellectuals of various disciplines, has today topped me by giving a complete version of the Nicene Creed from which I gave a short extract last time! Well, I can go one further because I have been thinking during this extended, ten day, Christmas holiday break, that I need to write about the other non-historical event as we enter the period of the celebration of the Calendrical, historical events of Jesus' life and death.

The first non-historical event is the reality of the raising of Jesus, (it is a 'new creation'); and the second is what the New Testament writers call the ascension of Jesus. Unceasingly, through the years, I have been re-iterating the often forgotten fact that Jesus, the risen Lord, is always present to us and to the world and cosmos in a transcendent presence. Our friends at the monastery conveniently encapsulated this view with the greetings, at any time of the year, 'A happy Easter!!!' But there is more to be said about the presence of the Lord to us all, at all times, than an Easter greeting.

In the words of the New Testament, Jesus was 'taken up', raised 'far above all the heavens' and is seated with God at his right hand. Luke's cartoon-like narrative of the disciples looking up 'as he went' are, of course, enlarged upon theologically in the later epistles, such as Ephesians, where the ideas of Jesus going up into space and leaving us behind on the earth are modified by deeper considerations.

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)

It is quite possible that these early Christian writers in their enthusiasm for the huge turn around that the life, death and raising of Jesus had made in their understanding of discipleship with Jesus, were therefore no longer interested in the ancient ideas that there was a heaven of an ethereal nature quite distinct from earth. However that may be, archbishop Michael Ramsey wrote, in A theological Word Book of the Bible, edited by Alan Richardson,

"... 'at the right hand of God' meant [for them] not a place, but a participation in the sovereignty of God over all things. The exalted Jesus had entered a state and an activity which transcended the limitations of place altogether."(page 22)

But 2000 years or so on, Christian theology, literature and songs maintain an unthinking literal view of these remarks in the New Testament. It is astounding when you think that we can sing at Ascensiontide, with Charles Wesley -

                    See! the heaven its Lord receives, Alleluia!
                    Yet he loves the earth he leaves; Alleluia!
                    Though returning to his throne, Alleluia!
                    Still he calls mankind his own. Alleluia!
                    Lord, though parted from our sight, Alleluia!
                    Far above yon azure height, Alleluia!
                    Grant our hearts may thither rise, Alleluia!
                    Seeking thee beyond the skies. Alleluia!

It may be that discerning worshippers filter out these literalisms, and the geography of Ptolemaic times, but that doesn't alter the fact that by these literalisms we are set apart from the dynamic faith that the risen and exalted Christ is present to the world and to us all in a transcendent presence, always.

An outdated theology of kingship, embroidered by poetry and song, and nurtured by a literal reading of the Bible can be seen more easily for what it is by those who are outside the church today. They look for truth, if they are at all interested and they do not find it.

The responsibility rests with us, the disciples, to be more and more aware of how Jesus, the risen and exalted Lord, transcends the limitations of what we know as space and time.

Worship and prayer depend upon our relationship with the Lord who is always with us. In some ways our disinclination to believe this rests upon the long held ideas that we go to church to 'do' things in the right way and according to the 'book' if possible. Whereas the truth is the other way round. We go to worship because the Lord invites us and looks for us to respond to his initiative. This is a sea change of attitude - but it brings sea breezes of freshness and calm and new vistas in its train!

So in the coming three months, when in worship readings and songs we traverse some of the incidents of the life of the Lord who is with us there may surely be another dimension to those celebrations.

They will be lifted out of a sort of 'memorial' outlook, speaking of one who must be deemed absent, to a conversation with the living one who will speak to us of the things that belong to our discipleship with him here and now. We are not called to distance ourselves from the risen and exalted Lord on account of the call of the calendar observances, but to know, within ourselves, that the historical incidents of his life and death only make sense because we share now in his Lordship of love in his presence to us.

© Aelred Arnesen

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