Ascension Day marks an important change in perspective: Jesus who lived and walked among us, preaching, teaching, healing the sick, restoring dignity to the vulnerable, challenging the oppressor, and even raising the dead to new life, is taken up to heaven in glory.
This we know. This we believe. This we affirm when we say the familiar words: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
Jesus’ ascension marks the end of counting off each earthly hour and ushers in eternity.
The Greeks for whom John’s Gospel was written, like many other cultures, had a cyclical view of time. They believed that life was an ever recurring sequence of events from which they longed to escape. In this modern age we would probably call it the rat race.
For the Greeks then, the idea of redemption, of being saved, meant breaking out o that cycle so that they could enter into timelessness or nothingness. John’s Gospel introduces them instead to the idea of eternal life which has to do rather with the agelessness of God over all the ages of time, bringing continuity and stability and joy to human lives so bounded and defined by their age and by the ages in which they live.
It’s a major shift, a dramatic change in perspective.
The Ascension of Christ invites us to wrestle with the question: is our picture of heaven a distant dream of the most marvelous holiday hotel which we can check into once we’ve checked out of life or is it a perspective of our lives held and sustained in the hands of the God who was and is and is to come?
The distinction is important because it determines whether we are living for the future rather than the present; for ourselves rather than for God.
John 17:3 gives us the most wonderful glimpse into what eternity is all about: “And this is eternal life: that people may know you, the only true God, and that they know Jesus Christ, the One you sent.”
If we go back to the times in which John’s Gospel was written we see a distinct struggle emerge: for the Greeks, there was the idea of the Supreme Good – an eternal truth from which all truths took their value that they dedicated their lives to discovering through study and debate; for the Jews there was only God’s truth and God’s way and an abundance of laws to ensure that they lived by that truth, that way.
One group focused on belief, the other on action but Jesus – according to John’s Gospel – came into the world so we might know that eternity is not achieved by finding the right belief or by living according to the right set of laws, but by entering into the right relationship, with God and with the One God sent.
The word “know” is key to that relationship. It comes from the Greek “gignoskein” meaning:
- to perceive directly,
- to have understanding of,
- to recognize the nature of,
- to have experience of,
- to be acquainted or familiar with.
This is not a head knowledge, a book knowledge, some intellectual and abstract knowledge; it is intimacy and familiarity and relationship.
It’s the nuances of language that grow between loves who, with a look or the use of a particular pet name, can convey an entire history of shared memories and an immediacy of desire.
It’s the protection offered by a brother who doesn’t even necessarily like you at times but who will not let any harm come to you because you are family and belong to him.
It’s the comforting hand of a friend in your lap when you’re lonely or hurting or heartbroken or anxious about what is to come.
It’s the unrestricted, oftentimes overwhelming affection of a child, who suddenly wraps his or her arms around you and holds on tight, regardless of the ringing phone or the pot that is about to boil over.
This is eternal life: knowing God and being known like this.
There is another aspect to this knowing, however. “Gignoskein” also means “to recognize as being the same as something previously known.”
So eternal life is also the moment of recognition that even when we did not believe, even when we were not open to the presence of God, God was present and active in our lives. And, in that moment of recognition, when we finally receive and respond to God’s invitation to salvation and to eternal life, it is not a moment of awkwardness as if meeting a stranger for th first time but a joyous celebration of coming home to a love that existed long before we knew it.
Ascension Day invites us, in this moment, to consider our perspective on eternity:
- Is it a distant holiday destination to which we’ll one day escape from the struggles and challenges of life?
- Is it something to which we are entitled because we have rightly believed that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?
- Is it something that we earn by following the right set of rules to keep us moving in the right direction?
- Or is it, as John reminds us, a present, joyous, transforming experience of the outstretched arms of the God who has always known us and who invites us into the mystery of knowing God?