Yuri Gagarin, in the first flight of a human into space, is said to have reported that he saw nothing up there that could be mistaken for heaven. This reminds me of another quip that if Jesus ascended into the sky at a rate of 3 miles per hour he would not yet have reached the orbit of the moon. Clearly, a literal understanding of terms like “heaven” and “ascension” does not make sense today.
This does not render these concepts meaningless, however. Losing the literal meaning opens us up to a deeper understanding. Words like “heaven” and “ascension” talk about getting “higher.” The higher we go, the more we see. The more we see, the more we can participate in and relate to. Scripture refers to God as “Most High:” God sees and loves everything and everyone everywhere.
Heaven is therefore a way to talk about the necessity to broaden and widen our vision so that it becomes infinitely inclusive. It counteracts our chronic human limited vision which is the source of our ignorance and therefore of our fear, which leads us into sin. We sin, or literally “miss the mark,” because our consciousness is boxed in by the minuscule proportions of our perception. Our five senses only go so far. Beyond that we project and imagine, or hypothesize based on reason and experience. Consequently, we fall into a reflexive selfishness and ego-centricity. Moving through the world in this condition is analogous to driving a car in a dense fog or blinding blizzard, unaware of anything more than a few feet from our headlights.
When Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven, he is saying that there is more out there that we cannot see unless we have our vision expanded so we can see — and therefore participate in and relate to — more widely and inclusively. We need somehow get “higher.” Indeed, he offers us in himself an opportunity to see from God’s perspective. He shows us an all-embracing viewpoint which loves, accepts, celebrates, forgives, and gives thanks for everything.
In her classic song, “From a Distance,” Julie Gold describes a world in which “we all have enough and no one is in need.” Perhaps it is based on that iconic photograph of the Earth from space by Apollo astronauts. A spinning jewel of blue in the vastness of darkness and cold, our home planet evokes compassion and love in the hearts of all who see from this vantage point. Gagarin was looking for the wrong thing. Had he looked down it might have occurred to him that there are no borders, no ideologies, no races, and no historical-materialist processes visible from where he was. These things are all in the shallow and all-but-blind brains of the very tiny inhabitants of this orb.
My point is that “heaven” in a sense means everywhere. When Jesus ascends “to sit at the right hand of God,” he doesn’t go away. He doesn’t abandon us. He is one with the Presence at the heart of creation. The One who creates the universe by Word and Spirit is no farther from that creation than any of us are from our own breath and sound. By the Spirit, Jesus’ Ascension means he doesn’t go somewhere… he goes everywhere.
All talk of heaven means this expansion and radical inclusiveness of vision. When our mortal bodies finally give out, we who have lived by the inclusive, forgiving, compassionate, and loving shalom revealed and given by the Lord Jesus, expand into him. We have begun to dwell within and anticipate heaven. We move into an eternal life we have already started to know in the wideness of our vision in Jesus.
This is why the church, which is the body of those called into this heavenly Kingdom, is way too big for anything indicating a narrow, shallow, constricted, limited, and fearful vision. Our faith is too expansive, it explodes all ignorance or falsehood, hatred, fear, violence, or exclusion, judgment or condemnation. If we are not witnessing to heaven here and now, however haltingly, we will not see it in its fulness. If we are not living according to God’s inclusive and welcoming love which cherishes and gives thanks for all things now, we should not expect to have that vision after our physical bodies give out.