The Germans have the following proverb: ‘Alles Gute kommt von oben’, which translates to, ‘all that is good comes from above’. And this proverb comes straight from the Bible, from the letter of James, the first chapter, to be exact; and this passage refers to the good gifts God, who supposedly is enthroned somewhere up in the heavens, showering us with goodness and mercy.
Now what is interesting is that this German proverb, ‘all that is good comes from above’, usually is not used in a reverend or religious context. No, it’s often used to make an ironic or laconic commentary when something unexpected hits you – or almost hits you – from above – like bird droppings, or acorns in the fall, or a sudden rain or hailstorm. Go figure.
But then, of course, the original biblical intent of these words is to describe something good, a blessing.
Human beings discovered at the dawn of history that good things, indeed, come from above. They may not have been scientists, but they knew that life on earth needs sunshine – and the waters that fall in various ways from above. And so humanity learned to appreciate and celebrate this intricate web of life that depends on things that are here below, and the things that come from above.
Most early religions revered things below and on the surface and above by imagining that a divine force is behind the fertile ground, or the well, or the forest, or the sea, or the sun. Gods and goddesses of all kinds would inhabit the environment. But the sun god or goddess would be the most revered among them in many cultures. No sun, no life.
Of course every deity to be found in the natural world also could be potentially dangerous. We know that too much sun, for example, is not good. Here in California, fire season could start pretty much every moment because there has been too much sun and not enough rain lately. And because the forces of nature could be fickle, the gods and goddesses had to be appeased, with worship and with sacrifices.
But then human beings learned to submit nature to their will and to manipulate its forces, and became masters of the earth – to a certain degree -, and most gods and goddesses gradually moved up. Up to the mountaintops – like Mount Olympus in Greece– or even higher, to the heavens.
Now the heavens, until very recently, were that mysterious place, the place humans couldn’t reach, until the long-dreamed dream of flying became true through inventors like the Montgolfier Brothers, Otto Lilienthal, and the Wright Brothers.
Even though we have conquered the skies – and even space, at least a tiny fraction of it -, we still carry within us this awe for the heavens, the place that is above. We still sense the mystery of the heavens when we witness, for example, a dramatic cloud formation or a beautiful sunset.
It is easy to believe that the God we know from and through the Bible would choose the heavens above as a realm to dwell, in majesty, with a good overview of what’s going on on this planet. And that this would be the realm Jesus Christ returns to as he has accomplished his mission here on earth, seated at the right hand of the Father, bestowing on us and all the world all good things from above – a constant and universal presence. And this is what we celebrate today, on Ascension Sunday. That Christ is not confined to a certain time or space, but through his ascension is universally and eternally present for all.
However, there is a danger in confining Christ to some heaven far, far away. We might think that heaven is the really important place, a place to which we all, so God willing, go when our life here on earth is over – and that earth and life on it don’t really count. And I often wonder how the Christian religion might have contributed to the mindless exploitation of resources – and also the exploitation of people, who, throughout the history of Christian colonization, were consoled with the promise of a much better life after they die as they were mistreated here on earth.
Another danger is for us to ban Christ to the heavens, to worship and adore him FROM far, far away, keeping a comfortable buffer zone between us and Christ. ‘Yes, Christ, I worship and adore you, but please don’t get too close to me with all your challenging words and actions, your call to repentance and your command to love even my enemies.’ A danger would be to adore Christ and put him on a pedestal, so to speak, but to not truly engage with him in our life, in our church, and in our society.
All that is good comes from above – yes, there is truth in this. However, all good things from above have to interact with the good things down here for life to be possible and to thrive. God is not just about heaven, but about life on earth as well. And don’t we pray that every Sunday, ‘Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’? Jesus Christ makes that clear again and again. God’s kingdom is not just in some heaven above, but breaks into our existence in the here and now. God’s kingdom grows like a mustard seed among us, it permeates life like a sourdough, it can be found if we dig deep for it. This is what Jesus talks about in his parables.
And to prevent his followers from thinking and believing that faith is simply about adoring him up in the heavens, Christ sends the Holy Spirit among them, to remind them that God’s work needs to be done on earth to help bring God’s kingdom about. And we will hear more about that next Sunday, Pentecost Sunday.
I mentioned it before in a sermon a few years ago: I really like this idea coming out of the Celtic Christian tradition that heaven is not a realm far, far away above us, but about 3 feet away – that’s closer than the distance we are supposed to keep from others right now. And why 3 feet? Well, the average human arm is just under 3 feet long. Heaven is just out of reach – but it is so close we can almost touch it. To think that Christ is there, about 3 feet away, or 3 feet close, a constant presence, prodding us, challenging us, loving us…
The Celtic tradition also knows of so-called ‘thin places’ – places where this three feet distance somehow vanishes, and heaven and earth touch. And that may be places, like a holy well, where God’s presence is constantly felt in a special way -but even more often thin places are found in situations in our lives that feel special, otherworldly, holy. And I don’t know about you, but I have encountered such thin places in my life: in nature, but then also in quite mundane situations and encounters – sometimes with random strangers. And such a moment may be fleeting – but it stays with us much longer, sometimes even for a lifetime.
But these moments are reminders of what God’s vision for us and all of creation is: the kingdom of heaven, a place, a realm, where we experience holiness and wholeness all the time. A realm where we see all good things from above work together with all good things down here to foster eternal life to the fullest for all. A realm where Christ is close, so close, and enfolds and embraces us all in eternal love, peace, and justice. Amen
This post is also available in: German