There is an intriguing passage early in St John’s gospel where Jesus is recruiting his disciples and says to the sceptical Nathanial: “… You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” (John 1, v.51).
The reference is clearly to Jacob’s dream at Bethel in the Old Testament (Genesis 28, v.12), the episode generally referred to a “Jacob’s ladder”, when God renewed with Jacob the covenant originally made with Abraham, that through his descendants all the families of the Earth should be blessed. This covenant and Jacob’s prophetic dream are fulfilled in Jesus, who is the bridge between God and man.
Jesus’s life here on Earth demonstrates this two-way angelic traffic. He was constantly in communion with his Father, a relationship cultivated in prayer, meditation on scripture, waiting, listening and growing sensitivity. In return, he heard the Father’s voice, receiving grace, direction, power and authority. Not only this, but Jesus made clear to his followers that the same relationship was open to them: he both exemplified it and taught them to live it.
Thinking of Jacob’s ladder and how it might be interpreted, an old hymn from my childhood came to mind: “Oh happy band of pilgrims”. The writer rather grimly evokes:
“The trials that beset you, the sorrows you endure,
The manifold temptations that death alone can cure”,
and goes on:
“What are they but the ladder set up to Heaven on Earth”.
While not wanting to deny that suffering, embraced in the right spirit, can bring us closer to God, this seems to me very typical of the human approach: How do I get up there? What must I do? There is a wonderful gospel song, known to me in a version by the Golden Gate Quartet, on this theme: “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”:
Heaven is to be scaled with scaling ladders by “soldiers of the cross”.
Of course, images and metaphors can only be stretched so far before they collapse in the heap, but the scripture that comes to my mind at this point is: “As he is, so are we in this world.” (I John 4, v.17). Jesus is the bridge, the ladder. So are we. Isn’t that what he called us to be? Rather than seeing the ladder as something external, difficult and dangerous we have to climb, rung by painful rung, might we not see ourselves as the ladder, individually and collectively. To quote Psalm 84: “The highway to your city runs through my heart”.
The traffic between Earth and Heaven passes through us, and in both directions. This is not something we have to strive for. God in his grace has made us the go-betweens, the priests of the new covenant (to use another metaphor!). We enter into this role by cultivating our communion with the Father, just as Jesus did and taught his disciples to do. So relax, chaps. We are perfectly loved and accepted. By the grace of God we are what we are. Abide in him. Let the grapes grow on your particular branch of the vine.