Sermon, Sunday 24th May 2020
Last Thursday was Ascension Day, a feast which has largely been forgotten in our church calendar though our service last Thursday was very encouraging. I do remember clearly, back in the 70's and 80's the joint Anglican services, regularly at St Barnabas’, a full church, a well-known preacher and a full Sung Mass.
As a rather cynical 18-year-old, I remember a school trip to the Holy Land. We were at the putative site of the Ascension. We were invited to light a candle and place by the impression of a foot sunk into what looked remarkably like a concrete slab. This is where Jesus ascended one foot first. I do remember that the young Arab boy could ask for money in about 10 languages – I couldn’t get away by speaking German – and demanded that the coin – any currency - was at least silver in colour. It was from this moment that I began to think seriously about such strange Bible stories.
Why, then, such a fall from grace of a story twice repeated by one of the evangelist Luke, both in his Gospel and in Acts?
Like the transfiguration, and some theologians would go much further, the story of the ascension of Christ into heaven is essentially spiritual and not historical. It is couched in the contemporary understanding of heaven as above the earth separated by a veil of cloud – hence too in the transfiguration story we had earlier this year. We note, not for the first time, that the Bible does not take an unambiguous approach to this. John’s gospel appears to have Resurrection, Pentecost and Ascension on the same day. Matthew too implies this with the Great Commission. (Mt. 28: 16 – 20).
I suspect that Luke felt that this was just too much to take in in one hit and used the Biblical forty days, and then a further ten, to suggest a period of waiting and watching. The theologian John Middleton Murray suggested that the forty days is a period in which it comes to be realised that Jesus has become a necessary part of the true idea of God. The truth of the Ascension is simply a vivid way of saying “Yes, that is where Jesus Christ belongs.” True, the disciples were still unsure of the nature of Jesus’ ministry as we see in the first few verses of Acts 1; it would take the day of Pentecost to cement their burgeoning understanding that this was something very different from the re-instituting of Israel’s independence.
It was John Robinson, the then Bishop of Woolwich who in the 1960s stirred up the Church, and certainly the press, with his Honest to God tome, and later a much more popular work That I can’t believe! “Bishop denies everything,” screamed the Press and senior churchmen. It led to a popular concern at the way the Church was going, which emerges in that wonderful episode of Yes Prime Minister as Sir Humphrey in assessing the appointment of a new bishop states of one candidate: “Well at least this one does believe in God! And yet Robinson’s take on this story – which I referred to at the start of this sermon – was both deeply spiritual AND this worldly.
In his short chapter on the Ascension, he started thus:
What is the modern Christian to make of the Ascension story? It is a good test of our ability to cope with the strange language, the antique cosmology of which the Bible is full. Is it something that we can only discard? Or is it something we can transpose and use and fill with contemporary significance?
To me it is the natural follow up to the story of the transfiguration where we see Jesus being recognised by Moses and Elijah and covered by the cloud representing God’s presence. Essential truths, couched in visual imagery. But his mission was then not yet ended, and we know that death and resurrection had to follow. And now the disciples, post-resurrection were still confused. They had to grow up, take responsibility and broadcast the truths of the Kingdom of God. I’m sure that many thought that in returning to them Jesus was somehow cocking a snoop at the Jewish and Roman authorities but they were getting it wrong. When Jesus says to Pilate in John’s Gospel “My Kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36) he was talking not of some ethereal, philosophical other worldliness, but of a renewed world in which the Holy Spirit which the Father would send would lead those who saw the light into acts of kindness, compassion and love, into the kind of behaviour the disciples had seen in Jesus himself. John talks of the Kosmos, the physical universe, that God loves and for which Jesus died.
It is important to realise that Jesus Christ is the human image of God, and as such the model for us, not of punishment and retribution, as some would believe, but of those virtues quoted by St Paul in Galatians 5 – love, joy, generosity, self-control and so on. Jesus shows us the way to behave and offers us forgiveness when we fail. So we can see God as creator Father, redeemer Son, and sustaining Holy Spirit. But more of that on Trinity Sunday!
To me, the story of the Ascension is trying to represent an essential truth in terms of time and space when in fact it is saying so much more. Jesus’ whole ministry strives to reflect the true nature of God, a more mature reading than we see for the most part in the Old Testament, (although it is there to be found).
As the new Adam, Jesus brings us back to essential truths and is the model that we can, and must, look to in order to lead life, this life, in this world, in all its abundance - to use St John’s words. As a human, Jesus is approachable and understandable. As Christ, He is the benchmark with whom we can, and must, compare ourselves. We owe everything to him as our spiritual King. To use John Robinson’s word, we must speak of the “ascendancy” of Jesus Christ in our lives - the one who has become our King, both personally and for the whole world.
I end with some words of Robinson:
Ascension Day is … the yearly reminder to the church of its function in the world – namely that of bringing all men ((sic) ...and today we would of course add women) … and every department of life under the obedience of Christ.