Last Thursday was a big day!
The Thursday just gone by is known in the Church Calendar as Ascension Day - the day kept special to commemorate the `ascension of Jesus to heaven`
Ascension, in all but the most comprehensive and devotional of minds is probably very much a neglected article of faith. It certainly is in the thoughts of free-church folks - not holding the high place that, for example, Easter or Christmas does. And even when we are reminded of Ascension Day (last Thursday), for many it has the feel of an `ideas` kind of festival which makes appeal to the head perhaps more than the heart - we don`t give each other `Ascension cards` or `Ascension Eggs`; we don`t leap across the room, kiss each other under mistletoes and say `Happy Ascension`, or anything like that. There are no, ` A dog is for life, not just for Ascension` stickers on car windows`....
We know about Whit-Sunday, and about Lent and Advent. The more bookish may have heard of Trinity Sunday, but as for Ascension.... we tend to overlook it until we hear them play the Ascension Hymn on the `Today` programme - (as they used to do at any rate).
However, Ascension is an ingredient of the Salvation-Story, even if we don`t very often keep the festival as strictly as do some other churches. If you`re a person who likes pictures and images, you might well identify with the idea that the Gospel Story begins with people kneeling at The Crib in front of the New-Born King: And at the other end of the story is a picture of people standing on their feet, gazing upwards to heaven. The first picture is one of kneeling homage; and the second, one of....... Well that`s what we`re going to talk about today!
But keep in mind those two pictures - those images - they can help us to grasp all that the coming and going of Christ has accomplished in the lives of those Bible-people.
The Gospel of Jesus doesn`t leave us looking backwards (longingly and hopelessly) into the past - it prompts us to look upwards, and makes us think forwards. The end of the Gospel story lifts us to consider things beyond the life we know; The effect of the Gospel story is to lead us from the seen to the unseen; From things temporal to things eternal.... Part of the thinking behind of the Gospel story, put bluntly, is to shift our minds from earth to heaven.
In our churches, as I say, we are inclined to concentrate on what we think of as the three great festivals - The Incarnation, the Resurrection and Pentecost. We say, I suppose, the Incarnation (the coming of God-in-Christ to the world) is the foundation of our faith and belief; That the Resurrection (the rising of Christ from the dead) is the basis of human hope; And that Pentecost (the giving of the gift of Holy Spirit) is the inspiration of our life, love and worship.
That`s all very well. But we tend to overlook the fact that the ascension had to take place before the coming of Holy Spirit, and it works in an almost `cause-and-effect` kind of way:
God-in-Christ came to answer people`s needs.... He died in response to the sin of us all.... He rose to put the seal on humanity’s justification before God... Yes, God did all of this in Jesus....
But then Christ had to ascend to the `right hand of God` before the broad design could be complete - for the design included the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit in people for ever. Such special indwelling took place after God-in-Christ was earthbound and confined to a body - If you like, had God the Son and God the Holy Spirit were active simultaneously in this special dispensation, we might have ended up with `Team-God` - like a Team-Ministry?
While Jesus walked the earth, resurrected and very much alive, he could be with a few people on some occasions. But God`s intent, it seems, is that God be present and available to all people for the whole of the time, and in every circumstance. That only became a realisable proposition when God-Incarnate were free of the confines of a particular time and a particular place. (This is all part of the paradox of Incarnation - How can God who is utterly other and beyond human knowledge, also become human and live amongst us....?) So the mechanism employed to cut across this paradox is the device of the ascension.
In the cowboy films we watch, generally speaking, we accept the idea of the hero riding off into the sunset as being a satisfactory conclusion. But in real life, the cowboy has to go somewhere and do something. If we leave the person of Jesus in the same predicament, we would have to account for the rest of his life on earth - simply riding off into the sunset is for cowboy stories, not real-life. So how does Jesus slip from human eyesight? The Ascension.
Ascension is not an `optional extra` to the Christian faith - it is not a piece of high-flown fancy work embroidered onto the real fabric of religion. Ascension is in fact the mainspring which brings about the activity of a Spirit-filled faith - in that way, the centre of all of our hopes rests on it.
The account of the Ascension in the New Testament is meagre. Matthew and John do not mention it. Mark has one uncertain line - in the closing verses of his Gospel (which Biblical scholars, consider not to be the hand of Mark at all). Luke alone gives a brief and sober account of the affair. But if the event is meagrely described, the consequences of the ascension are continually stressed in the New Testament. It was emphasised in the earliest teaching of the disciples, as you can read for yourself if you examine the sermons of Peter in Acts Ch.2 and 5. Ascension finds a place in the letters of Paul, and again in the writings of the author of Hebrews.
Underneath these references is the profound and unshakeable assertion that Jesus is alive, and in possession of supreme power - that is what is meant by the constant citing of Jesus being at the right hand of God. The `Right Hand of God` is an idiom for the Power of God - the claim is being made that in Jesus is focused the very power of God. The climax of this assertion is recorded in the Book of Revelation. When the Roman Emperor threatened the early Christians with persecution, the answer was:
“Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth. he has the keys of death and Hades. He shall reign for ever and ever”
It was the sense of the living and reigning God in Christ which enabled them to be brave enough to face such persecution, and in some cases death.
How could you draw the Ascension?
Now, most popular ideas of what happened at the ascension are not consistent with the narrative - Christian art has probably concentrated far too much on the version of the story given in the Acts of the Apostles. Visual art presents us with an image of a gradually receding figure watched by upturned faces until Jesus is lost in the distant blue. But that`s a hard view to sustain these days. We no longer describe the cosmos in the same way as the ancients did - there is no three-layered universe (the heavens above, the earth beneath and the waters under the earth). So the popular artistic image is not likely to help us either in terms of our cosmology or in terms of our faith. The fact of the matter is, Luke leaves us with a quite different set of things to consider.
In Luke`s account, Jesus is seen as overshadowing his faithful followers, and blessing them before the mountain mists come and go. Then the disciples are left gazing into an emptiness. Perhaps they did look up.... Why not? One moment he was with them, and the next moment he was gone. The Ascension was, for the disciples a kind of acted-out parable. Jesus was acting under the conditions of what Paul was later to call a `Spiritual Body` - his Resurrection Body. It`s important to remember that it was this body which arrived mysteriously on the road to Emmaus; This body which greeted the fishermen with the possibility of a barbecue after they caught 153 fish; This body which entered locked upper rooms; It was this body which ascended, a body not governed by the things which govern our bodies.
The appearance of this spiritual body was varied. Partly it was the thing most of all which removed doubt (think of Thomas), and it also appeared to complete the education of apostles. His re-appearing body was also the seal which God set on the new covenant with humanity - not unlike the rainbow in the story of Noah. It seems that at a certain point the purposes of this resurrected body had been accomplished - it had reached the limits of its appropriateness, and the Ascension marks the retirement of Christ to the invisible world of spirit - the essential nature and home of God.
But a last interview with his followers was necessary for two reasons: One was the counter the suspicion that he had died again; and the second was the leave them with the impression that he was a victor, not a crushed and destroyed man.
The story is told beautifully.
“He led them out until they were over and against Bethany”
Bethany was the place of old memories and loves. There he had rested at Martha and Mary’s - the village home of Lazarus whom he raised from the dead. In Bethany, things were good, love and faith were true. Bethany was away from the crowds, a place where he knew restfulness, and the chance of being understood more fully than anywhere else. Bethany must have meant a lot to Jesus, who spent so much of his time being misunderstood.
Then, on the mountain, he lifted his hands.... .......and he was gone.
Entirely in keeping with what we know about Jesus - too simple to have been invented.
The disciples saw Jesus for the last time. We might have expected tears and shouts. But as we read on we discover them running down the hillside full of joy. They quickly go to Jerusalem to share that joy. It was the happiest of goodbyes - so unlike the one issued from the Cross.
You know, the disciples never `remembered` Jesus in the way that we remember old friends we have lost. They never described him as being part of the past, never mourned him. Ascension was not a goodbye in that sense.
They understood the expediency of the apparent departure of Jesus - but a week later, at Pentecost, they realised that the departure meant a nearer presence - Jesus could now be within them rather than beside them. In John Masefield`s play “The Trial of Jesus”, Pilate`s wife questions the centurion who had been in charge of the execution squad. She says,
“Do you think he is dead?” “No, lady, I don`t.” “Then where is he....?” “Let loose in all the world, where neither Roman nor Jew can stop his truth...”
Evil may appear to conquer, but only for a time. Ultimately it fails, as it failed against Christ. He overcame evil - evil which will not stand against the nature and being of God. And the fact of that is the pointer which gives us courage if we will but take it. Sometimes it seems that wrong is on the throne, and love remains on the scaffold. But Christ reigns! New faith and hope and courage is there for the taking.
John Wesley remarks in one of his sermons,
“If we could bring all our preachers to insist that Christ not only died for us, but also that Christ must reign in us, we should shake the trembling gates of hell”
Perhaps the time for such a sentiment is not yet past, and we ought to extend it to cover all people of faith and not just preachers. The risen and Ascended Lord is the source of a spiritual life, lifting us to the heavenly places so, as the Prayer-Book Collect puts it, we may
“Thither ascend and with him continually dwell” Amen