Sermon for Ascension Day – High Mass Thursday 5 May 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Ascension Day is one of the weekday feasts on which we usually have a visiting preacher, but this year our Ascensiontide homilist, the Rector of St. Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue in New York will be ascending from JFK after keeping the feast at home and then descending to Heathrow. He is coming to London for the Memorial Service at St. Paul’s on Friday evening for John Scott, who had been director of music at the cathedral before moving to St. Thomas’s and its choir school. Then he will be preaching here on Sunday morning. This is a return match, as I preached at St. Thomas’s while we were on holiday in New York last year.
To the cultured despisers of Christianity, the language and imagery of ascending and descending, as if in an aeroplane or a space rocket, is simply proof that we, and our minds, dwell in a be-nighted pre-scientific world; that we are so naive and childish that anything we think or say can be dismissed out of hand as ignorant. The trouble with so much of this kind this thinking is that it is so “flat earth” – it suffers from an imagination deficit; so for example, it doesn’t realize that “cloud” is a symbol of the presence of God.
Does what the New Testament say about the ascension or exaltation of Jesus Christ depend for its truth and meaning on a cosmology which has not been credible since Copernicus showed that the universe did not revolve around the earth? Is it even less credible now that we know that the cosmos is vastly greater than even he could have been imagined? Do we need to calculate how many light years it might take for Jesus to ascend, not merely above the clouds but beyond the stars?
Do we have to respond to the challenge of modern thought by taking refuge in a fundamentalism which treats the Bible as if it were a scientific textbook? Or by sidelining the ascension altogether as just too embarrassing with all those great, and sometimes not-so-great, religious art of medieval and baroque Europe, showing Jesus looking down from just above the clouds? Shouldn’t we leave them to galleries and museums and the heritage industry?
But Christian theology has been more sophisticated and subtle than some of its artistic representations; although even they have a beauty which might make us pause before relegating them to the junk room of the past.
Easter (resurrection) and Ascension (exaltation) belong together as two parts of a single whole. Together, they constitute one movement that brings the obedient Christ who had “descended” to share our humanity, the life of creation, not just from the grave to the skies but from hell and godlessness to the place of highest honour at the right hand of God the Father. The distance bridged in this movement of resurrection and exaltation cannot be measured in miles or even light years from earth to heaven but in the amount of evil and destruction which separates us from God. The force which is overcome in the resurrection and ascension is not that of gravity, but that of sin and death, hell and destruction.
The resurrection and ascension or exaltation of Christ are part of a larger story of God reaching out to bring the whole of creation into the fellowship and communion of the Holy Trinity, the story of this loving outreach begins before time itself, and from the sending of Christ to the ascension.
From there, the story continues with the sending of the Holy Spirit, whose work is the transformation of the creation until all things are gathered up in the endless fellowship of the living God.
The ascension is a critical movement in this narrative. Just as the incarnation reveals to us the outreach of the love of God, so the ascension reveals to us the transfiguration, the gathering up of all things at the end.
What happens to Jesus Christ – his death and resurrection and his being raised to glory – will happen to us all. The ascension is a crucial moment of revelation which shows us the larger story, the big picture, of God’s loving action. It shows us that our lives are caught up in something far grander than we can imagine.
The risen Jesus the disciples had experienced had been at pains to show that he was no ghost, he was flesh and blood, he bore the wounds of the cross, he even ate with them. There was also discontinuity, he was able to go un-recognized, to appear and disappear.
In the words of an old Christmas prayer, Christ has taken our flesh, not just for a few short years, but “as never more to lay it aside.” The incarnation means not just that Christ descends into humanity but that humanity is taken into God – and, for ever. Our humanity is not obliterated but fulfilled; not discarded not exalted.
There were in Luke’s day, and in the early centuries of the Church, and now, religions and philosophies which regard the flesh and the material as inferior or even evil. Spiritual advancement or ascent is to be found in liberation from the flesh. Bu the disciples have no body to take back to Jerusalem to place once more in Joseph’s tomb. Jesus does not leave his physical body behind like some abandoned husk while his real self is liberated from all that holds it down. He is exalted in the humanity he had united with his divinity in such a way as not to obliterate it but to bring it to fulfillment in the image of God, in communion with its creator.
The men of Galilee are told not to stand gazing wistfully into heaven; thinking perhaps they might start a Jesus memorial society with annual service and dinner in his memory. They are to return to Jerusalem; the place both of Our Lord’s death and, for Luke, the springboard of the Church’s mission to the world.
We, who are their heirs, are not to stand gazing into heaven in the hope of rescue or release from this transient life, either. We too are to return to our city and our world, where the Spirit of Jesus will make possible our part in his work of bringing the material creation to its fulfilment when all will be all in him.
That work is carried out in the world of the material, of flesh and blood, of human relationships – marriages and friendships, in the world of work , of business and commerce, in the world of politics and war and peace; in the practical business of how we order the common life of our city, our country , our continent; of our use and abuse of the things of this world which are under the rule of Christ; not in the denial of these things as somehow unreal; no concern of God’s or of ours as “spiritual people.`’
People in the western world often describe themselves these days as “spiritual” rather than “religious.” “Spiritual” sounds free from the shackles of outmoded and oppressive institution like the Church, liberated from the chains of dogma to discover our own path.
This may all sound very nice but it is basically about the self and its cultivation; a privatized spirituality for an individualistic culture. It is also, as such faiths have usually been, an elitist one, for those with leisure and wealth to pursue while lesser mortals have to get on with the daily grind of life.
Its devotees may have an occasional regretful thought over the state of the world, or pang of conscience about the plight of its poor and downtrodden; but these soon pass without anything needing to be done about them. They are not really where meaning and truth are to be found. They are just part of the world from which the truly enlightened spiritual soul seeks escape.
But “religion” means that which binds people together; and the Christian religion is about God binding himself to us in Christ; and about our being bound to our brothers and sisters, our fellow-Christians yes, but also all our fellow-human beings in the all-embracing love of God. .
And so, we celebrate the Ascension not by thinking higher thoughts in some kind of intellectual levitation, but by hearing again the story of the real person Jesus and by taking material things of creation, bread and wine, symbols of that on which we depend for life itself, things which bind us to our neighbours or separate us from them as we share or refuse to share them. We offer them to be transformed by the Spirit into the sacrament and foretaste of our restored and renewed humanity. We eat and drink them in both in the presence of the divine majesty but also in the company of those without whom we must find the fulfilment of life and, without whom we cannot be saved.