Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Ascension Day - My Sermon

Last Thursday (and again last Sunday) Christians around the world celebrated Ascension Day, the anniversary of Jesus Christ ascending bodily into heaven, beyond all our physical universe, until he comes again in Glory.

My church in Wolston was so moved by this event it took leave of its senses/very generously trusted me to preach a sermon for the first time in church. Here it is in case anyone else might find it useful or inspiring. Feel free to steal liberally for your own sermon/talks/inspiration. The reading was Acts 1:6-14. 


"For a long time I have found the Ascension one of the most perplexing bits of the Bible. I think I've decided that is because the Ascension can be confusing, and it can feel like a loss. It can be confusing because, what does it mean that Jesus ascended into Heaven? On the most naive, physical interpretation he rose into the sky and then vanished. That makes it sound a bit Star Trek. But, what is important is not how it physically happened, it is one of the great and otherworldly miracles of God - a True Mystery,  that we can never fully understand with our limited, mortal perspective. And like all miracles its true importance is spiritual. We must understand why it happened, and what it means for our deepest spiritual life, our hearts and our souls.

Anyway, Jesus isn't described shooting upward and away like a rocket taking off, he rises above them, before being enveloped by a Cloud, and disappearing entirely from this world. At many times in the Bible God is described as being manifest in the world as in a great cloud, at the same time vast and powerful but hidden - when God descended on Mount Sinai to speak with Moses and the Israelites face-to-face, at the Transfiguration when the Father directly claimed Jesus as his Son, and more. A fine way for God's glory to be revealed, in part, to Man in a way our minds can at least begin to understand.

But Heaven is not physically above us, Heaven, like God, is in every direction and no direction. It is all around us and it is nowhere in this physical world. It lies in a totally different dimension, reached along a totally different axis to any in our material universe. It is a spiritual direction and axis that lies entirely beyond physical description. And straightaway the angels redirect the disciples' view back to earth.

And we know it is true, because there is no place where Jesus's body rests on earth. There is a tomb, but it is empty. You can go and see it in Jerusalem, there's no body there. We know where Muhammed's body lies, it's in Mecca, we know where Buddha's body lies, it's in India, we know where Marx and Lenin's bodies are, in London and Moscow. But though we know where Jesus was born, and we know where he was killed, and we know where he was buried, his body is not there anymore, it is risen, and it is ascended into Heaven.  

And the Ascension can feel like a loss as well, for that very reason, because how clear things would be if Jesus had never left, if he was still here in the flesh to lead us. We wouldn't have to make difficult decisions about priorities and strategies and plans. We could just follow, like sheep after their shepherd, knowing he would lead us the right way.

What a weight off our shoulders that would be!

It would be too easy though. We would never truly grow and take responsibility for ourselves and for the whole world, to fulfill our potential and become the free people Jesus wanted us to be. And with Jesus here in physical person he could never be with as many people as he needed to be, as he could be in the Spirit, as deserved to have Christ as a real presence in their lives. In his ministry on this Earth only a lucky few, such a lucky few, could sit and eat with him, could stand and hear him, could see him face to face.

But Jesus' ascension meant his ministry could become universal, as it must always be. It was not enough that Jesus could be with the disciples in the person. But he must be in heaven, and so able to be with us all, everywhere in the world at the same time through the Holy Spirit, where and when we need him.  With Stephen when he was being stoned evilly, with Paul on the road to Damascus, with us here in this building now, and at the same time with other Christians, and non-Christians, all around the world.

He had to ascend so he could take his throne and rule over all the world, and still be here with unlimited people through the Spirit. The Son was born as a human being, so he could be a brother and speak to us as a brother to his sister, as a friend to a friend. That is a personal and direct experience and relationship to God that no other method could replace. But through the Spirit, God does not only came next to us as a neighbour, but also lives in us and joins with our souls, filling us with grace and forgiveness so we can start afresh, with new opportunities, day after day. We should not mourn the departure of Jesus. We should be glad, because the departure of Jesus, means the coming of the Spirit, and the increase to Infinity of Jesus' capacity to be with not just a privileged few, in the right place, at the right time, but with all women and men and children across the whole world forever.

Christ's ascension was the last and essential part of his earthly ministry where God combined himself, united himself, with out material reality. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who lived five hundred years before Jesus, but still through God's grace saw Jesus' life, and described it in his Servant Songs like a man who was right there.

"He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of sorrows, who knew pain well.
Like a man people turn away from,
    he was hated, and we held him in contempt." and the prophet goes on. But now I want to focus on these words,

"He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground."

God Almighty, the Holy Lord, the One who holds the whole Universe with its spiralling galaxies in the palm of his hand; he, himself, grew up from our ground, like the tender shoots we have growing in our gardens. He grew from our world, and he grew into our world, eating our food, drinking our water, breathing our air, beneath a blue sky just like the one outside.

And so he joined our mundane world with God's infinite, holy being. And his whole life that holy power burst out of him touching and transforming the lives of people around him. People couldn't help but be seized by his personality, his integrity, his love, his insight and wisdom, that we benefit from still today. But that was just the beginning. Being united with a sinful world carries a terrible price, Christ came to bear the whole world within him, so just as the world suffers pain and death, Christ suffered pain and death, murdered by fearful, sinful men.

And when they killed him, Christ's enemies thought they were done, they thought they had won, and the problem they had was solved forever. How wrong could any person be? But as we so rightly celebrated this Easter he rose again, proving that sin and death will not have the final victory. Will never have the final victory.

Please excuse that slight divergence from the Ascension itself, but I think it's impossible to properly appreciate this wonderful event, without refreshing the incredible passage of Jesus' life and ministry. Jesus' conception and birth, was the essential, beautiful moment of bringing Almighty God, the Holy One of Israel, into our physical, material world, and thus blessing it, making it holy forever. Jesus' mortal growth, and life and ministry, was the deepening of God's infinite and eternal joining with our small and passing nature, and the spilling out of his love and wisdom to fill our minds and souls with the light of a better and more hopeful way. His death, the sad but inevitable consequence of taking on our sinful, painful, world. His resurrection the inevitable result of God's overflowing, neverending, inexhaustible power and love.

And finally his Ascension, the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake, the one thing that is left in this glorious story, to carry Christ's mortal body, the body which grew inside the young woman Mary from a single human cell; that fed at her breasts, that grew up and grew strong on bread and olives and cheese and meat, that was beaten and broken on Good Friday, and carried the wounds on his hands and his feet, and his side where the spear pierced him, but then had risen again!

That body that had carried our sin, and carried the pain of a human life with its scars and its suffering Ascended!

Ascended bodily into heaven and carried our  physical, mundane humanity to the glory of God the Father, heavenly and eternal, to sit on God's throne forever. Just as Christmas brought God down to grow up in the  earth in our human nature, so the Ascension carried our Humanity to be forever at the right hand of God the Father, to be glorified and worshipped by the Angels and the Saints for eternity. So a human being should be seated at the centre of everything that is and could possibly be, and so forever we have someone who knows and understands our weakness and our pain, because he has experienced it, and bears the scars still today.

And not just for this. Christ ascended into heaven bodily because he had already died and passed through resurrection, he could not die again, but he returned to our earth for a while to ensure the disciples knew and truly understood this glorious news, and to say goodbye for now to the people he loved, the goodbye he never had to time to say amid the confusion and terror of Good Friday. After this his ascension was the completion of the next stage of the Resurrection, but still, not its total and final completion.

For St Paul calls Christ's rising from the dead, and then his ascension into Heaven, the 'First Fruits' of the Resurrection. But First Fruits are only distinguished as the 'first' because there are second, and third, and fourth, and more and more until there is a complete and rolling harvest.

And we are that harvest!

Jesus said "I go and prepare a place for you", and that is what he is doing. As St Athanasius said, who helped write the Nicene Creed, the creed of the Church that unites Christians all round the world for the last 1700 years. As he said, "God became man, so man may become God". Not literally, in terms of his essence, there is only one God, this is no easy new-age trick, but in a very real sense nonetheless.

Through the Resurrection and then the Ascension Jesus' entirely human body is gone to sit on the very throne of God Almighty, creator and sustainer of all reality, at the very heart of all things; but not so Jesus himself could be there for his own sake, but to puncture a hole in the barrier of sin and darkness that separates us from the full and true presence and knowledge of God. So every one of us, and every person in the world as well, could have the chance to follow where he led, the chance for our humanity to be transformed into Glory, and leave behind fear and hatred and bitterness and envy, and all the evils that drag us down inside.

For Jesus the Resurrection and the Ascension happened close together, forty days apart, so the understanding of what was happening could be transmitted to the Apostles in human terms and from them through many generations to us. But for us it may actually happen as a much longer process, with more stages, but still truly all as part of the one same glorious "upward call of God in Christ".

What do I mean by that?

Well, for us resurrection begins not after our first bodily death, but, through Christ's grace, before it, as we first come to know and love and place our trust in Jesus; whether that happens as a child or an adult, all in one blinding flash of grace, or with a light that slowly grows from a tiny glimmer until it outshines the sun. That growing of God's love within us allows us to overcome fear and pain and guilt and grief, not all at once, but as time goes by and we discover and move deeper into love, not just our Love of God, but more importantly God's love for himself, and God's love for us, and God's love for the world.

That is how 'Man becomes God', as 'God became man', by joining in the stream of his love: never ending, never fading, never running out, through the Grace that is open to us thanks to Christ's descent to earth, and ascension again into Heaven. And you're never too young, and you're never too old, and there's a new chance each and every day to go deeper, and there's no bottom to that Well, it's as infinite as God himself, there is always just the chance for more and more riches of love and peace and joy and confidence.

And maybe you don't feel like any of those things right now. Maybe you feel angry, and hurt and sad, but that's alright. While we're still in this material world our resurrection and ascension can only be partial, there will still be ups and downs and griefs and pains, sometimes terrible. But still each and every new day there is the opportunity to be washed clean and hand our pain and grief and bitterness to God, and he will take them far away, so without that terrible weight we can dive even deeper into His love, that can bring us more and more peace. For we too, like Christ, must pass through mortal death before we can come to that complete and total ascension into God's glory and presence, and then we will be truly ascended, in harmony and at peace. But in this world it continues as well, and it isn't easy, but still it is powerful.    

How Powerful? Well, I remember Kevin, our vicar, saying once: 'I sometimes think, how must the disciples have felt coming down that hill after the Ascension and turning to each other and saying, 'Right, so what do we do now?'" And what a shower of reprobates they were! How many times did Jesus have to correct them and rebuke them, and still after three years they ran away on Good Friday, and still they didn't understand after the resurrection, but eventually when the Spirit came they did.

And after that history knows what they did. In their lifetime they took the Good News that God had come in our humanity, and he'd been killed, and he'd risen again and taken our humanity ascended into heaven, so the power of the Spirit came, so Men may be free of fear and guilt and hatred; and they took it from Rome in the West to India in the east, full of joy and hope, and founded a worldwide community that means we're here today, and they changed the whole world forever like nothing else. And if they can do it we can do it too! Through the power of the same Holy Spirit and with the presence of the same Ascended Lord Jesus Christ among us all.

Amen."            

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