St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Making sense of the Ascension

Sermon preached at Enmore, Sunday 8th May 2016

Readings: Acts 1. 1-11: Ephesians 1.15-23; Luke 24.44-53

Stained Glass windows depicting the Ascension seem to be common in churches in the Sydney Diocese. At Hunters Hill we had an Ascension window in both churches. Here at St. Luke’s we have a rather fine Ascension window in the Chapel. I’m rather fond of stained glass but I have some sympathy with the comment made about Ascension windows by the famous Biblical scholar, William Barclay, who declared that: “No one has succeeded in painting a picture of the Ascension which was anything other than grotesque and ridiculous.” Grotesque may be a bit harsh but certainly feet disappearing into the clouds do tend to look rather comical. The Ascension is hard to depict in art and in our imaginations because it seems otherworldly and reminiscent of a medieval world view of a three tier universe with hell underneath, earth in the centre and heaven up above.

Luke, is the only evangelist to attempt to describe the scene of Christ’s departure from this world at the end of his earthly ministry. For Luke, The Ascension is an ending but it also marks a beginning. His Gospel ends with the Ascension – Jesus commissions his disciples to bear witness to the things they have heard and seen, then he blesses them and is carried into heaven. Those feet that walked the dusty roads of Palestine in company with his disciples will not walk on the earth again. We might be tempted to think that the Jesus story is finished. But Luke’s narrative continues in The Acts of the Apostles, which begins with a rehearsal of the Ascension events and Jesus’ promise to his followers that they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. The Earthly Jesus story has finished but the story of his Church has just begun.

Before Jesus leaves his disciples they ask him a question. “Lord is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” It was a serious question and a very understandable one. They had spent three years travelling around the countryside with Jesus listening to him teaching about the Kingdom of God. Their understanding of this was that Jesus was God’s appointed King of Israel and that he would restore Israel to a place of leadership in the world, their enemies would be overthrown and there would be a new era of peace and prosperity established throughout the world. Jesus’ unexpected death had shattered all those illusion; in the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But then came the resurrection and suddenly there was hope again, so they ask the question: “Is this the time?” In other words, ‘will we now see all those things we have hoped for come to pass?’

Once again Jesus gives a rather enigmatic answer, he tells them that it is not for them to know times or periods that are the province of God alone but then he goes on to tell them that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and that they will then go as his witnesses into all the world. In Luke’s account before the hapless disciples can frame another question Jesus is taken up out of their sight. The disciples are left gazing up into heaven thinking what do we do now? At this point Luke tells us that two angelic messengers appear who ask the disciples, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” They continue saying, “This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”It’s interesting that nearly all the depictions of the Ascension show the disciples doing just what they were told not to do, namely looking up to heaven. But eventually they get the message, Jesus’ physical presence is no longer with them but they are to get on with the task he has given them. They have become the body of Christ in the world.

So how are we to understand the Ascension today? What does this story mean for us? Reading Luke’s account one could get the impression that heaven is the place somewhere up there where God lives and that Jesus having finished his time on earth reverted to being God again and like a helium balloon floated back to his real home. There are several things wrong with such thinking. First of all when the Bible talks about heaven it is not talking about a geographical location. That was the fallacy expressed by the first Russian cosmonaut who looked out of his spacecraft and said he could see no sign of God. To say that heaven isn’t ‘up there somewhere’, does not mean heaven doesn’t exist. In the Scriptures, heaven and earth are the two halves of God’s world- they are two realities existing side by side. We live in the physical, tangible world of touch and sensation but there is another dimension that cannot be measured or contained.

In the Bible, heaven is God’s space and earth is our space but God’s desire and intention is to unite the two, to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. Furthermore, the New Testament writers firmly believed that the resurrection of Jesus marked the beginning of that astonishing renewal. As we have seen in our readings from Revelation 21 and 22, in recent weeks, that renewal is brought to a grand climax with the description of Heaven coming down to earth and the two being brought into harmony. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus also brings about a change in the relationship between heaven and earth. The Roman Catholic scholar, James Alison puts it nicely: “the ascension was not Jesus beaming up to Starship Enterprise when the Mission was accomplished, leaving the earthlings to play happily; it was the introduction of a novelty into heaven: human nature. Being human was from then on permanently and indissolubly involved in the presence of God” In other words, the risen and crucified Jesus was no less human after his resurrection and ascension than before it. The puzzled disciples were to discover that when the Holy Spirit came upon them on the Day of Pentecost, God was even more fully with them than he had been before. When Jesus was with them physically, he was limited by time and space-he could only be in one place at one time. When his Spirit came upon them they could all experience his presence anywhere and everywhere.

But if Jesus’ resurrection and ascension marked the beginning of the Kingdom that Jesus had spoken about, why has so little changed in our world? We live in a world still marred by war, suffering, sickness, injustice, exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, and destruction of our environment; and with the disciples we ask, “Is this the time?” When will we see evidence of the promised kingdom? The response of some Christians has been to say that there will never be renewal on earth until Jesus returns and takes us to heaven. In this view the Kingdom promises of Jesus are all future- they are for another time and place. There is little point in working for a better world if you believe this world and everything in it is doomed to destruction. To adopt that approach is to fail to understand the doctrine of creation and it is also to fail to understand the breadth of vision that Jesus proclaimed. Jesus’ vision of God’s reign was not an invitation to withdraw from the world into a ghetto religious community. His instruction to his followers was to be his witnesses in all the world.
To seek the Kingdom of God meant to seek God’s promised rule in the whole of reality in space and time. Everything and everyone is included.

The message Jesus proclaimed was not just a heavenly hope for some future time and place but for here and now. The first followers of Jesus called people to repentance and faith in order to receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of God’s spirit. They addressed their spiritual needs but they also cared for their physical needs. They fed the hungry, they visited the sick, they looked after the widows and orphans- the two most vulnerable groups at that time; they shared their material resources so that all were provided for and in doing these things they changed their world. It is right that we feel the pain of our world in all its need and suffering but that pain should not drive us to despair but drive us to prayer and teach us to rely more and more on the Holy Spirit. The surprising thing is that Jesus actually calls us to be part of his Kingdom ministry and he encourages us by saying that even a cup of cold water given in his name will have its reward. The little, apparently inconsequential things we can do to further his kingdom of love do not go unnoticed by him: a word of encouragement spoken, a meal made, a person visited, a donation given. The Church is called to bear witness to God’s Kingdom- sometimes we have been poor representatives, we are all conscious of the Church’s failures but our task is to bear witness to God’s vision and to seek to live by it.

Every time we approach the Lord’s table at Holy Communion, the world’s brokenness is set before us and we are reminded of God’s vision for a restored, redeemed world. When we, with the disciples ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?”, we hear Jesus’ answer, “ It is not for you to know the times or the seasons God has set on his own authority. But you shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and in Enmore and to the furthermost ends of the earth.” As we are reminded every Sunday: ‘We are the Body of Christ and his Spirit is with us’

Philip Bradford