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