A Sermon from Sherborne
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist preached in Sherborne Abbey on Ascension Day, Thursday 10 May 2018 by The Reverend Jane Craw.
I met one of our congregation the other day and asked if she were coming to an Ascension Day service. ‘Yes!’ she said with great enthusiasm. ‘We would not miss the celebration of Ascension. We love to hear the singing from the Tower in the morning, provided the wind is in the right direction,’ she added with a wide smile. Sadly many miss out on the evident joy that this member of our Church family experienced. I asked myself why this particular day slips by unnoticed by the majority. The more I looked, the more I discovered and realised that if this piece of the jigsaw of our Christian practice was missing, somehow we too were incomplete. The Ascension is a culmination. It is a fulfilment, a junction where earth meets heaven and heaven earth. St Luke’s Gospel began with a heavenly moment when God came into the world and ends with heaven opening to receive humanity into its realms. If we do not celebrate the Ascension, we also lose something of the glorious majesty of God.
If we picture Jesus ascending to the heavenly places in literal terms we will have something like a massive propulsion or a godly rocket launch in our minds. Think instead for a moment of Dr Who. Since the 1960s we have had the ability to think in different time zones and it seems that we need to adopt some of that type of thinking here. In the cosmology of Jesus’ day, people thought in terms of ‘up’ and ‘down’ to express these different realms. St Luke speaks of Jesus being ‘taken up to heaven’. This implies a new understanding of heaven. Heaven is not so much a location, a ‘place’, but rather the human expression for where God resides.
However, we must not get caught up in mental gymnastics, trying to work out where heaven is and maybe where it is not. But we can be assured that Luke is not describing anything other than a deep theological truth which is expressed powerfully in the letter to the Ephesians:
God put this [immeasurable] power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body.
The writer of the book of Ephesians then goes on to describe Christ’s ability to free God’s children from their past sins and then to raise them, through grace, to his seat of the highest honour, in the heavenly places. Christ’s Ascension is a theological land-mark. It tells us that no part of the universe is withheld from God. All authority and power are subject to him.
The Ascension of Jesus also sets the stage for the giving, the coming of the Holy Spirit. There is something about the expectancy that comes from waiting which this generation seems to have lost. Email communication dictates a speedy response and much of social media relies on an immediate, sometimes unconsidered, reaction. I can remember as a child experiencing the longing for Christmas. Presents were something special and although we had a pillow-slip at the end of our beds filled with abundance, we had to wait. I learned to recognise the brown paper parcel neatly wrapped from Auntie Edie, distinct because of her unusual handwriting. But it was never opened ahead of time. Waiting was the order of the day. Today parcels galore drop through our letter box. They may contain very mundane articles but we never have to wait to open them. That sense of holy anticipation has gone. But here Jesus tells his disciples to wait to receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s words here are somewhat reminiscent of Gabriel’s words to Mary in the first chapter of his Gospel. The Book of Acts also hints of a new birth. His Gospel tells of the birth of the Messiah and in Acts 1, there is another birth, that of the Church and its witness.
The disciples, and we, must wait and trust in the fulfilment of God’s promise. But what are we waiting for and what does the Ascension signify? We are waiting for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, to continue the work of the Father. Until that point Jesus’ work was earth-bound, confined to where he stood, sat, ate, celebrated the breaking of the bread but after his ascension, his life, his energy and indeed his risen power is spread abroad. He is not confined to one time frame. After all as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever. Because he ascended, we continue to encounter Jesus through the preaching of the Word, by receiving the Sacraments, through fellowship, one with another, and through the ministry to the poor, the hungry and the oppressed.
Incidentally, because Jesus has ascended as our risen Lord, none of the hurdles which we experience can harm and rob us of God’s firm promises. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus. For that, we can and should celebrate The Ascension with praise and thanks.
At the end of St Luke’s Gospel we read that the disciples worshipped Jesus after he had left them. Here begins a strong hint of the Trinity. All pious Jews knew that God alone was to be worshipped but now it is not longer possible to talk about God without including the person of Jesus Christ. Our knowledge of God is thereby extended and now we can encompass a crucified, risen and living Christ. Our God is one who understands loneliness, betrayal, rejection, thirst and even death. This is why Jesus can intercede for us at the Father’s right hand. Through his incarnation, he has had first-hand experience of the challenges of being fully human.
It is with this knowledge that we can sit and wait for the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As the Holy Spirit descended on the first century disciples, he can descend on us, his twenty-first century disciples, to give us power to share the wonder and works of our Lord Jesus Christ. They were on the verge of inheriting a new-style kingdom whose mission was to redeem all nations and to set God’s people free. So, we do not need to stand staring up thinking that the Ascension is the end but instead a herald to a new beginning for Christ’s Church to proclaim, to teach, to love in the precious and powerful name of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.