Todays readings for the Ascension Tide Acts 1:1-11 Psalm 93 Ephesians 1:15-23 Mark 16:15-20
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
Today I would like us to think about the ascension. It is a major festival of the church, and an important transition between the death and resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and yet it is often passed over and sometimes ignored completely. This is partly a matter of timing. Ascension is 40 days after Easter Sunday, hence it is always a Thursday, and then we have the 7th Sunday of Easter. I have chosen to celebrate Ascension today because it is a very important prelude to next week when we think about Pentecost, which is arguably the most important festival of them all, at least functionally. So what does the ascension mean? I think that the idea of ascending and descending is unfortunate- it is a hangover from a very ancient world view that saw 3 levels, heavens above, earth in the middle and the place of the dead down below. It made a lot more sense in a world before Galileo and Copernicus. In our modern age the image that springs to mind is of a giant escalator going ever upward and disappearing into the clouds, not to mention the one that disappears into the flames, the down escalator. The first time that this imagery is used in the sense of travelling between two spheres is Genesis 28 when Jacob dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. What this symbolises is the passage between the physical and the spiritual rather than between one locus and another. It is not about physical relationship. We haven’t been helped by the many stained glass windows that show the disciples at ground level and the feet of Jesus sticking out from the cloud. Indeed the angels ask the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” And that is the question for us as well. I do feel a level of sympathy for the disciples, they are confused, they are, it seems still thinking in local, immediate, human terms. They have just asked Jesus if this is the moment when he is going to restore the Kingdom to Israel. Now, this is very interesting I think. Is Jesus going to restore the Kingdom? Well, he is certainly going make the Kingdom a visible and active entity in their world. But is he going to restore the Jewish kingdom? Luke writing this after the fall of Jerusalem knows that that is not about to happen. The disciples, at least according to Luke, are asking the human question, the immediate question, the question about human power and what they should be asking is the question about the relationship between God and God’s people. It is about power, but power expressed in a very different way. And you know, this is a concept that we still haven’t entirely got. Human beings have continued to look up to heaven and to want the second coming, in order that they might be vindicated. They look up to heaven to seek power from above in order that their regime might be the one in power, and that is not just political regimes but religious ones as well. We still think of heaven as the solution for our problems. The ascension promises different things however. The ascension clears away the physical, limited body of Jesus of Nazareth and makes way for the equally physical, but you might say unlimited body of Christ, that is the church, that is you and me, filled by the empowering Holy Spirit who is about to be poured out at Pentecost. The ascension is a vital step in the sequence that turns the people of God into the Kingdom of God. No the temporal and limited Jewish kingdom is not restored because an eternal and unlimited Kingdom of God is being revealed. The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells his disciples, will give them power to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth. The writer to the Ephesians describes the Spirit as giving wisdom and revelation so that they might understand their hope. And that is what ascension is all about. Ascension is the moment that hope is crystallised, when the visible Jesus is transmuted into the relational Jesus, known through the Holy Spirit to all and by all. So the disciples are told to wait, and in a sense we continue to wait as we live in the now and not yet, the period of the Kingdom being grown. The vital thing for us to understand is that this Kingdom is about relationship. Just as the Christ has gone to be back with the Father, to abide in him, so the Holy Spirit comes to abide in us. And we, as Jesus told us in the farewell discourse have to abide in him, like branches that are fed and nourished by the vine, and who then are able to bear fruit that will last. It is through relationship that we know who we are, our identity as the Body of Christ is given both in our relationship with God, in the Holy Spirit, but also in our relationships with each other. What we do, here, together is a vital part of the Kingdom of God, and what we do, as individuals is always in terms of ourselves as part of the body of Christ, that relationship does not stop when we leave the building to be put on again next Sunday. We are constantly in relationship with the Holy Spirit and with each other. Another thing that is significant about Christ returning to the Father is that he returns after his suffering. It is the suffering servant who reigns with God and because of that God suffers with us as we suffer, and our pain is caught up into his pain. So there is glory and suffering entwined which is surely the story of humanity. And that is part of the power that we are given which is the compassion and empathy to share the sorrows of others. That is a facet of the love that we are called to show so that we might be recognised as being Christ’s own people. The kingdom is built on relationship and not just a relationship that is joined in rejoicing but also a relationship that is joined in suffering. This is the power for proclamation. The Holy Spirit equips us with power so that the Kingdom of God is brought to our world. We are the body of Christ and we can trust the Holy Spirit to empower us through and in the things of our everyday life. We live in the Kingdom not for ourselves but for those around us, and we are called to be the witness that draws others into relationship with God. The Cambridge poet Malcolm Guite published this Sonnet for Ascension Day . We saw his light break through the cloud of glory Whilst we were rooted still in time and place As earth became a part of Heaven’s story And heaven opened to his human face. We saw him go and yet we were not parted He took us with him to the heart of things The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings, Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness, Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight, Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness And sing the waning darkness into light, His light in us, and ours in him concealed, Which all creation waits to see revealed .