Thursday, 13 May 2010

Ascension Day: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

We’re living in interesting times. Here in Britain, we have a new government – a coalition government, in fact. It’s a warm, cosy ‘love-in’, according to the media. (Just so long as the new Prime Minister continues to wear his blue tie, and the Deputy to wear his orange tie, then I’ll be able to tell Cameron and Clegg apart!). The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are to govern by cooperation - and I’m sure we all wish them ‘good luck’ with that!

You might be asking yourself, ‘what does any of this have to do with Ascension Day?!’ Well, we could say that from Ascension Day, there was a ‘coalition’ set in motion between God and the Church. Jesus having been appointed as King, invited the elected disciples to form the Church, and then they are clothed with power from on high. But for that to happen, Jesus first had to ‘ascend into heaven’. I’d like to focus on two little words with regards to the Ascension: ‘how’ and ‘why’. They are little words, with very big implications which are important for us to understand as witnesses for Jesus in the world today.

Thinking about how the ascension happened takes us back to the resurrection, and what sort of body Jesus had after the resurrection. We know that his resurrected body was a visible body, of course, because the bible says that he was seen by many people. Jesus demonstrated that his resurrected body was flesh and blood by eating with his disciples and allowing Thomas to touch his wounds.

But we also know that his resurrected body was a transformed body. The bible reports that the resurrected Jesus was able to walk through doors, and to appear and disappear at will. And with this transformed body, Jesus ascended into heaven. But the main theme I want to cover now is the ‘why’ of the ascension.

Several places in the Bible give us insight into why the ascension happened, and Jesus himself provides at least four answers to this question. All of these reasons for the Ascension are important, but a key purpose is that Jesus must sit ‘at the right hand of God the Father’; in Matthew 26 at his so-called ‘trial’, Jesus said to the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, ‘In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One..."

In Acts chap. 2, the apostle Peter states: ‘God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.’ Peter quotes from Psalm 110: ‘The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet."’ ‘Therefore’, Peter continues, ‘let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

The theologian Karl Barth said that Christ being ‘seated at the right hand of the Father’ is "the first and the last thing that matters for our existence in time," and “Whatever prosperity or defeat may occur in our space, whatever may become and pass away, there is one constant, one thing that remains and continues, this sitting of His at the right hand of God the Father.” And this we can understand as truth, because of the belief which is central to our Christian faith that Jesus is Lord. In the Creed, we say that we believe Jesus ‘ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.’ But I also wonder whether this language and this imagery could be a barrier for some people.

I read a report recently on the spirituality of people who don’t go to Church. It was based on ‘research conversations’ with people who expressed a spiritual awareness, but for one reason or another they weren’t able to relate their spirituality to traditional Church worship. One interesting point brought up by one of the research subjects concerned that imagery of Jesus ‘sitting at the right hand of God the Father’. Jesus seemed too distant. This man’s experience of God was more personal than that – his experience of God’s presence was closer than that. But we know from the bible and from some of our own personal experiences, that even though Jesus is now in the currently separate realm we call heaven, he is personally present with people by his Spirit, which is at work in all of creation. Because of the Spirit, Jesus could assure us as we read in Matthew 28, ‘I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

And as we find in John’s gospel chapter 16, the Ascension was necessary to enable the Spirit to come with special power on the newly formed Church: Jesus says, ‘I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.’ And from the heavenly realm Jesus continues to send his Spirit to empower the Church. We’ll look deeper into this particular outcome of the Ascension in 10 days time when we celebrate Pentecost.

Another reason why Jesus ascended to heaven, which we read in John 14, was to ‘prepare a place’ for us, in one of the ‘many rooms’ in his Father’s house. Jesus said: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.’ From this wonderful passage, which is often read and preached on at funerals, we sense the depth of God’s love for us, and the desire of Jesus to be close to us. And until he comes again, he is with us by his Spirit.

Some doctrines stress the transcendence of God: that God is above us, different from us, free from us, and rules over us. Others stress the immanence of God: that God is with us, like us, available to us, and in us.

And so we try to strike a balance: God is both far and near, over and in, different and alike. Until the new creation comes in all its fullness, there will always be a tension between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. But God’s transcendence and immanence come together distinctively at the point of creation, at the incarnation, and most definitively when Jesus comes again.

Which leads to my final point: the future return of Jesus – revealed through the words of Jesus in the gospels, and also in the first reading we had this morning from the 1st chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, where Luke reports that ‘[the apostles] were looking intently up into the sky as [Jesus] was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

Another passage of scripture often read at funerals is Revelation chap. 21, which describes again with comforting imagery what it will be like after Jesus comes back and the new heaven and new earth are in place: a voice from the throne says, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" So the ascension was a necessary part of preparation for the new creation to come, which is already in its infancy, with a new covenant and a new government in place, and with Jesus Christ as Lord.

I have to say, as is the case with British politics, it takes a fair amount of effort to understand all the ramifications of the Ascension. Let me summarise, then, the four reasons or effects of the Ascension: first, it enabled Jesus to take his place of glory and power. Second, it enabled the Spirit to empower the Church. Third, it enabled Jesus to prepare a place for us with him. And fourth, it enabled the whole of the Trinity to move forward with the New Creation. I’m sure you’ll now all be able to explain the significance of the ascension to anyone on the street... (perhaps our new Liberal/Conservative government relatively easier to understand by comparison). Although our new government coalition says their mission is ‘to work together for the good of the country’, it’s probably safe to say that each party will want to pursue their own self-interests. Who knows how it will all work out?

But that’s when the difference between a politician-led coalition and a Christ-led coalition is plain - the Holy Trinity have now got just one mission agenda: to renew the whole of creation. Jesus is Lord, and in the end, every knee will bow to him. We are not invited to change God’s agenda, but we are invited to participate in building God’s kingdom.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done - on earth as it is in heaven - Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Wow--powerful and touching at the same time--tears running down my cheeks yet feeling comforted too, Rev. K *:)


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