SERMON FOR ASCENSION DAY 2012
Three people stood by the ocean watching the same sunset.
One saw it as a beautiful phenomenon, full of gorgeous colours, and the sheer poetry of the event stirred his senses. That is a good way of seeing.
The second person enjoyed the beauty and the colours just as much as the first one. But she had a good scientific brain, and she also reflected that what she was seeing involved the rotation of the earth and the quality of the atmosphere. She used both her senses and her intellect to appreciate the sunset.
The third person appreciated the sunset both sensuously and intellectually. But this person was a mystic, not only seeing and explaining but also tasting the experience. The mystic was overcome by awe, by a feeling of unity with all that is. This is seeing with the “third eye”, as explained by the Franciscan Richard Rohr, from whose book The Naked Now I have taken this story. The book club will be discussing this book on the 27th of May and I hope some of you will join us.
I started reading Richard Rohr’s book, subtitled Learning to See as the Mystics See, when I was already thinking about the festival of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. This is one of the most difficult events in the Church’s year to preach about. Reading Richard Rohr helped me to see that maybe the nub of the matter is different ways of seeing things.
What we try, but always in vain, to see at this festival is the content of a completely inexplicable event. I am sure we have all seen a naïve picture, perhaps in stained glass, of the disciples staring open-mouthed into the sky while a pair of feet disappeared into a cloud, and we know that whatever happened, it was nothing like that.
Somehow, between the Resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a great change occurred in the way Jesus’ followers related to him. Before he died they walked, talked, ate, drank, laughed and argued with him. They touched him constantly – touch seems to have been very important to people who were close to Jesus. Sick people reached out to him, and the haemorrhaging woman grasped his cloak in search of a cure. Jesus took the hand of Peter to pull him up from the sea when he sank trying to walk towards his master on the water, just as he raised Peter’s mother-in-law and Jairus’ young daughter from their sickbeds. He put mud on people’s eyes and breathed into their ears. A woman of the streets wept over his feet and dried them with her hair. We recall that the beloved disciple leaned on Jesus’ breast while they were at table together. He fed his followers with bread and wine and knelt to wash their feet. People longed to experience him through the senses of sight, hearing and touch.
But the sensuous way of knowing Jesus, which culminated in the tender actions of those who wrapped his dead body and sought to perfume it, came to an end when Mary Magdalene met the risen Christ and tried to embrace him. Don’t cling to me, he said to the woman who had been one of his dearest and closest friends.
The second way of seeing Jesus, using the intellect, also underwent a change. Throughout his ministry, a constant stream of people debated with him. From the time he was the age of a bar mitzvah boy, discussing Torah in the Temple with the scholars, he seems to have enjoyed this traditional Jewish passion for working out and applying the meaning of a passage of scripture. Again and again experts in the law sought him out for some insight in how to live, based on the words of the Mosaic Law, and each time Jesus gave them a fresh insight, a new interpretation, a challenge to their old way of seeing and understanding. He delighted in the attentiveness of Mary, the sister of busy Martha, who sat at his feet to be his student.
After the resurrection, this way of intellectually apprehending Jesus no longer seemed to work. The group of disciples immediately dismissed the eyewitness account of the women who had gone to the tomb. Thomas told his friends that is was simply impossible for Jesus to be alive. The travellers on the road to Emmaus went over and over the scriptures but still couldn’t see how they pointed to Jesus.
After the resurrection, it seems that a “third eye” was needed. Only those who gazed at the risen Christ with awe and trust were able to believe – they couldn’t explain things, but they knew they were in the presence of the Lord. It was when he called Mary Magdalene by name, invited Thomas to touch him, broke bread in the house of Emmaus, cooked breakfast on the beach and spoke words of forgiveness to Peter, that they realized he wasn’t absent after all. And in each of those cases, he then mysteriously disappeared from physical sight, but those who could not longer see or hear or touch him were filled with mysterious joy and energy.
The risen Christ wasn’t a resuscitated person who happened to be in place A or place B, where you would bump into him if you happened to be in the same geographical space. He was mysteriously present wherever he wanted to show himself. And only those who had a relationship already seem to have seen him. There is no account of Pontius Pilate or the High Priest encountering Jesus after Easter morning – what a turn up for the books that would have been! Jesus could only be seen in the third way, by those who were open to the mystery of his risen life.
The story of the ascension, then, isn’t a sort of “what happened next” affair, as if the risen Christ walked on earth on one day and then disappeared into the heavens on the next. It is more of a pictorial description – and how inadequate all human words are – of what had begun at the resurrection and continues to this day. Some commentators even say that the events described as resurrection and ascension are simply a rather clumsy pulling apart of one single amazing and inexplicable event, the glorification of Jesus who died but who was not defeated or removed by death.
We encounter the risen Christ through faith, no longer in physical presence or personal conversation. The ascension is a story, for those who are able to see with their third eye, of how Jesus can be here and not here at the same time.
Please note, this is not to say that the resurrection describes an event that happened in the imagination of the disciples. It is not the same as saying that the memory of Jesus, or their love for him, was so powerful that it made them feel as though he were still alive. If it were so, then Christianity would not have lasted beyond the deaths of the first eyewitnesses.
The feast of the ascension, rather, celebrates the triumphant life of the risen Christ, who not only came back from the dead, but also raises all human life with him to the very presence of God. The ascension is not a lonely voyage like that of an astronaut whom we all admire from afar as his spaceship dwindles into the stratosphere.
If we are looking for crude human analogies — and aren’t we always doing that? — the risen Christ is more like Ernest Shackleton than John Glenn. You remember the great hero of Antarctic exploration who left his shipwrecked and icebound crew on Elephant Island, promising to return and rescue them, and after steering 800 miles over the ocean to South Georgia in an open boat to find help, he did return and personally brought them safely home.
I go to prepare a place for you, Jesus had told his uncomprehending disciples, so that where I am, there you may be also. When they finally began to see, in the third way, they knew they were not losing him at all. Luke’s gospel tells us that when Jesus could no longer be seen by physical eyesight, his disciples worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Compare this joy to the dejection and hopelessness of their reaction to his death on the cross. This event was not abandonment but empowerment.
Jesus’ physical body could no longer be seen, heard and touched, but they could meet him through the senses in the sacrament of bread and wine and in each other. He was no longer present to explain and teach in person, but they apprehend him intellectually by listening to his words in the scriptures. But now they had a third way of seeing him. St Paul, writing to the Ephesians, seems to use the language of mystic seeing when he prays that God “may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
Perhaps among the disciples, three people stood on Mount Olivet. One may have experienced the loss of a loved physical presence and mourned that Jesus was no longer with them. A second may have grieved that the voice of the teacher was silent and stood looking up to heaven for some help and inspiration. But the third, with the eyes of the heart enlightened, knew the joy of union with the risen Christ, and returned to Jerusalem ready to be commissioned by the Holy Spirit.