May 14th 2015 – joint ‘Ascension Day’ service at St Mark’s Regents Park
May I speak in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The last few years of my life have been the most difficult of any I have ever been through. During this time, two main issues that I faced came about when my sense of vocation was shattered when I was not recommended by BAP and when the place I called home was uprooted, when my wife, Meagan, and I had our visa application refused. At the time I did not question if there was a God, but I sure questioned where, if anywhere, God was.
I never know if it is ok to start a sermon with a confession, but for today it seems very appropriate as I locate myself and my thoughts that I want to share with you. Until just about a year ago, I did not think the ascension of Christ really mattered. Now, before you look around for the nearest object to throw at me, let me just restate, that is a past belief. Before this, the ascension was just a nice way for Jesus to say goodbye to his friends, give them a couple of last commands, and it was a means to help us know that Jesus is not on earth anymore. I also had an understanding that the ascension of Christ was, in some way, a means of proclaiming the lordship of Jesus; but that was tentative at best.
One of the main reasons why my belief in and understanding of this event was so underdeveloped was that I grew up in the Pentecostal wing of the church; the most important post resurrection remembrance, for us, was Pentecost. When I was old enough to ponder the ascension on my own, I never did take anytime to think about it and so had, unknowingly, cut myself off from one of our great theological treasures.
What is your understanding of and belief in the ascension? When service after service we join our voices in the confession of the church do you think about that little line, he ‘ascended into heaven’? The ascension is not something we have an act to remember, unlike that of baptism and the Eucharist, and yet it is proclaimed in churches throughout the world; we say that after Jesus’ death and resurrection he ascended into heaven.
Our Bible tells us that two others were assumed into heaven before their death; we read of Enoch walking with God and then God taking him in Genesis 5:24; and we read of Elijah being caught up into heaven by a whirlwind in 2 Kings 2:11. Depending on your theology, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology teaches that the Blessed Virgin Mary was also assumed into heaven. All three are believed to have been assumed into heaven, but unlike Jesus, before their death.
Just under a year ago I found myself sitting in on interviews for a new lecturer for Cranmer Hall, in Durham, where I was training for ordination. I was asked to sit in for the part of the interview when each candidate was asked to prepare a lecture they would deliver for a group of ordinands. The second interviewee, Revd Paul Regan, offered a systematics lecture on the ascension of Christ, and it helped me to weave together many threads of what I believed happened in life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In his lecture, Regan affirmed my two basic beliefs of the ascension but then offered a few other points to solidify the importance of such an event. He began with this being the ‘farewell’ moment of Jesus with his disciples and also spoke about how this moment teaches us of Christ as King. He spoke of how this testifies to our creedal affirmation that Jesus ‘sitteth on the right hand of the Father’.
Something I found interesting at this point, was the main difference that is often seen between eastern and western iconography. Regan pointed out the main difference is seen in the physical position if the ascending Christ. In western iconography Jesus is often in a standing position, emphasising how Jesus rises from his disciples as he blesses them and says farewell. While in most eastern iconography, in contrast, Christ is in a seated position, emphasising his position of lordship over the earth he ascends from; this image can be very clearly seen in the iconography of St Mark’s reredos.
Regan continued though, and said this event is important also because it is the completion of the incarnation, it is where we see both the humanity of Christ and our humanity exalted into the Godhead and it is where we see the body of Christ being set free from the confines of space and time to relate to all people, in all places and in all times.
This idea, that Jesus’ ascension was the completion of the incarnation and the assumption of both Christ’s humanity and our humanity, were ideas that I had never bothered to process. What does it mean that God takes into God’s self, the very life, death and resurrection of Jesus? If Jesus would have simply disappeared our theology would not be so rich as to claim that the very humanity of Jesus and of all God’s children were now a very part of the being of God. The fact that God not only commits God’s self to the saving grace brought through Jesus, but then takes in the very participation of our life, sharing in our joys and sorrows, pleasure and pain, for me this speaks of a God who is not only claiming to be love, but invests their very being in the only true action of love, presence.
I mentioned at the beginning that my last few years have been the most difficult I have ever faced. One of the main reasons for this was my inability to protect and save my wife from the trials we were facing. This constant realisation that I could not change our situation and, in some cases was the very remembrance that we were helpless, destroyed much of what I believed love was. I realised that through the thick and thin of life, through the darkness and the light, the only thing that really mattered was showing up. Love is the promise to be the one who always shows up. In Jesus incarnation and God’s commitment to the assumption of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ into the very being of the Godhead, we see the Most Blessed Trinity committing itself to the very ones they claim to love.
In our first reading we heard, yet again, Jesus dealing with what the disciples thought was the most important job of the Messiah, to ‘restore again the kingdom to Israel’. Instead of laying out a plan of attack to overthrow Rome and re-establish Israel, Jesus says that it is not for them to know, but the Father has it all under control. He tells them that they are to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them so that they may be witness unto him to the entire world. It seems that Jesus plan is still what his life proclaimed, he is the one who serves. What is taken up into the Godhead is Christ the King, as priest to all people. He is the one that doesn’t exert power but one that exercises service.
Well that is all fine and dandy, another systematic theological copper to line our ‘random-things-we-say-in-church’ chest, but what does it mean for us today?
We can talk about what it means that God is with us, sharing in our suffering, in the suffering of the world he loves; holding in our minds those in Nepal who are facing the aftermath of their second earthquake. We can speak of the power coming as we await the coming of the Holy Spirit to give us words and courage to witness to the life, death and resurrection of our Lord. We can offer prayer and resources to help those who are in need and who are struggling through the ups and downs of daily life. We can do all those things, but, on this day as we celebrate the ascension of Jesus Christ, we can remember that the heart God is filled with the love of Christ assumed. A love that promises to care for us, to serve us and to save us; but perhaps most importantly in a world where the fickle and autonomous are elevated, today we remember that our God who is alive and reigns, is the one who will always show up.