Sermon: Ascension – The Forgotten Festival
Like every English football fan, I turn into an amateur pundit when an England squad is announced for a major tournament. It was thus with interest and trepidation that I followed Wednesday’s announcement of Roy Hodgson’s squad for the Euro 2012 tournament. Were I a Frenchman, I would be quite pleased with the England squad. I wondered how certain players could be forgotten – notably Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon. The fact that Lennon plays for Spurs, Crouch used to and that Spurs are my time, did not cloud my judgement at all.
And if we think about forgotten men, we come in the Ascension to the forgotten festival. For many Christians, it’s Christmas, Easter and hopefully Pentecost. Ascension gets overlooked. Whether it’s because it always happens on a Thursday, because biblically the event it marks happened ten days before Pentecost, I don’t know, but it is certainly our forgotten festival.
But perhaps there is one reason that leads to our embarrassed silence about the Ascension, and that’s all this talk about Jesus rising up out of sight in a cloud. It all sounds so primitive, so unsophisticated to our scientifically tuned ears. We make our assumptions that the ancients believed that earth was ‘down here’ and heaven was ‘up there’, whereas our knowledge of astronomy and related disciplines seems to make that unlikely.
Yet how else were ancient people going to understand that Jesus had returned to his Father’s presence? Some riding off into the sunset, like the hero of a Western movie, wouldn’t have worked. Could it be that the strange account in Acts of Jesus being taken up from the disciples and obscured by a cloud (verse 9) is the only way God could have communicated this to them? I like to think this is an example of what John Calvin called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’, that many things are just so beyond the human mind that God can only show them in any way to us by simplifying them to our terms. Some of the creation stories may do the same, taking Babylonian myths of the day but importing very different meanings into them.
So the first theme of the Ascension for me, then, is this one of divine mystery accommodated to puny human minds. Let us not think with all our additional knowledge today that we are in any less need of God accommodating himself to our own failures to understand him. As Charles Wesley put it about the Incarnation in one of his hymns,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
‘Incomprehensibly.’ The saving works of God are so beyond and above our thinking and our imagination that the Lord has to find ways of communicating them to us that can make some kind of sense to us.
Hence I would say that a major challenge of the Ascension for us as Christians is to embrace the mystery of God and to stop thinking that we can put him into little boxes of our own making. If God chooses to put small boundaries around his revelation so that we have some chance of comprehension, that is up to him. But it is not for us to say what the limits are. It is not up to us to say, ‘But of course God could not do such-and-such’ – unless it contradicted his character.
Therefore, at Ascension-tide, let us face the challenge that God wants us to think bigger about him than we ever have done before. We may find it hard, but it may be essential. Indeed, unless we do, how ever will we truly worship him? If we are the ones who set limits on who he can be and what he can do, then is he any longer truly God? If God contracts things to help us understand, then that is his business. But we have no business in contracting God for ourselves with the tool of unbelief.
The second theme the Ascension has for me is the joining of earth and heaven. That Wesley hymn I just quoted starts with the lines,
Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree
And the Ascension is about the uniting of earth and heaven. Jesus’ journey from earth to heaven is not a vacating of earth – after all, ten days later he will send his own Spirit. It is about the joining of earth and heaven.
Remember that this is central to Jesus himself. In Jewish thought, the Temple was the place where earth and heaven met. But Jesus presented himself as the true Temple when he said, ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will rebuild it,’ referring to his death and resurrection. Earth and heaven meet, and worship is the fitting response. The Ascension shows us, as does the Incarnation and other aspects of Jesus’ ministry, that he is the one where earth and heaven meet. He is the true Temple. He, therefore, is to be worshipped and adored. Ascension is a reason for worship.
And so we might be puzzled by the Ascension, but we need to get beyond the default modern reaction in order to worship the one who has brought earth and heaven together. Ascension tells us that Jesus is worthy of all our praise and honour, not only as we sing and pray but as we live for his glory each day.
That call to worship leads us neatly into a third theme, which is that Ascension shows Jesus as both Lord and king. Tom Wright tells how one of the ways in which the myth of Roman emperors becoming gods at the time of their death is that a slave was – shall we say – ‘encouraged’ to report that they saw the soul of the dying emperor flying to heaven at the moment of death.
When Luke tells us the story of the Ascension, witnessed not by conscripted slaves but willing disciples, and not just a soul but the whole raised body of Jesus, his initial audience is surely meant to understand that this is a claim that here is the true emperor of the world. Caesar may call himself Lord, but the true Lord is Jesus.
The Cross, of course, has already declared that Jesus is King. ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me,’ he had said. Pilate had put up the notice, ‘King of the Jews’, and the Gospel writers mean us to understand that this is ultimately not a criminal charge, nor a statement of irony, but the truth. Jesus is enthroned as king on the Cross. The Resurrection then sees that king’s kingdom coming in power. Now this is capped by the Ascension as a visual sign of his reign. Jesus is Lord and King of the universe.
But it all means that he reigns in a different manner. He had reminded his disciples that the rulers of the Gentiles lorded it over people, but they were not to be that way. They were to serve. His own enthronement, as I said, was to be on the Cross – in suffering. And as we bow before our ascended Lord and King, we commit ourselves to work for his kingdom in sacrificial ways. If we worship Jesus, the true Temple who brought earth and heaven together, and we should because he is both Lord and King, then that worship cashes out in costly service. Ascension, then, asks us the question: what has my devotion to Jesus Christ cost me? Because if it has cost us nothing then we may never have understood Jesus in the first place.
There is a fourth and final Ascension theme I want to share, and it’s reflected in Hebrews 10:11-18. What does Jesus do when he gets back to the right hand of the Father? He sits down. That could mean a number of things. It could be another statement about his authority – after all, a Jewish rabbi sat down, rather than stood up, to teach. Remember that is what Jesus himself did when he preached at Nazareth. He has not stopped speaking, and as we are reminded elsewhere in the Scriptures he has not stopped praying, either.
But I prefer to see the sitting down in the terms of a rest. When Methodist ministers apply to retire, we have a quaint practice of going before our Synod and ‘asking permission to sit down’. Before we retire, we are deemed to be in what is called ‘the active work’. When we retire, we ‘sit down’. It is about a sense of completion (although the church may still call on us to do certain things).
And the ascended Jesus sits down, because the main burden of his work is done:
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
As Jesus said on the Cross, ‘It is finished’, so the Ascension confirms that fact. Everything has been done to ensure salvation. We are forgiven through his death. We have new life through his Resurrection. From the right hand of the Father he pours out the Spirit so that we can live sacrificially for his kingdom. As the ascended Jesus waits for the final destruction of death, he has given us all we need to lives as little Jesuses, to be the faithful people and new community he wants us to be.
Ascension, finally, then, says, let us rise to the task. Jesus is waiting.