Sermon For The Sunday After Ascension
Several of my friends were sharing this cartoon on Facebook in the last few days. I think it encapsulates how we might regard the Ascension in the Methodist Church – or not regard it, as the case may be. We have an ‘Ascension Deficit Disorder.’
There are all sorts of reasons for this. I think we find the Ascension to be one of the more embarrassing miracles. Not only is it strange, it seems to offend against what we know of modern cosmology, and we find it hard to see the point of it. The healing miracles may also seem to go against science as we know it, but at least they seem to have a point – and a loving, compassionate one at that.
But the Ascension? What on earth is the use of it? Maybe we see it as some kind of divine blast-off, and we can’t get our heads around it. To us, heaven isn’t ‘up there’ in a literal sense, and so we chide those ancient people for their simplistic beliefs. For us, the Ascension is not like a 1960s episode of Thunderbirds, and Jesus’ final meetings with the disciples aren’t like Thunderbird 2 on the launchpad, ready to fly to rescue some people in terrible distress somewhere. In the past, when I have preached on the Ascension, I have explained it as what I call a ‘miracle of accommodation’, namely that Jesus had to be taken up into heaven in the sight of the disciples as the only way they would understand he was returning to heaven, even though heaven wasn’t literally up in the sky.
But Tom Wright has pointed out that the ancient Jews didn’t see the distinction between earth and heaven that way. In a sermon he preached six years ago, he said:
The early Christians, like their Jewish contemporaries, saw heaven and earth as the overlapping and interlocking spheres of God’s good creation, with the point being that heaven is the control room from which earth is run. To say that Jesus is now in heaven is to say three things. First, that he is present with his people everywhere, no longer confined to one space-time location within earth, but certainly not absent. Second, that he is now the managing director of this strange show called ‘earth’, though like many incoming chief executives he has quite a lot to do to sort it out and turn it around. Third, that he will one day bring heaven and earth together as one, becoming therefore personally present to us once more within God’s new creation.
One way and another, then, after the Resurrection, where God vindicated his Son and began his new creation, now in the Ascension we have the confirmation that Jesus is the rightful Lord of the universe. He is the Messiah, the King. And therefore when he gathers his disciples for final instructions, he does so as the one about to take his seat on the throne of creation. We should read his words as a king’s orders to his subjects. Certainly what Jesus says here can be read as decrees and requirements.
Firstly, he calls his disciples witnesses. He interprets the Old Testament Scriptures to them all here in the manner he did to Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus Road, by showing how they pointed to his suffering, death and resurrection. But these are not just events in recent history: they have a meaning, importance and implications for all who hear. Thus Jesus goes on to say:
and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.48 You are witnesses of these things. (Verses 47-48)
The point is this: you have seen all this, disciples. You saw me betrayed and killed. You have met me since I rose from the dead. You know what these events mean about me. I am the true King. The world has been shown to be wrong about me. There is a question now of people showing true allegiance to me, since the Father has vindicated me and is about to enthrone me. You have seen this. You are witnesses. You have a responsibility to share what you have witnessed with others.
What kind of witnesses are we to the King? This last week, Debbie has received a letter, summoning her to jury service next month at the coroner’s court. It is clear that the jury would be sitting not on a trial but on an inquest. She is therefore likely to hear two kinds of witnesses. One is the expert witness, such as a doctor who describes the cause of death from a medical point of view. Another is the ordinary witness, who may have seen something crucial that happened.
Christian witness includes both kinds of witnesses. Not all of us are expert witnesses, and we do not all have to be. However, we are all ordinary witnesses, because we are witnesses to what he has done for us through those saving events of his death and resurrection.
You could use a different metaphor from ‘witness’, especially if you want to connect this specifically to Jesus’ enthronement as King. You could use the image Paul deploys in 2 Corinthians 5 of ‘ambassadors for Christ.’ We have a privilege and responsibility to speak on behalf of the King.
And it is significant that Jesus mentions ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ as part of the message. To be a witness to the king or an ambassador for him is to be entrusted with a message that calls all creation to align themselves with Jesus. That means turning away from the kingdom to which they are currently committed – the kingdom of darkness – and turning to Christ instead. Witnesses to his death and resurrection can do no less. There is a legitimate conversation to be had about how we do this, but that it is part of the task cannot be in doubt.
Secondly, Jesus the King calls his disciples to waiting. He has just given them a tremendous briefing. They must be on a knife edge. Perhaps they cannot wait to get going, out of excitement. But although he promises to equip them for the task, he tells them to wait:
I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Verse 49)
Jesus is going to put his reign into action through the disciples at Pentecost. His personal presence will be replaced by his personal power in the Holy Spirit. They will start living as the kingdom community, doing kingdom things, just like Jesus himself had done in his ministry before his death. They must be champing at the bit.
But they have to wait for that transfer from the presence of Jesus to the power of Jesus, that change of personnel from Jesus to his Spirit. Therefore the king’s order to them is, ‘wait.’
Is that so unreasonable? Our Queen has ‘ladies in waiting’ – women who wait for whenever she issues a command. The timing of the command, as well as its content, is up to Her Majesty.
Now you may say that there is an important difference between the first disciples and us. While they might have had to have waited for the Holy Spirit, we do not, because the Spirit has now been given, and receipt of the Spirit is a sign of Christian conversion. If you say that, you would be right in that particular case. The Spirit has indeed been given, and we do not have to wait like that.
However, there are many instances where Jesus in his kingly authority calls us to wait. We are not to act without his command. We are not to presume upon him and go charging off. He calls us to wait until he gives the order.
And to wait effectively means learning to be attentive. Just as the ladies in waiting have to be attentive to the Queen, so we need to learn the spiritual disciplines of attentiveness as we wait for instructions from heaven, earth’s control room. That means listening. I am far too good in prayer in rattling through the things I want to talk about and then stopping as if that were the end of prayer. But it isn’t. Not if I am to wait upon my Lord. Silence, solitude and retreat are all disciplines we need to practise if we are to be those who wait upon the King of kings.
Thirdly and finally, disciples of earth’s true king are committed to worshipping. Worship is the natural reaction to knowing that God has enthroned Jesus. Thus the reading ends:
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (Verses 50-53)
Kingship and worship go together. The Greek word most commonly translated ‘worship’ in the New Testament is proskuneo, which literally means, ‘to move towards and kiss.’ But what kind of kiss? It is the kiss of homage. The image is the ancient one of kissing a monarch as a sign of allegiance. It is still practised in a symbolic way today when new Prime Ministers and new Anglican bishops are appointed.
Worship, then, is emphatically not in the first instance about ‘singing what I like’. I am not saying that worship should not be enjoyable, but I am saying that the focus of worship is not about whether it scratches my back, it is not about whether I am ‘fed’ (because Christians should learn to feed themselves, anyway), it is not about whether it was ‘my favourite preacher’, and so on. All those criteria and more are me-centred. Worship is meant to be God-centred. We are paying homage to God. It is about a sense of awe, wonder and devotion to him, not about spiritual entertainment. We are disciples, not dilettantes.
On Bank Holiday Monday, we decided to visit Windsor. After sitting outside in the sun eating our packed lunch, we joined the queue for the castle. Having got in after an hour’s wait, we went around and eventually decided to visit the State Apartments. While following the prescribed route around them, Becky and I suddenly heard Debbie let out a gasp, and she called us urgently to where she and Mark were. They had just seen a car arrive, and the Queen get out of it with one of the corgis. They then saw the Queen walk the corgi to her official door into her living quarters. Unfortunately, Becky and I didn’t get over to them in time, and we missed out. Becky was upset. However much I tried to say to her that the Queen is just a normal human being like the rest of us, she knew she had missed out on something special. Her mum and brother had a sense of awe that they had seen the Sovereign.
And that is what we need to long for in worship: an awe at having encountered the Sovereign of all creation. Awe that does not concentrate on the amazing experience that we had, but awe that expresses our wonder at this Second Person of the Trinity, who now reigns until every enemy will have been put under his feet. To this King who now reigns we owe our loyalty.
It is something we have a chance to affirm formally at the climax of our service this morning. For we come to the sacrament of Holy Communion. Whatever else communion is, when we respond and take the bread and wine, that action is symbolic of our oath of allegiance to him who has ascended to reign over all. In the Roman Empire, the ‘sacramentum’ was the oath of allegiance taken by a soldier to the emperor. This morning, let us take our sacramentum, too.