Jesus said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Ascension Day, being on a Thursday, is one of those moments in our Christian Calendar which can easily get overlooked, which is why I took the liberty of using the ‘Ascension Day’ readings this morning to, as it were, bring it to our attention. Now, my highly sophisticated (not to say conspiracy) theory is that one of the reasons why Ascension doesn’t get the prominence that it’s due, (besides being held on a Thursday) is that to some degree there’s an air of the controversial about it. You see the Ascension bears all the hallmarks of a Coronation… St. Paul describes it like this. He says:
“Therefore, God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2.9-11)
What I’m trying to say is that the Ascension, metaphorically, looks us straight in the eye and tells us some very bold things about Jesus; not least, that the actions and claims of Jesus have consequences for everyone whether they acknowledge him or not. I know this is less than politically correct but Ascension reminds us that we are bearers of a vision whereby the entirety of human life is being restored and re-shaped according to the ways of God’s Kingdom. This is actually, to coin that phrase, “the arc of history” or the world’s direction of travel.
This is what lies behind St. Matthew’s equally bold account of the Ascension. He tells us that Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28.18) In short, what we call the Good News, the Christian Gospel, is the announcement that this world is now under new management.
Now, of course, we live in days when claims like these are contested. But the real problem is that we Christians are far too coy about making them. Far too keen to hide our light under a bushel basket. I mean, recognising the truth about Jesus has in fact always been problematic. How easily we forget that the earliest account of the Christian faith was the slogan, “Jesus is Lord”. These three little words were shouted from the rooftops by our forebears in days when it was much more common to hear, “Caesar is Lord” and they paid for that with their lives.
So, what I’m saying is that when we downplay the Ascension and all that it says about Jesus, we rob ourselves of what we might call the ‘cutting edge’ of the faith. What we end up with, is an unwarranted and unworthy timidity. Instead of something revolutionary and yes, provocative; bearing the name Christian (if it says anything distinctive at all) become synonymous with niceness. But when the Ascension is part of the story, this Coronation of Jesus, prevents us from saying something like, “I believe that Jesus is Lord but of course, that’s just my opinion”.
So, this morning I want to try and revive a little of what we might call the ‘fire in the belly’ that comes from proclaiming an Ascended Lord. And in particular, I want to challenge the easy way in which we have been duped into seeing ourselves as just one among many examples of what we might call ‘religious’ traditions. I’m sure you know the game. We unthinkingly accept the picture painted in academic and other circles which place us among that group of philosophies whose primary purpose is to help people give expression to what we might call our ‘natural religious impulses’. All of which implies that it doesn’t matter which path you choose, after all, they all mean the same thing in the end(!).
Well no. The flaw in this perspective (and it’s a typically modern mindset); is that it begins with US; our needs, fulfilment and so on. ‘Religion’ is then judged by its utility and usefulness. And before long we start assuming that the Christian faith is all about US and what we might call ‘Our dealings with God’. But actually, on the contrary, the Christian story begins elsewhere; in God’s dealings with US. His initiative and purpose.
So, for example, when Luke tells us in our Gospel reading this morning, that Jesus “opens their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24.45) he isn’t giving them a few helpful tips so that they can find their way to God. He isn’t confirming something they already knew. He’s opening things up. He’s giving them an entirely fresh insight into themselves and God’s purposes. All of which puts everything on a much bigger canvas since it’s HE that’s at the centre of it all.
So, marking the Ascension gives the Christian faith it’s expansive quality. The Ascension saves us from a faith which becomes so warped as to be little more than an opportunity to express my own needs and desires. Instead, as I keep saying, it confronts me with the truth that ‘God is God’….. and God IS who he has uniquely revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ. And in case you think this verges on arrogance or intolerance (as many would suggest); this is simply, as our Gospel points out, the heart of our witness. We never force anything on anyone- but this is the proposal we make; the one we have always made.
And actually, what saves us from the pitfalls of narrow mindedness and bigotry is what we do here today: worship. Let me explain. Over the past few years, it’s become common to replace School ‘Assembly’ with what we call ‘worship time’. And this change the name has started to make a small but tangible difference in school; not least because (as I’ve tried to explain) it puts the emphasis not on US and our ‘assembling together’ but on the one who is the focus of our assembling; the one whom we worship. It’s quite a simple point really but, in the same way, instead of talking about ‘going to Church’ why not tell yourself and others, “I’m going to worship”. Then take a moment to notice how that changes your attitude to what you’re doing and what you think it’s about.
In the same way marking the Ascension of Jesus also helps us to get things the right way around. This Coronation helps us become a little less obsessed with OUR dealings with God and more open to HIS dealings with us because, as Luke explains in our Gospel reading, when the disciples began their witness to Jesus; it all began from that springboard of worship. “They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24.52-53).
So, we might say that the Ascension is a call to worship. The Ascension holds before us the vision of Jesus, the Christ, in all his glory and uniqueness; the one to whom our knees bend and our tongues acknowledge as King of the World. As such, Ascension reminds us that Christian witness is not founded on clever argument; marketing or imposing anything on others. It’s about lifting up Jesus for who he truly IS and living out the consequences of that.
And perhaps we also learn that when you get the worship right; when the worship comes first; when your vision of God is such that you cannot BUT worship him, then actually, witness; a true witness to God is really, inevitable because you simply can’t help yourself.