Our readings this morning were those for Ascension Day. I was thinking that all this talk of ascending, clouds, glory and wondering disciples can seem a million miles away from our everyday concerns and yet there’s something fundamental to our faith going on here.
The first thing to remember is that we’re reaching another significant milestone in the story of what our God is doing. Ascension marks the end of the Easter season and it’s the point at which the resurrection appearances of Jesus were concluded. Interestingly, nowadays the ten days following Ascension are increasingly being observed as a sort of vigil.
Just as the disciples are told to wait in the Temple until they are clothed with power from on high, this time is now marked by a sense of anticipation where we recognise the fundamental change which came upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost. So, what this all amounts to, is that Ascension marks the moment when a new understanding and way of walking with the Lord God, as it were, breaks in upon them.
Now, this might not seem at all obvious at first glance. I mean, we could be forgiven for thinking that the events surrounding the Ascension are to all intents and purposes, a rather touching ‘goodbye’. I’m not at all surprised that many people live with the mistaken notion that, so to speak, ascension is the end of the story. And if it isn’t the end then at the very least, it certainly looks as though we’re being cut adrift somewhat.
I mean, one reading of it all could be: Jesus has done his bit; he’s given us an example to follow. He’s gone off to glory and now he’s leaving us to muddle on as best we can with all of life’s worries, challenges and frailty. Yes, there’s the promise of our own rest eventually (pie in the sky when we die) but what we’re left with is a somewhat semi-detached vision of God. Ascension, to this way of thinking is back to what we’d always assumed. God is the great absentee landlord. The one who is benign but largely disengaged and unconcerned.
So, if that’s the trap we’ve fallen into. If that’s our default understanding of God, then it’s important to read the story in full to see how this element of ‘exit’ is actually balanced by Jesus’s firm assurance in Matthew’s Gospel: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28) So, there is a counter-balance. Yes, the Gospel writers want us to know that the Jesus who is exalted; also remains present. This ‘both and’ sounds rather like ‘having your cake and eating it’ but what I’m getting at is that we need to move from thinking of Ascension as an ending; to seeing it as a transition. Look, for instance, at how the disciples are depicted as looking on, not in grief but in wonder. Not in anxiety but joy. They are not bereft, instead they are heartened because, when the chips are down, they leave themselves open to this new way of knowing God.
So, what’s going on? Well again, I’m suggesting that Ascension is not so much a point of departure but change. It’s not an end to our relationship with Christ but a new way of seeing, understanding and relating with him. We might have missed it but this change was actually flagged up for us on Easter morning, as Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb. Perhaps you’ll remember, “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20.17) This is where Mary is prevented from attempting to relate to Jesus as he had been. She now had to learn to see him on a much bigger canvas; as much, much more than her (albeit) wonderful teacher. The Ascension would make the difference. Essentially, her vision of God was being stretched.
And so, the bottom line is that all this talk of clouds and heaven is designed to lead us in the same direction. Because this, I think, is the fundamental point of this festival. In short, Jesus goes from local to cosmic. He goes from Jesus of Nazareth to Christ; the King of the world. In the same way, all of this Ascension language about dominion, power and authority places him, as I say, on a really big canvas.
Now, of course, these things have always been true about Jesus. As John tells us “He was in the beginning with God”. But this truth is now seen to be breaking through. It was always there, for those with ears to hear and eyes to see. It was always there in the ministry, the cross and resurrection but now with Ascension; it’s as if the clouds are parted. Or perhaps we might say, “The clouds are dispensed with”. Because now the hackneyed image of God as a distant old man, sitting on the clouds (a very Greek image, that!) is completely banished, in favour of a God made present in a vigorous thirty-three year old, crucified and risen.
And this is more than a nice, abstract, theological point. It leads us into worship and devotion; a change of heart, orientation and action.
St. Paul tells us: 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)
Or, to put it another way, what had previously been opaque, confusing or hard to fathom about God is now made clear. Ascension is a pulling back of the veil on what has always been the case. And the upshot is that knees are bending and tongues are speaking God’s truth. Lives are being reshaped in response to it all. But curiously, first comes the waiting. In truth, the disciples don’t quite get it. They retain all manner of erroneous expectations of our God and how he would act in the world.
Even after the resurrection they still imagine that he will, for instance, be primarily concerned with their national and political survival. But notice the instructions they are given. For now, they are told to wait in Jerusalem until, we’re told that they will be “clothed with power from on high”. From our perspective, we might say “Instead of celebrating Easter, enjoying the Bank Holiday and then going back to business as usual and returning to the old places and the old patterns of living, we now hear the call to wait on a new vision of God to be formed within us.
The world speaks of the Easter Weekend. We know it as a season which is designed to be life changing. Because it culminates in the frankly stunning vision that this Jesus is the Christ, the King of the world. And the outpouring out of his Spirit; which we will reflect on next week is, if you like the great crescendo to which everything has been pointing. It answers the question: “Who is a Christian?” The Christian is one who sees in Christ, our God made present and is ‘clothed with power from on high’ for service in the world.