Preached at a lunchtime Ascension Day service at Archway Methodist Church, 2nd June 2011. Scripture reading: Acts 1:1-11.
I sometimes find it hard to believe that I live in a household of adults. My children are 22 and 19 years old, with no discernible prospect of leaving home. This is ironic because when Sophia was in her teens she seemed to be counting down to when she would be 18 and free to leave the family nest. Chance would be a fine thing! By the time I was her age I had been away from home for 3 years at university. I couldn’t go back home even if I wanted to because my parents had moved! Our kids obviously know which side their bread is buttered. They seem to be in no particular hurry going anywhere else.
But it can’t last forever! As we grow up and become adult we assume more and more responsibility for looking after ourselves. We get to the point where we can no longer depend on our parents to cook, clothe and clean for us. Some parents find it hard to accept that their children have grown up. But in our heads, if not our hearts we know that we cannot hold on to our children forever. We have to trust that through the long years of childhood we have prepared them to go their own way, to shape their own lives. It is all part of the process of growing towards maturity.
All of us have been through this experience, as children or as parents. And perhaps this common experience can help us understand better the Ascension of Jesus. The opening chapter of Acts is a story of the Christian community maturing and quickly learning to grow up. For three years the disciples had had Jesus as their constant companion and guide. Without him they felt confused and lost – remember the events that took place after his arrest. So they had been overjoyed to discover that his death was not the end, and that he was still very much present with them. But Jesus knew that he could not remain with his disciples always. It was time for him to leave.
All of us have experienced what it is like to say farewell to family and friends. When we think of such times of parting we often think of them as sad occasions. But this was not so at Jesus’ ascension. The ascension was good news for Jesus, and good news for the disciples; a cause not for sorrow but for joy.
For Jesus, the Ascension was not so much a departure as a return. A return to God. The bible expresses this belief in different ways, using the boldest of imagery. So Paul writes to the Philippians:
“God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
Jesus is pictured as seated in heaven in majesty.
Luke has a different way of expressing the same truth. Whereas Paul was content to describe Christ exalted, Luke describes Jesus ascending, presumably to heaven. It is perhaps best not to take the story too literally. As the theologian Hans Kung observed:
Obviously Jesus did not go on a journey into space. In which direction would he have ascended, at what speed, and how long would it have taken?
We know that heaven is not literally ‘up there’. It cannot be measured in the same three dimensions as an IKEA wardrobe. Rather Luke, like Paul, is expressing the belief that Jesus is now in heaven, in other words, where God is. Jesus in John’s gospel puts it in a much simpler way, though no less mysterious: “I am going to the Father”.
In fact when we read Acts chapter 1 it is remarkable how little Luke has to say of the actual ascension itself. Just one verse, in fact:
“he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9)
Luke seems to be far more interested in the disciples’ reaction. So what did the Ascension mean for the disciples?
Like a young person making their way in the world, it was only at the Ascension that the Christian community could make the important step of learning to stand on its own two feet.
One of the most difficult time for any organisation, social, political or religious, is the loss of its founder whether by retirement or through death. An example from history is the empire of Alexander the Great. Alexander created one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. But it took his charismatic genius to hold it together, and on his death the empire soon broke up into lesser kingdoms, each ruled by one of his generals.
And so the departure of Jesus was a critical time for the church. How could it survive the absence of its founder and inspiration, Jesus? Simply because this is not the absence of a dead man. This is the absence of someone who is alive. The community will be guided by the Spirit of Jesus, As we read in the Gospel on Sunday:
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:16, 26)
So we have the strange paradox that through his departure, Jesus, now freed from restrictions of place and time, becomes a present reality to all Christians. As William Temple wrote:
“The ascension of Christ… does not represent his removal from earth, but his constant presence everywhere on earth.”
And St Augustine said:
“He departed from our sight that we might return to our heart, and there find him, For he departed, and behold, he is here!”
Thanks to the gift of the Spirit, the church is not left to its own devices, but even so, this is a new and different relationship to that with Jesus during his earthly ministry. The mission of Jesus now becomes the mission of the church. All four gospels relate how the disciples were commissioned for mission by the risen Christ. Not that it starts in a particularly promising way. Luke tells us that they asked of Jesus “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
Their mission is too narrowly focused. Jesus must lift their vision from such constraints: “ you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Jesus has left them in charge of his mission, which they have to pursue on earth. What a responsibility!
And it remains our responsibility today to continue Jesus’ mission on earth. This is not always an easy or straight-forward task. Difficult questions arise with no easy answers; but that is the reality of what it means to live as mature Christians in a grown up Church. Christ refuses to spoon feed us, but he does assure us of the power of the Holy Spirit in this task, giving insight, discernment and wisdom.
Despite this promise it was perhaps inevitable that the disciples just stood there, awestruck and open-mouthed. It took a couple of angels to bring them back to earth with a gentle rebuke: what are you looking up there for?
Alas there are still too many Christians who are so heavenly minded they are of no earthly use. Like the disciples we have not always understood that our eyes should be focused on the world about us and its people, for this is where we are called to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ and where he promises to be with us still.