Ascension: Christ is forever the active, life-giving force

Stephen Adam, 8 May 2016

Acts 1: 1–11; Luke 24: 44–53

In the life of the church this is a rather unusual Sunday. It’s the final, seventh Sunday of the Easter season: seven Sundays fixed on the defining miracle of new life given us in Jesus through the wonder of the resurrection; each Sunday another little Easter with its own alleluia!

It’s the Sunday after Ascension Day, when the church celebrates the ascent of Jesus to power as we confess him who ‘sits at the right hand of God the Father, from where he will come to judge the living and the dead’, as we proclaim week by week in the creed.

It’s the Sunday preceding Pentecost, when the church remembers, celebrates and anticipates God’s gift of new spirit into the church to power us into a new obedience and commitment to share the good news of the risen Christ, remembering the final great commandment of our Lord as recorded by Matthew: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’.

So all these great themes converge today: resurrection, ascent to power, and spirit. Because Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday this great festival can be somewhat overlooked. So today we are keeping this Sunday as Ascension Sunday, and I’d like to unpack a little of the mystery of the ascension.

The story of the ascension as we’ve just heard it described by Luke is full of symbolism, imagery and metaphor which tax our imagination. The trouble is that today we’ve often lost our understanding of these symbols, just as when we visit the National Gallery we don’t appreciate the subtlety, nuances or allusions of the great classical paintings, because most of us no longer have the language or vocabulary to interpret them, or decode them, if you like.

And so my plea this morning is that we shouldn’t get caught up in the literal truth of a perplexing and difficult story. Let’s not stare at the surface of the text like the disciples staring vacantly into the sky, but let’s try to glimpse what lies behind it.

The Jewish understanding was that clouds invoked the awesome presence of God, and so when we read of Jesus being lifted up by a cloud we shouldn’t think of this as Jesus exiting stage right pursed by a cloud, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s famous stage direction! No, the ascension proclaims nothing less than that Christ has entered into his sovereign rule as Lord of all. He’s no longer confined to one historic place and time but is part of the godhead, the very being of God, and has expanded all things and all times with his glorious presence through the outpouring of his Spirit.

This is mind-blowing stuff, which our language inevitably falls short of describing. As we contemplate Christ in majesty our words run out and we’re reduced to saying, with Wittgenstein, ‘Of that whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent’.

If you go into some medieval churches you will see roof bosses just showing Jesus’ feet bearing the mark of the nails. Again, don’t take this literally, as Jesus taking off, but rather interpret it as pointing to how, as Jesus returns to the Father, so he takes our wounded humanity with us. The nails proclaim that God has been where we are: he has descended to the depths of the human condition – to birth, suffering and death itself.

Ours is an incarnational faith, raw and fleshly, proclaiming a God who knows us intimately and who in Christ has experienced all that it is to be human. It’s a faith where we encounter Christ in the earthy elements of bread and wine, body and blood, as we celebrate the Eucharist week by week.

Both cross and resurrection need to shape our understanding of the ascension. Let me quote something that Robert Runcie, our former archbishop, wrote:

The ascension indicates a way of living by both resurrection and crucifixion at one and the same time. It is easier, of course, to live by the resurrection only, or by the crucifixion only, than by both together.

To live by the resurrection only would be to play down all life’s jagged edges. We all know Christians for whom life appears to have gone favourably and who display a facile optimism that ignores a suffering humanity.

To live by the crucifixion only would be to succumb finally to the view that human life is only and ever tragic. The tragic hero is immensely attractive, but in the end even such heroism can become a heroic posturing.

The Christian life is neither optimism nor tragedy. To live by both resurrection and crucifixion together, through the action of the Spirit and God, is the meaning of the ascension.

In other words, the glory of the ascended Christ also encompasses the glory of the crucified Christ, bearing the imprint of the nails. This crucified, wounded, now exalted Christ takes our very humanity into the godhead.

Crown him the Lord of love; behold his hands and side,
Those wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified.

And, in the words of Charles Wesley’s great hymn,

See! The heaven its Lord receives, yet he loves the world he leaves;
Though returning to his throne, still he calls mankind his own. Alleluia!

When we read Luke’s account of Jesus being taken up into heaven, it’s easy for us to think that this is all about farewell and absence, Christ leaving his disciples and returning to the Father. But there’s a paradox here, for what the story of the ascension is trying to tell us is that it’s not so much that Christ has gone away, but rather that he has ascended so that he can be still more fully present – so that ‘he might fill all things’, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians.

There’s a paradox here … it’s not so much that Christ has gone away, but rather that he has ascended so that he can be still more fully present.

Christ is forever the active, life-giving force in all of life – you’ll recall his promise at the end of Matthew, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. R. S. Thomas, that great poet of the hiddenness, the otherness of God, put the paradox like this: ‘It is this great absence, that is like a presence, that compels me to address it’.

The ascension is a story that abounds in hope and promise: that Christ in his glory is with us, that the church is empowered by his Spirit – the Spirit whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday in the great feast of Pentecost – and that we, as part of the worldwide church, are sent into the community around us, where our hands and feet have work to do in the name of Christ. As St Teresa of Avila puts it in her famous prayer, ‘Christ has no body on earth but ours’.

Today marks the start of a week of prayer leading up to Pentecost, when the Archbishop of Canterbury has invited all of us – individually and in our churches and parishes across the land – to pray for the evangelisation of the nation. There are opportunities for each of us to participate in this initiative in our parish; details are on the pew sheet, and I commend it.

One particularly significant event next Sunday at 7 pm will be the Beacon Cathedral event, where in response to a request from the Archbishop of Canterbury our cathedral will be one of five venues across the country hosting a popular informal worship celebration of the gift of the Spirit, re-igniting our hope and renewing our enthusiasm both for God and for the people whom we serve.

Sometimes when we think of evangelisation it’s easy to think that our job as Christians is to bring Christ to the world, to bring Christ to other people. We know what people mean when they use this sort of shorthand. But the ascension tells us something else as well: that we don’t have to make Christ present, because he’s already here, alive and active. He’s already here in our world, in our lives, in all our brokenness, in the messiness of our human condition and in our sin. There is no part of human life that is untouched by the presence of God and the possibility of redemption.

Rather, I suggest, our job is to make him known, to share his risen presence and to reveal him in all his splendour and glory as Lord of all – a glory that is characterised not by triumphalism but by love, humility and service – supremely perhaps in the example he gave to his disciples in washing their feet before his Passion.

Let our song today be ‘Jesus is Lord’. In those marvellous words of Paul to the church in Philippi:

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.