No one has ascended into heaven except the Son of Man

Rt Revd Tim Dakin, 12 March 2017

1 Kings 9: 1–9; John 3: 1–17

Apparently our attention span has gone from 12 to 8 seconds, yet a goldfish can concentrate for 9 seconds. This is one of those facts no one can prove but is fun as a sound bite. When Nicodemus visited Jesus by night he was extremely focused and concentrating hard. Jesus said some deep and significant things to him, which have become core to the Christian way of life.

Think of those words about being born from above, born again; and the verses, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ So Nicodemus was concentrating very hard.

Yet familiarity may cause us to miss something else that Jesus says: ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’. This is the second time Jesus has referred to ascending and descending – both in connection with himself. In the first instance he talked of angels descending and ascending on himself, indicating his own significance as the stone of Bethel – the stone of God’s presence, which many believed to be in the Temple. Now here Jesus says that he himself is mediating the ascending and descending of divine presence.

Jesus is broadening his own significance from Temple to world: from himself as the focus for Israel, to being the one in whom the future of the world is resolved and eternal life is granted.

Jesus is broadening his own significance from Temple to world: from himself as the focus for Israel, to being the one in whom the future of the world is resolved and eternal life is granted.

Prior to this, Jesus has indicated the significance of his ministry by his miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. He has re-enacted the crowning glory of God’s creation: the image of God given to humanity revealed in the covenant love of men and women as the stewards of all creation. From Cana he goes straight to the Temple and cleanses it, promising resurrection. The crowds believe in him. Deeply disturbed by these prophetic acts, Nicodemus goes by night to see Jesus.

And Jesus says to him, ‘No one … except the Son of Man’. One of the great achievements of the ecumenical movement over the past 100 years is a common commitment to a concentration, at the level of spirituality, on Jesus. This concentration has been accompanied by a re-affirmation of Trinitarian theology in a world of great pluralism, and by a rediscovery of the Spirit’s work in the worldwide movement of the Christian mission. But ‘No one … except the Son of Man’ is the key.

No one but Jesus has descended with grace to redeem us and justify us. This is at the heart of our ecumenical statements on justification as this year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses. Similarly, Protestant and Catholic spirituality has been forged together in a remarkable focus on Jesus. Thus no one but Jesus has ascended, raising humanity to make us holy, in our common journey towards God, purifying our deepest desires and greatest hopes.

So, you may ask, when am I coming to the practicalities of walking before God? What does all this mean practically? One outcome is a new confidence in the gospel and the Christian way of life, of walking before God. The restoration of St Matthew’s, like the first Temple, could be seen like that. If Christianity is dying, then why bother restoring this building? This might be an architectural gem of the diocese (though Upton Grey might challenge you), yet the statement Christians are making here is that we’re not going away and we’re here to serve with renewed vigour and new facilities, walking before God. Our offer to the nation is the Christian way of life.

What we call the pastoral pattern of English mission is not about the pastoral role of the vicar; it’s the pastoral pattern of the rural parish church where all in the community are engaged by all with the Christian way of life. Martin Thornton, historian of English spirituality, sees in this rural synthesis the pastoral pattern of the English church. Today’s society is different, but our offer is similar.

So if our offer to the nation is still the Christian way of life, then it’s still the people of God who make that known by making it real. The Diocesan Rule of Life is one way of helping us do this. It takes the heritage of the pastoral pattern, fostered by the Benedictine movement and reworked by Cranmer, and asks each of us to explore how today we are sharing God’s life: loving, living and serving in our families, at work, as citizens and in our culture. The old pastoral pattern, like the first Temple, was established to set God’s people free to share God’s life. May St Matthew’s do this with new confidence that comes from living the mission of Jesus, in whom we’re saved and in whom we hope.