Ascension: Jesus takes our human nature to the heart of God
Mark Byford, 28 May 2017
Acts 1: 1–11; Luke 24: 44–53
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Mark Byford and I’ve been coming to St Paul’s now for 15 years. I was baptised a Catholic as a baby. My father, still alive in his 90s, is Roman Catholic. My mother, 86, and also still alive and well, was baptised in the Church of England.
I love St Paul’s, the community here and what St Paul’s stands for.
I was deeply moved by the warmth of the welcome I received when I first started coming to the 9.30 am service all those years ago. I was also impressed by Peter Seal, who clearly worked hard to make his sermons thought-provoking, inclusive and intelligent. The retired Bishop John, living in the parish and occasionally leading the service, was and remains wonderfully wise, open, funny and compassionate. In addition, I liked the fact the licensed reader then was a woman and the way Mary Copping inspired a great young children’s presence amongst the congregation.
I liked the way St Paul’s positioned itself as having soft edges, welcoming anyone and everyone, and encouraging people to ask questions. The parish was clearly rooted in community and offered a variety of worship for all ages. It seemed to balance rather well a relaxed approach with a sense of the sacred.
I remember reading the published Parish Theology, which stated:
We know how hard it can be to have faith, but the quest for meaning is at the heart of our humanity. We know that certainty is rarely possible and can be the enemy of faith.
This was a new concept for me but an attractive one.
Fifteen years on, I still attend the Eucharist service here at St Paul’s each Sunday, and I have become a member of the PCC and the Deanery Synod. I like to call myself an ecumenical Christian; a believer in God; a respecter of all denominations, indeed of all faiths and of those people with none. I pray every day for Christian unity. I feel at home here in St Paul’s.
When Peter asked me some weeks ago to give the sermon today, I must say I felt humbled, very nervous and rather inadequate. But it’s hard to say no to Peter, so here I am. Most certainly, I don’t have his inspirational skills of oratory; nor Stephen Adam’s wonderful intellectual grasp and thoughtfulness, as he so superbly demonstrated again last week, or Mary’s gift for engaging young people and offering a tangible feel of evangelism.
I stand before you today as a practising Christian, inspired by a love of God and the words of Jesus. I’ve never been a strident evangelist nor particularly pious. I’m a person constantly questioning my faith and beliefs; a person who wants to live as Christ teaches us but who often fails. Yet I know St Paul’s and this community have made me a stronger Christian, and I feel blessed to be part of this very special place.
I’m not here to preach today. I don’t feel I have the authority or the training to do so. But what I am happy to offer is my thoughts on today’s readings and the Ascension. Take them for what they are. My own thoughts and insights, rooted in due humility. I hope they are interesting and coherent but I apologise now if they are neither.
The lovely John and Nathalie Schulz were most encouraging when I saw them in the High Street earlier in the week – they said, well at least it’ll be a different voice. That’s probably bang on.
For me, the readings today emphasise Christ’s eternal glory – Christ’s ascension to his eternal glory in heaven. And where he has gone before us, we have the hope that one day we can follow him there in eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.
As Psalm 47: 5–6 proclaims:
God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
When we say those words today in the creed, ‘He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end’, what are we proclaiming about our own beliefs and understanding?
And in the Lord’s Prayer that we will also say in a few minutes’ time, we will proclaim, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, and then, ‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever’. I suggest those words are pivotal in understanding and getting a grasp of the meaning of the Ascension.
For, in Trinitarian language, Jesus came from the Father to this world, unique as both divine and human. And at the Ascension, the human dimension of Jesus left this world and returned to the Father to be seated at his right hand in eternal glory. It is Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension that emphasise his timeless divinity as Christ and that give hope that there can be eternal life for us too.
It is Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension that emphasise his timeless divinity as Christ and that give hope that there can be eternal life for us too.
It’s important to stress Christ did not go away at the Ascension. He did not ascend up through the clouds after saying farewell to the disciples and then disappear from our lives and hopes. Christ is very much alive and present here today and all around us. As our Lord and Saviour, together with his resurrection, Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven to be next to the Father emphasises to us how, before coming to earth, during his stay here, and forever after, he remains in eternal glory as the Lord God Almighty.
The Ascension was for hundreds of years celebrated throughout Christendom on last Thursday – 40 days precisely after Easter. Augustine considered it to be the crown of all Christian festivals. But in many areas and in many churches now, the feast has lost much of its status and the marking of it has been moved to the following Sunday (which is today), slotted between the great feasts of Easter and Pentecost.
It’s really unusual for two readings at the Eucharist service to come from the same author and to be rooted in the same story. But that’s what we have today.
In the gospel reading, Luke ends his account with Christ’s ascension. His gospel begins with the miraculous conception of John the Baptist to barren Elizabeth and Zachariah, and then the Annunciation – the miraculous conception of Jesus to the Virgin Mary through the Holy Spirit. Luke’s gospel takes us through Jesus’ ministry, his crucifixion and resurrection.
He ends his account here with Christ, after the resurrection, having made various appearances to the apostles and friends and instructing them, ‘Opening their minds to the scriptures’, as Luke describes, then saying, ‘See I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with the power from on high’. Then he takes them to Bethany, on a hill above the Mount of Olives looking across to Jerusalem, where he withdraws from them and is carried up to heaven. Luke’s final words state they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the Temple blessing God.
Our first reading is by the same author, Luke, but was written after his gospel account. Whereas the gospel is an end account, this is the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. Again, it focuses on Jesus’ last moments on earth before being taken up to heaven. Importantly, it describes how he tells his apostles they will soon receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. As he leaves and they gaze up towards heaven, they hear voices guiding them that he will return in the same way as he has left.
Yes, it foretells the events of Pentecost next Sunday and the Holy Spirit entering the room, and in that it also foretells the birth of the Christian church. The two readings are a bridge, a hinge point between the end of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of Acts. And so, too, they mark the end of Jesus’ human presence on earth but the beginning of his worldwide church.
And where Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his active ministry, here we note that for 40 days after his resurrection he prepared his disciples for their future work. With that task now complete, the culmination was for him return to his Father in glory. Forty days in the Bible, according to Peter, means ‘a very long time’. But that same 40-day length highlighted by Luke is not a mere coincidence; more a theological and symmetrical metaphor. The notion of being lifted up was to emphasise the idea of a royal enthronement and Christ’s eternal kingship over this world – an immense power rooted in love, compassion, reconciliation and justice.
The Ascension has been described as marking a separation of his earthly life from his heavenly life, whilst both are inseparable. The Ascension marks the fulfilment of our salvation that started with the Incarnation. As one leading theologian describes it, ‘The Resurrection and the Ascension are intrinsically held together in the glorification of Jesus’.
For me, the Ascension readings today emphasise that Jesus’ departure is not the end or the conclusion but the beginning, the start of the creation of a worldwide mission and witness through the universal church in the power of the Spirit. And as for those apostles at that moment, it is our call today to witness, proclaim and live the Good News through a Spirit alive here and now in this building, among us. God is not up there in the distance. Christ, our Lord, is here, right here, intimately present now with us.
For all of us as pilgrims on a journey, the Ascension gives us hope – hope to join Christ in heaven in eternal life.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has described the story of the Ascension to be about ‘Power and victory, but not as we know it’. The passage mentions power and the kingdom of the Father, but he observes the power is elusive and invisible and the victory offers no conclusive culmination. He says the Ascension sets our destination never to despair; always to endure; to rejoice knowing the victory of Jesus Christ is certain. ‘Jesus brought us God – but not as we know it’, he says. ‘Our challenge is not to make Jesus fit the God we know, but to realise that God is the Jesus we see.’
Rowan Williams wrote, ‘Jesus hasn’t just gone away. He has gone deeper into the heart of reality – our reality and God’s. He has become far more than a visible friend and companion; he has shown himself to be the very centre of our life, the source of our loving energy in the world and the source of our prayerful, trustful waiting on God.’
Jesus has shown himself to be the very centre of our life, the source of our loving energy in the world and the source of our prayerful, trustful waiting on God.
The Ascension shows that all humanity is welcomed into the heart of God.
The crucified and risen Lord – God’s self-revelation in the form of a physical body – has gone to God and to heaven and thereby shows that humanity is capable of being embraced by God too, for Jesus takes our human nature to the heart of God.
I visited Christchurch Priory last Wednesday and there’s a truly glorious mural of the Ascension there, above the high altar, created in 1967 by the German Hans Feibusch. It’s a great example of how modernity can lift up such a magnificent medieval edifice to create a new level of contemplation and reflection.
At the Festal Eucharist service for Ascension Day on Thursday in Winchester Cathedral, the boy choristers and lay clerks of the cathedral choir were joined by the chapel choir – the quiristers of Winchester College – to create a truly glorious sound. It was a memorable occasion. The new Dean, Catherine Ogle, in her sermon referenced the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, William Temple, who described the Ascension as ‘the liberation of Christ from time and space’. She highlighted a theme of ‘letting go’. Jesus had to let go of his disciples and they had to let go of him in order to let themselves grow.
Later, at a more modest but intimate Ascension Day service at St Matthew’s, with 15 people in the congregation, Peter described the Ascension as ‘The logical completion of Christ’s resurrection appearances. Jesus was identifiable but different. His resurrected body is returned to the godhead’, and, as Peter described, ‘It’s the fulfilment of the wonderful, mysterious Easter season’.
Today, let us not think of the Ascension as a closing chapter or of heaven somewhere up there, way in the intangible distance, with us unable to see Christ sitting at the Father’s right hand. The glorious Christ is amongst us all this morning, living in us and feeding us with his love and grace.
May we pray that where he has gone, we may follow, to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. For, as one commentator so rightly observed, what happened to Christ is what he promises for us.