Ascension: what seems an ending is also a beginning

Stephen Adam, 13 May 2018

Acts 1: 1–11; Luke 24: 44–53

In the life of the Church this is a rather unusual Sunday, with three distinct themes. It’s the final, seventh Sunday of the Easter season – seven Sundays focused on celebrating the new life given us in Jesus through the wonder of his 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 – him who ‘is seated at the right hand of the Father, from where he will come again in glory 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 recalls and celebrates God’s gift of new Spirit into the Church to empower us into fresh 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, 40 days after Easter Day, this great festival is often overlooked by large parts of the Christian world, thus impoverishing our theology and our understanding of Christ’s redeeming work. It’s good, therefore, that today we are keeping this Sunday as Ascension Sunday so that we can explore together a little of the mystery of the Ascension.

It’s tempting perhaps to view this strange story simply as a conclusion – the completion of Christ’s earthly ministry – as we read the final words of Luke’s gospel: that while Jesus was blessing the disciples ‘he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven’. But as T. S. Eliot reminds us, what seems an ending is also a beginning, and the Ascension takes us into a whole new, fresh and life-changing understanding of what Christ has done through his crucifixion and resurrection.

Luke’s account of the Ascension, with Jesus being lifted up from the sight of the disciples and being veiled by a cloud, is full of symbolism, imagery and metaphor. We struggle to get our heads round the language; but rather than getting too caught up in puzzling out the literal truth of a perplexing story, let’s instead dig a bit deeper and try to understand to what the story points.

For at this great festival of the Ascension we proclaim nothing less than that Christ has entered into his sovereign rule as Lord of all. The wounded, crucified, risen Lord is no longer confined to one historic physical place or time to the exclusion of all others, but has returned to his Father. He is part of the Godhead, the very being of God, timeless and eternal, there for all of us for all time, and universally accessible to all who call upon him. So, yes, in one sense he leaves us, but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way, that he might be more fully present – so that ‘he might fill all things’, as Paul puts it in his Letter to the Ephesians.

The resurrection and Ascension belong together. If there had been no Ascension we would not know what happened to Jesus, or indeed have any hope for ourselves. But through his incarnation Jesus knew what it was like to be human; he identified with every aspect of our human condition, he knew all our frailties, weaknesses and pain.

The nails in his crucified hands and feet proclaim that God has been where we are: he has descended into the very depths of the human condition, to birth, suffering and to death. And now, with the Ascension of the risen Lord, that humanity is taken up into the Godhead, and with it our own wounded humanity – meaning that nothing at all can separate us from the love of God.

The glory of the ascended Christ cannot be separated from the glory of the wounded Christ, bearing the imprint of those nails:

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:

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

Crucially, the Ascension also challenges us to rethink our whole understanding of the nature of God. We can no longer speak of God in isolation, or in the abstract. Instead, our faith impels us to make a really bold statement – that the Christ revealed in the gospels is integral to any understanding of God, and that we cannot separate God’s nature from his being Christ-like. That’s an astonishing claim, but it means that everything we need to know about God – his very essence – is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

As I reflect upon that profound mystery, three words come to mind: hospitality, homecoming and welcome. God never imposes himself on us; instead, what he offers us is an invitation to abide in him and in his love, transforming the whole of our lives with his love. Christ is the generous host, always calling, always inviting, never giving up on us.

God never imposes himself on us; instead, what he offers us is an invitation to abide in him and in his love, transforming the whole of our lives with his love.

In his book Tokens of Trust our former archbishop, Rowan Williams, claims that George Herbert’s ‘Love bade me welcome’ (‘Love III’) is the finest Christian poem in the English language. It speaks into this season of Ascension as the poet feels himself just an unworthy guest in God’s presence, but love assures him that he is utterly accepted and welcome:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
       From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
       If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
       Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
       I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
      Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
         Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
        My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
       So I did sit and eat.

Do read it again when you get home and you’ll discover just what a marvellous feat of compression the poem is. Within just three short verses it contains Christianity’s whole grand biblical narrative of humanity – from the primal fall from Paradise with the guest ‘guilty of dust and sin’; to the redemptive work of Christ in divinely taking upon himself man’s sin and punishment, ‘And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?’; and then looking ahead to the prophetic promise that at the fulfilment of all things Christ’s redemption will be sealed with a heavenly banquet, ‘So I did sit and eat’.

Herbert’s poem is imbued with the deep sense of his belief that all we need to know about God is that he is Love. The language of eating also echoes our great sacrament of Holy Communion, through which we are spiritually nourished week by week.

The Ascension, then, is a story that abounds in hope and promise. It’s also a call to action. As Luke describes it in our reading from Acts, as Jesus disappears from the disciples’ sight two heavenly messengers appear and ask them, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’

It’s as if they’re saying to the disciples – and no less to us today – ‘What are you waiting for? Don’t waste time looking around, paralysed by inaction, wondering where Jesus has gone or when he will return. Don’t look back nostalgically to the good old days when Jesus was with you, working miracles, healing the sick and calming the storms. Instead, there’s a world waiting to be transformed, there’s a world that’s hurting that aches to be healed, there’s love to be shown to the forgotten and neglected.’

Don’t look back nostalgically … there’s a world waiting to be transformed, there’s a world that’s hurting that aches to be healed, there’s love to be shown to the forgotten and neglected.

As we read on through Acts and Paul’s letters we can see how the early Church obeyed this calling. This morning, like those disciples in Acts, we’re in an in-between time, between celebrating the Ascension of our Lord and awaiting for the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost – which we’ll celebrate next Sunday – that power which will enable, encourage and lead us into fresh commitment.

We read that the disciples busied themselves in prayer whilst awaiting the day of Pentecost, and mirroring this our own archbishops have adopted these days as a novena of prayer, inviting all of us – individually and in our churches and parishes across the land – to join in this Thy Kingdom Come initiative, praying for God’s kingdom to come, praying for our sad and bruised world, and praying too for the gifts of the Spirit to equip us for the mission that the ascended Christ has given us: to make his love known.

Now to the Risen and Ascended One, who has given us the sure hope that where he is we may also be, to him be all blessing and honour. Amen.