Sunday after Ascension
The Ven Dr Bill Jacob
At Christmas we celebrate the physical presence of Jesus in the world. Now at Ascensiontide, we celebrate the physical absence of Jesus. It is a lot easier to get one’s mind round Christmas than Ascension Day.
The story we hear today from the Acts of the Apostles comes from an age in which people’s conception of the universe was different from ours. Some people in the first century were flat-earthers, who thought in terms of the earth being a flat expanse, over arched by the sky, with heaven above and hell below. Others believed that the earth was at the centre of a number of concentric crystalline spheres, which carried the various heavenly bodies. Either way, heaven was thought to be ‘up there’. Beyond the sky and the sun and moon and stars, it was thought, lay a numinous region, the abode of God. So, to be with God, meant to rise from the earth, into the numinous, heavenly places, above.
It was quite a cosy world - not too vast, and which had only existed for a few thousand years, and which might come to an end at any moment. People could feel at home in such a world: they could believe themselves near the centre of things, and so they believed that they counted for something in the universe. It all seemed to have been designed for their benefit, revolving around them. The rise of modern science shattered that comfortable world. We have discovered that we are a minute part of a vast, ancient, uncertain, and alien world.
Research has shown that the earth is a mere speck in the immensity of space, our history is a mere floating moment in the aeons of time. Poets, philosophers and novelists have expresses a sense of lostness in the trackless expanses of time and space. No matter how far we might travel into space, we will not find the glories of God’s dwelling place, but just the silent spaces.
If our conception of the universe has changed so much, does it still make sense to affirm of Jesus, as we do in the creed, that ‘he ascended into heaven’? The scientific revolution has destroyed a picture of a cosy familiar, earth-centred universe; and ascension in any literal sense is an idea which it is difficult to ascent to. But the point of the story lay elsewhere. Using word-pictures with which they were familiar Jesus followers expressed in their story a tremendous claim for Jesus. They had known him face-to-face, a particular person, who had lived at a particular time, in a particular corner of the world. But they had come to see in him something of universal significance. The life-span of this particular human being, Jesus, was now over, and had vanished into the past, as all human life spans do. His physical presence was no longer with them. But that universal significance and influence that his followers had perceived in him had not vanished. It was in fact set free from the limitations of his particular historical existence in that small, backward part of time and space, so that his living, and enlivening presence would be available iat all times and places, even in our differently perceived universe. Christian faith in the ascended Lord means for us today that even among the vast, silent, empty spaces of the universe, the personal reality that was expressed in Jesus gives us a better clue to the meaning of it all than astronomical research, or advanced maths, physics or chemistry about the wheeling galaxies, and the gas clouds.
Christian devotion (when, for example, we sing ‘The head that once was crowned with thorns ...) claims that the ascended Lord still bears the marks of the nails and spear inflicted in his execution. The ascension is not a reversal of that cruel and undeserved death, but witnesses that it is the humble, self-emptying, suffering love of Jesus that overcomes what is wrong with the world, and points us to true reality.
The ascension means that the love of God has overcome evil and death. It is stronger than any power. It is our clue to the mystery of God and to the creative force that sustains the world. Christ is a present reality. We do not need to recall with nostalgia a tragic historical figure, who recedes more and more in to the past, and the details of whose life are somewhat obscure and uncertain. It is our task, like that of the first disciples left standing on the hillside to respond to the new vision that Christ has opened up, a vision of a potential for a renewed humanity, and even of a new heaven and a new earth. That vision can be realised only if his disciples, now as then, are willing to be his witnesses to the end of the earth.
The ascension did not turn Jesus into something remote and untouchable, like a general principle of good. He remains as he had been, a living person, but now alive in God, no longer bounded by time and space.
We now know him ‘though the Holy Spirit’. The Holy Spirit continues and makes present in every age Jesus’s own work. It is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus continues to lead the Church, not as a great example of true goodness, but as a living presence among us, who enlivens us. Jesus is neither a distant figure of history, nor a remote example of goodness, but a living presence, most especially here, in the Eucharist, in which we experience his presence as his disciples experienced his presence at the Supper the night before his execution, and also when he acted as host, and broke bread with them when he appeared amongst them after the resurrection. Jesus is a living presence who helps us make sense of this world, which so often seems lonely desolate, unloving. It is he who calls us, each of us, into his co-service, and makes life worth living, showing that .in the vastness of the universe, we, individually are loved and valued, and in relationship with our sisters and brothers in Christ, and with God, the origin of all that is.