St Francis, Terriers - Ascension Day (05.05.2016)

Tony Dickinson

Just what are we celebrating tonight? In past ages, when a widely-held world-view pictured a “three-decker universe” with heaven as the top deck, earth in the middle, and hell, or some other kind of underworld at the bottom, many Christians were content to accept the ascension of Jesus into heaven as a historical event. In the fifteenth century Thomas à Kempis, the author of “The Imitation of Christ”, could write these words as part of a meditation on “The Ascension of our Lord, and his Appearance”:

“…Having blessed [the disciples] with thy sacred hands, and bade them farewell, thou, with a glorious body, wast lifted up, by divine power, into the lofty habitation of the Heavens; where an innumerable company of Saints and Angels, and All the Heavenly Hosts, singing and rejoicing on the pipe and harp, came forth to meet thee. With them were the Patriarchs and Prophets, and holy men of old, whom thou didst valiantly redeem from the power of the grave, and quietly seat in a Paradise of delight, even to this day.

“Therefore, with this great multitude of noble and exulting Saints, thou didst openly ascend with joy, and might, and majesty, to the royal and lofty throne in the Heaven of Heavens – the Throne most worthily prepared for thee alone, from all eternity.”

It makes a very pretty picture, almost the specification for an illuminator working on a whole-page illustration in an expensive book of hours: but it bears very little resemblance to the picture painted by that other inspired artist in words, St Luke, in two of our readings tonight. Luke’s focus is not on the triumphal return of the Son of God to heaven, “reigning where he was before”. His focus is on the disciples, left behind, “gazing up toward heaven”. The details are slightly different, the emphasis is slightly different, in each of those accounts. At the end of his Gospel Luke depicts the risen Christ recapping all that has happened to him and showing how it follows the pattern set in the sacred writings of Israel. In the opening paragraphs of the Acts of the Apostles, he shows him dealing with questions about the future. “Is this the time…?”

The details are slightly different, the emphasis is slightly different, but the main thrust is the same. Jesus has accomplished the task for which the Father sent him. He has fulfilled “everything written… in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms.” Now it is the disciples’ turn to continue his work in the world. Their task is two-fold: to be his witnesses – a word that appears in both of these readings – and to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins, not just to Jewish communities or those who are close to the Jewish tradition of faith, but to all nations, to the very ends of the earth, people of different cultures and languages, with different hopes and different stories.

Now, that it is a tough ask. It’s so much easier to focus their gaze on heaven, to paint wonderful, imaginative pictures of a glorious return to that “royal and lofty throne in the Heaven of Heavens” which Thomas à Kempis described, or to spend their time speculating about when the risen Lord will “restore the kingdom to Israel.” They need that verbal equivalent of a sharp nudge in the ribs administered by the two men in white. “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” That isn’t a polite enquiry; it’s an implied rebuke – one which I suspect Luke is also aiming at his readers, including us.

Like those gawping Galileans, we need the reminder that we, too, have a job to do. Actually, it’s the same job; that two-fold task of being witnesses to the risen Christ and proclaiming repentance and forgiveness. They aren’t easy. Being a witness isn’t a matter of proving that we are right and that others are wrong. Being a witness is about revealing the sheer attractiveness of Jesus in the way we live, and in the way we relate to others – and not just when we’re on our best behaviour. I don’t know about you, but it’s a task in which I am constantly being found out. When I’m tired, or under pressure, or in a hole (usually one I’ve dug myself), the quality of my witness to the attractiveness of Jesus is not great. And the other task – well, that’s one where the institutional Church has really fouled up down the centuries. It hasn’t often proclaimed repentance – which means changing the way you see things, changing your mind-set. Instead, it has reinforced a single mind-set, one way of seeing things, by proclaiming judgement.

Sometimes that judgement is crude and repellent, like the Baptist congregation in the states whose members picket funerals carrying banners that read “God hates fags!” – which doesn’t mean they are encouraging people to give up smoking. Sometimes judgement is coldly legalistic, like the statement in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.” The trouble with either approach is that it rules out the second part of the Christian proclamation. Where in those examples is the possibility of forgiveness? Most of the current arguments in the Catholic Church about same-sex attraction and about communion for those who have remarried after divorce are arguments between those who want to stay entirely within that legalistic and intellectually coherent framework and those who recognise that human lives are often messy and that what is important is the forgiveness of sins and the expression of that forgiveness in the corporate life of the Church.

That thought brings us (finally!) to our first reading, which suggests that the return of Jesus to God, for which ascension is a powerful metaphor, means the taking of our messy humanity into the heart of Godhead and transforming it. That mysterious figure, “one like a human being”, who is presented before the Ancient One – he is the representative one, the one who has broken the power of the beasts who appeared in Daniel’s vision, the destructive forces that threaten to overwhelm us in our weakness, so that in the end they cannot. That is the promise of God which we await, as the first disciples did. God’s promise is a countervailing power, not the power of brute force, but the power of love, poured out on us, not as we actively seek to acquire it, but as we wait, as we worship, in prayer and praise and patience, allowing God to conform us to the pattern of his Son, allowing God to transform us by clothing us with his Spirit.

That is what we are celebrating tonight.