A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, May 8, 2016
Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension. It was really last Thursday, but the modern world doesn’t seem to have much time for mid-week services, so most churches either transfer it to the closest Sunday, which is what we’re doing, or they don’t bother with it at all. Which is weird.
Now, the Ascension presents us with one of the best opportunities to make sense of the ministry and mission of Jesus Christ, so at one level I don’t fully understand why we don’t really pay much attention to it. We spend a lot of time and attention on Jesus’ miraculous birth to a virgin, we spend a lot of time and attention on Jesus’ defying death by rising to new life. But when we get the chapter of his life and ministry that, as it were, completes the whole story, we can take it or leave it.
Yet, the Feast of the Ascension interacts with every aspect of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. It is the fulcrum, the pivot. It acts as the interconnection, the nexus for everything else.
The Ascension completes the picture of Jesus birth: at Christmas the union of God with humankind is brought about; now at the Ascension the union of humankind with God is brought about.
It completes the picture of the Resurrection: because it confirms that the risen Lord is not just the risen Lord after the Resurrection and confirms that his Lordship was always his prerogative, but that he had not fully claimed this Lordship because it had not been fully demonstrated until the Resurrection.
It completes the picture of Pentecost: because the gift of the Holy Spirit can only be given by Jesus as Lord and King: seated at the right hand of the Father, and can only be given when it is clear that Jesus has marked the boundary between his earthly historical ministry and his spiritual, infinite, universal ministry and when it is made clear that, in the words of St Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no hands on earth but ours, no feet but ours.”
Or, to put it another way, Jesus came to earth from the Father, and was always destined to go back to the Father, having defeated death by coming back to life.
And, at a practical level, Jesus was around on earth after his resurrection, and he isn’t around walking the earth now, so something had to happen to his earthly body, and the Ascension is what happened.
Perhaps, though, one of the reasons that the Feast of the Ascension is not given the recognition it deserves may because it’s a really strange event, and we don’t quite know how to respond to it.
Let’s take a look at pictorial representations of the Feast of the Ascension. Now, the Ascension is a mighty difficult challenge for an artist, and most of the pictures you will find of Jesus’ Ascension fall into one of three categories: a) swirly, abstract, ethereal brush strokes of vivid colors that suggest some sort of whirlwind or b) Jesus sort of levitating a few feet above the ground while the disciples look surprised (see left) or c) a cloud with two feet sticking out of it with the disciples looking faintly perturbed.
So, yes, the Ascension is a challenge for artists. And it is popularly held to be a challenge for preachers. One of those sermons we’d rather avoid. Perhaps that’s the real reason why so many churches don’t seem to bother with the Ascension. When I was a rookie priest at Durham Cathedral in England, I got the preaching rota and I was down to preach on Ascension Day, which I assumed was something of a coup since the Ascension was a major feast day of the Church. I think my reasoning should have been more cynical.
Apparently one of the areas of difficulty that preachers have with the Ascension is that it is just such a weird episode. I mean, being sucked into a cloud. How could that possibly happen? It just isn’t normal. This from preachers who seemingly have no difficulty with preaching at Christmas.
After all, Christmas is just the everyday story of a poor teenage girl who gets pregnant with the Son of God in some sort of weird hermaphroditic process that defies biology, after a meeting with a man with wings; who subsequently gives birth in a smelly outhouse and has a visit from a group of Zoroastrian magicians with somewhat strange gifts of decidedly limited utility. What could be more normal than that?
Any then you have Easter…. Well, you get the picture.
The fact of the matter is that all of these events defy normal physical explanation, but with God all things are possible. We live in a world that is deeply skeptical of supernatural events yet, as St. Augustine once said, ‘miracles are not contrary to nature, they are just contrary to what we know about nature’. Actually, I would want to say this: that what we know about God’s nature is that all things with God are possible, even things that ordinarily would be deemed impossible. There is, for instance, not a finite amount of love in the world. There is an inexhaustible supply of love: it is not subject to the laws of physics. The same is not true of hate, or fear. There is always more love that can counteract fear and hate. Evil will never, ever, ever have the last word.
In the beginning, before space and time existed, God was. And God created the world in love, and wanted always to be together with his precious creation. But somehow a gulf opened up, a chasm between us and God. That chasm was sin and death. And God longed with all his heart to be reunited with us. To be at one with us. And so the process of atonement came to be. At-One-Ment. This is why God came to earth in human form. God came to earth in order that he might die and rise again and in so doing defeat death and ensure that evil will never ever again have the last word. God came to earth to bridge that chasm that had opened up between him and us. And the Feast of the Ascension marks the culmination of all that work of atonement. Our God, who is outside of space and time, entered space and time as a baby, he lived on earth and went about among us. He died, rose again and now he transitions from the world of space and time to the world outside of space and time, at the Father’s right hand, enthroned for eternity.
I said a minute ago that the gulf between God and his creation had been bridged. But actually I want to take that back, because a bridge suggests that a gulf is still there; rather, that the two sides – heaven and earth have been brought together and that we are brought into the presence of God more fully than at any point before, and that all we can do is stand in awe of the One who made us and desires to be one with us.
And that is why the Feast of the Ascension matters, because it completes the picture.