Ascension Day Sermon by the Vicar 2019
I know someone who has a message on his mobile which answers “I can’t hear you. Speak louder. I can’t hear you. Speak louder.” Of course, this is a recording which doesn’t listen, and doesn’t hear, but a common feeling right now is the endless noise, which we wish would just stop or go away, because no-one is listening. No, it’s not our choir and orchestra (though it may be me) but the endless political noise. Brexit. No Brexit. Backstop. Deal. No deal. Hostile environment. Immigrants out. Building fences round Europe. Europe’s culture under threat from immigration. The rise of the far right, now calling those who appeal for a more humane policy such as Pope Francis, “The enemy.” Politicians jostling to stab each other in the back, politicians in Court for lying, human rights abuses in the Philippines, the coarsening and brutalising of political language with plenty of name calling. The rejection of politicians by electing a stand-up comedian as Head of State. Why not? It can’t get worse. The Ascension of Christ speaks directly to all of this. So allow me in three short headings to give a reflection. Jesus Goes Away. The Spirit is Sent to Empower Us. The Cosmic Christ Shows us our own Destiny.
Jesus Goes Away
This is a recurring theme in John’s Gospel, coupled with an image of His Resurrection in the garden with the Latin tag Noli Me Tangere, Do not hold on to me. This is a really important image for the cosmic Christ, and an important corrective to some contemporary English church culture, which is, on the surface at least, touchy-feely, and a bit domesticated. The cosmic Christ is above and beyond. Listen to this from Rowan Williams, “We are always liable to hang on to what we can see and understand so as to make ourselves feel safe; when Jesus is simply ‘there’ like the other things we find in the world, part of the furniture, there’s a big risk that we can make him too familiar. We domesticate him and we lose the possibility of being shocked and surprised by him. We don’t grasp the fact that he isn’t just one thing among others, one person among others. We miss out on the great truth that he is within and beyond all things, mysteriously holding everything together.” That’s why the image of the Ascension taking the cosmic Christ above and beyond is so important. And the importance of the cosmic Christ is dramatically underlined for us at the moment politically, economically, and in the international order. The sense of crisis and drama surrounding the EU, The United States, China, the Philippines and many other places. The tangible sense of fear which people have right now in respect of their jobs and mortgages is given an important corrective and perspective by the cosmic Christ above all things, and with an authority over the whole created order. Remember that this is the same Christ who as a baby has gold symbolically offered to him. Our economy, our gold is there to be offered to this cosmic reality. Our gold, our economy, is not an end in itself, and never can be, for when it becomes so, we become its slaves, just as more and more people we see becoming wage slaves, working longer and longer hours, and consequently with the spirit and life crushed out of them. Earlier this week, I was dealing with a 30 year old completely burnt out by his highly paid life in the City. By contrast, remember the cosmic Christ, ruling over all – The Pantocrator, Noli Me Tangere. Do not hold on to me. Jesus Goes Away.
The Spirit is Sent to Empower Us
Jesus goes away but does not leave a vacuum. He tells us that he will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Paraclete, to fill each one of us just as the Spirit fills the world. The message of this is twofold . Christian believers are empowered by the Holy Spirit not as some private trip or possession, but they are empowered to get on with the work of Christ in the world. Christ goes away, and at the same time says, you have the equipment to do the work. Get on with it. The Sprit empowers each one of us individually and empowers the Church corporately when it seeks to do the will of the cosmic Christ, The Pantocrator. The sending of the Spirit is what we await immediately after Ascension as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, which in this church this year will see quite a few baptisms. The faith of these infants and their families will be confirmed through their anointing, just as we are all confirmed in our faith by the Holy Spirit within us. This Holy Spirit empowers us to get on with the work of Christ in the world, because he is not here – except through the actions of you and me. The Spirit is sent to empower us.
The Cosmic Christ shows us our own Destiny.
The cosmic imagery of this comes from the Logos, the Word of God, the Second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, “leaping down from his royal throne” as an Orthodox hymn puts it. He leaps down from his royal throne and lives as one of us in his birth and in his incarnation as a human being. The human Christ dies. We die. The cosmic journey continues with the divine Christ descending to the dead and the nether world. Again, an Orthodox hymn describes this. “You descended from heaven to earth to redeem mankind, and not finding him there, you descended to hell. There you found him.” The Divine Christ rises from the dead. Through our sharing in divinity, we rise from the dead. And through the Resurrection and Ascension, the Divine Christ returns whence he came. So too with us, we become most fully human after our death. In this, we differ (so far) from the AI look alikes, even the ones which I have seen in China which look at you and emote. The Resurrection persona returns whence it came through the Ascension. It’s simple – up-down, down-up. This spatial descending and ascending cosmic imagery has been important in art and literature as the “harrowing of hell” of the cosmic Christ above and beyond time. But equally important is how this connects to you and me. Where the cosmic Christ leads, we follow, or to use biblical language Christ is “leading captivity captive” in a victorious Roman victory procession. In a Roman victory parade, the captives were chained to the victor. This is the image for us too, chained through our baptism to the victor Christ in his descending and ascending cosmic movement. The Cosmic Christ Shows us our own identity.
So there it is. Jesus Goes Away, the Spirit is sent to Empower us, and the Cosmic Christ shows us our own destiny. So, if the noise around us gets too much, just remember this. The baptised and anointed believer owes ultimate allegiance to no political party, no state, no country, no culture, and is without age. Our ultimate identity and allegiance lies in the Resurrected and Ascended Christ and nowhere else. All this is immensely freeing and empowering as we celebrate the Ascension of Christ and pray “Come, Holy Spirit and Renew the Face of the Earth.”